Posted by on Jun 12, 2012

This isn’t what I expected at all. Where’s the fast talking guy with the water purifiers? What about the charming woman in the quilted vest with the doggy spa? The tall, awkward man in a bowtie who brews “savory” beer?

When the elevator doors slip open onto the seventh floor ballrooms and the Tenth Annual Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference, I Marsha Barwickexpected a labyrinth of skirted tables, exhibition panels, tabletop screens with looping videos and eclectic characters barking passionately about their business venture.  Instead, I arrived to find 500 business suits listening intently to a tailored keynote speaker.

What tha…?

According to Wisconsin Department of Economic Development, the state has 450,000 small businesses, but it didn’t seem like any of them were here. I will eventually think of Richard Branson, Sara Blakely and Valerie Daniels Carter when I think “entrepreneur.” More often, I picture a father-and-son landscaping business first. The middle school teacher who threw everything behind a miracle cream. The college drop out who needs a commercial oven to advance her growing cupcake business.

There wasn’t a promotional tee-shirt, refrigerator magnet or free sample of cranberry cheese anywhere in sight.  

At the perimeter of all the meeting-and-greeting going on as the luncheon emptied into the gallery, I found a modified corporate type– dress shirt with no tie—casually checking email or text messages on his phone.  I dropped on to the couch across from Kyle, frustrated.

“Where are the real entrepreneurs?” I blurted.  “You know, the folks who make widgets and better mousetraps and open hookah cafes?”

Kyle laughed a little and clarified that he, and most of the attendees at this conference, were focused on high growth technology businesses. He was young and composed, with a genuine and appealing smile.  A lawyer. The firm he represented, AlphaTech, specializes in supporting “the entire life cycle of a business.”

“So, you get to be the button-down shirt in a room of fun people?” I asked.  Kyle nodded, laughed again.

Then there should be a shock of white hair, some green suspenders, or at least a pair of jeans in this crowd. 

Then, I spotted the white, pointy-toe dress shoes.  Open collar. White linen jacket. High tidal wave of thick hair. Balbo beard. Funky eyeglass frames.

There he is.

I watched him light about the room until we were seated beside one another on a sofa. I told him of my quest and asked if he, perhaps, was a real entrepreneur.

“I introduce big companies to the next great ideas for commercializing clean energy,” he said.  His name was Jerry and he described how he helps inventors get beyond the test run.  He was starting to explain how big companies scale new technology to the larger market when he sprang from his seat to intercept one of the conference presenters. From reading their body language, what started as an awkward ambush had been deftly shaped into an exchange of qualifiers, tidbits, insights, chuckles, business cards and parting appeal from the presenter for Jerry to sit in on his next session.

Even without widgets, this dude was for real.

Turns out, they all were real in a forward-thinking way. Although the tow truck fleets and gourmet fudge and pawn shops and gymnastic studios will always be essential to our culture and commerce, the explosion of “knowledge-based” industries may prove to be the tipping element for our nation’s economy. The biosciences are a $6.8 billion industry in Wisconsin alone. Our institutions conduct more than $1.25 billion in academic research each year according to the National Science Foundation. With $3.2 billion, we rank 13th of all the states in high-tech exports and we’re consistently among the nation’s leaders in the numbers of patents issued.

Oh. Those entrepreneurs.

In his welcome, Paul Jadin, CEO of Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation wrote that the agency is “committed to encouraging the continued rise of the state’s early stage economy.” The State’s Annual Business Plan Contest for start ups in high-tech and high-growth businesses is juried at this event, with winners earning the support of investors, government contracts, research support, and startup cash.  One of the judges, Marsha Barwick of Marshfield Clinic Applied Sciences, said she was “blown away” by this year’s submissions.

“There are lot of great ideas out there,” she said.

As I make my way to the elevator to leave, I think of something Kyle, the attorney, said.

“I like working with entrepreneurs. They have so many stories, so much passion, and they’re never the same. I feel lucky to be surrounded by people in love with their dream.”

As the elevator doors open, I realize I’m satisfied.  I didn’t meet any ice cream makers or motorboat repairmen, but I experienced the tradition and future of Wisconsin’s industrial growth. Much better than a t-shirt.

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