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Monday, July 2, 2012 - Page updated at 07:30 p.m.
Melting pot of mentoring a toast to U.S. startup culture
By Brier Dudley
Seattle Times staff columnist
As we prepare to celebrate America's independence and all the things that make this a great country, I have a suggestion that could calm anxieties about immigration that may color the big day.
I think people should have a cold beer or two and take in the scene in Bellevue.
Start with the big picture of a sleepy Seattle suburb that has morphed into a thriving, cosmopolitan hub of the tech industry.
Then zoom in to a smaller setting, like the monthly Startup on Tap events held by The Indus Entrepreneurs organization.
The group, known as TiE, began in Silicon Valley in 1993 as a networking and support group for South Asian immigrants starting tech companies.
A Seattle chapter was established in 2000, backed by early Microsoft employees wanting to mentor the next generation of Indian entrepreneurs.
Early on, these would-be entrepreneurs faced challenges. For instance, when it came time to raise venture capital, "the VCs may not have been too comfortable with their accent or whatever," recalls Vijay Vashee, a Microsoft veteran who founded the Seattle group.
"That's going back 20-plus years," he said. "Today if you go to Silicon Valley you'll find people of Indian origin are general partners in all these (VC) firms."
TiE helped things along by nurturing startups and getting them ready for funding deals. As those companies prospered, their founders became gurus to the next generation.
It worked almost too well. Entrepreneurs of Indian descent became so woven into the business community, the need for a group organized around race and ethnicity diminished. So the Seattle chapter reorganized and broadened its mission. It's moving beyond supporting a particular ethnic group to provide help to anyone starting a company.
Anyone looking for advice on their business plan is welcome to join, or just have a beer or a glass of wine at Startup on Tap and other events TiE holds around the region.
"The whole ecosystem has moved to a point here where it's not necessary to have the Indian focus now," Vashee said. "We can now take it to the next step."
Vashee — one of the first Indians hired at Microsoft, back in 1982 — said he became involved with TiE for several reasons. He wanted to mentor others of Indian origin, provide capital to their companies and integrate with mainstream America.
As these goals were realized, Vashee and other early TiE members cut back on their involvement in the group.
The last recession also took a toll, and membership fell below 100 as entrepreneurs turned to the profusion of startup networking and support groups that sprouted in the Seattle area as the economy picked up.
About a year and a half ago, TiE decided to reinvent itself. It diversified its board and more than doubled the number of "charter" members who underwrite the operations with $1,000 annual fees. Of the 45 charter members, five are now non-Indians and more are being sought. General membership is up around 50 percent to more than 160.
The group is also starting a formal angel investing program to back startups directly and involve people with non-tech companies.
"It's not that we're disowning our past or heritage. We're expanding and building on that," said chapter President Srivats Srinivasan, a Microsoft veteran who started digital-marketing company Nayamode in Redmond in 2005.
"We don't want this to just be an Indian thing," he added. "It's about fostering entrepreneurship in the community we live in."
Among the new charter members is Ivan Braiker, president of Hipcricket, a Kirkland mobile marketing and advertising company.
Braiker said he's struck by how many people of different ethnicities are starting companies. It makes him wonder if there's something wrong with our educational system that more nonimmigrants aren't showing the same entrepreneurial drive.
"A lot of young folks aren't focused in that direction. It's more entitlement than work," he said.
That's disappointing, he said.
"At least from my perspective of being the average white American sitting in there and saying yes, there's a lot of ethnicity here but there are not enough Caucasians in it," he said, asking, "Where are they, where are those young entrepreneurs?"
Perhaps they don't realize that at Startup on Tap, the first beer for members is on the house. The next round of mentoring and networking is at 5:30 p.m. July 10 at ViaVita Café in Bellevue.
Attracting the next generation is a familiar challenge for established groups, from TiE to Rotary to churches. Srinivasan said a recent focus has been to recruit younger charter members, such as American-born Kabir Shahani, 29, who co-founded Appature, a Seattle marketing software company.
"I'm really excited about what's possible and the organization evolving and the tremendous resources they have both here in Seattle and the Valley," Shahani said.
Moving beyond the ethnic focus isn't just a Seattle phenomenon for TiE. It's now a huge, international organization with a broader mission, and new chapters in places like Japan and Belgium are being started and led mostly by non-Indians, Vashee said.
It sounds like they're following the melting-pot formula that's been so successful in Seattle and Silicon Valley, and America at large.
"Here what we found is that whenever a startup is created, eventually the integration with the mainstream efforts is critical for the startup to succeed," Vashee said. "The sooner you get into that mood, the better off you're going to be."
Vashee has a unique perspective on these things.
He grew up in Zimbabwe and experienced resentment of Indians living and doing business on the African continent. This reached a crescendo when Idi Amin expelled them from Uganda in 1972. Some 15 years later, Vashee recalled, a new president of Uganda came to Seattle and met with people of Indian origin, asking them to return and help build up the country.
Vashee stayed on Mercer Island. Lately, he's been investing in medical-technology and energy companies along the West Coast and participating in local startup groups like the Alliance of Angels.
"I really think America needs more startups," he said. "The future jobs are not going to come from these big companies. They're driven by earnings per share and things like that; when it's time to fire they fire."
Vashee noted that 40 or 50 years ago there was no Microsoft, Apple, Intel, Google, Oracle or Facebook and those companies "today generate a huge part of the American economy. We need that."
Now there's something to toast on the Fourth of July.
Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or email@example.com.
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