IVCA Profile: Neal Sales-Griffin, New Managing Director of TechStars Chicago

IVCA Profile: Neal Sales-Griffin, New Managing Director of TechStars Chicago

December 11, 2019

One of the most successful accelerator and founder facilitation programs in Chicago is Techstars, an annual mentorship course that allows entrepreneurs, start-ups and companies to participate in a 13-week forum that teaches them how to improve and execute their business ideas. The program culminates in Demo Day – where the TechStars participants will pitch their concepts and businesses to the investor community – which will take place on April 21st, 2020, after completion of the program that begins for the selected companies on January 27th.
 
TechStars Chicago’s last Demo Day was about a year ago, and the program took that time to reschedule the program parameters and name a new Managing Director. Neal Sales-Griffin, an associate in Venture Capital and a Chicago founder, was named in July of 2019 to steer the latest TechStars Chicago Class of 2020.
 
Techstars is based in Boulder, Colorado, and has a global footprint. The Chicago branch began locally as Excelerate Labs – which was the brainchild of Sandbox Industries, the I2A Fund, Sam Yagan (OK Cupid, Sparknotes) and Troy Henikoff – before it merged with Techstars in 2013. Troy Henikoff was the primary Managing Director until Logan LaHive took the reins in 2017. Neal Sales-Griffin became the next in line.
 
In a comprehensive interview, Sales-Griffin spoke to the IVCA about his expectations as new Managing Director and for his incoming class of participants.
 
IVCA: It has been a year since the last Demo Days, TechStars Chicago brought you on, moved the application period to Fall, and moved the next class to the first quarter of 2020. Why did the timing changes take place, and how did it help your transition?
 
Neal Sales-Griffin: The timing change was simply due to TechStars Chicago wanting the best set-up for the class of founders who are participating in 2020. Also since I was brought on, TechStars Chicago also wanted me to get enough time to transition, in order to run the program effectively.
 
IVCA: What is your background in the investment community of Chicago, and what experience in that community made you a good fit for the new TechStars Managing Director?
 
Sales-Griffin: I’ve been in the Chicago entrepreneurial community since 2006, and I’ve built multiple businesses beginning in that year … that was also when I met Troy Henikoff. From there, I’ve worked in Venture Capital, while developing my own start-ups. I’ve worked at OCA Ventures under Jim Dugan, Sandbox Industries and also at a small Private Equity firm in Evanston.
 
With those experiences early on – this was from 2007 to 2010 – it definitely gave me a perspective on what the investment community in Chicago was evolving into, and after that I went back to being a founder. So in that position, I was able to engage the firms in raising money and helped others to do the same. But beyond that, being a mentor at Excelerate Labs and then TechStars, I feel like I’ve been completely involved in the community my entire adult life.
 
IVCA: You were connected to TechStars through your mentor/professor Troy Henikoff, who himself was a Managing Director. What was the process for your hire, and what ideas did you bring into your hiring process?
 
Sales-Griffin: It was a series of interviews that were relatively intense, meeting with a number of Managing Directors from TechStars programs in other cities, and meeting a variety of core team members from the base TechStars in Boulder, Colorado. There was also an interview with the Program Director, who is a partner in our investments. In essence there were a lot of interviews with a quick turnaround.
 
As far as what ideas I brought into that process, it began with my background as a founder and as an investor, but primarily as a teacher. What I’m really interested in is how much I can enhance our founder class, and how I can help them plug any knowledge holes or gaps, while maximizing their own personal skill sets as leaders. This will improve their experience during the TechStars program.
 
IVCA: In that mode then, how much leeway do you get in your leadership role from the overall TechStars program?
 
Sales-Griffin: As a Managing Director, the base TechStars program philosophy is to give me a lot of autonomy, to modify the program and optimize the experience for the 2020 founder class. Those are the ideas I’m working on right now.
 
IVCA: You’ve gone through the first phase of TechStars, the application process. As you learn the ropes, what did the first phase applications teach you?

Sales-Griffin: The first phase taught me the value of spending quality time with each individual founder/company within the 2020 class. In the initial application process, I had meetings with many founders, and as a result we ended up getting many more applications to the program because of those connections, which was incredible.
 
IVCA: As you prepare to announce and welcome your first class of founders, what expectations do you think they have for you?
 
Sales-Griffin: It’s such an interesting experience to be back on the investor side, because I still consider myself a founder and have that mindset. The way I like to frame things for the founder class, is that they should think of me and TechStars as co-founders, not as just investors. We’re in the trenches with them, and we’re showing up every day working on their problems and their challenges. We fight for each and every one of them to be successful.
 
What those founders can expect from me will be my commitment, trust and belief in them. I can’t tell them what to do, but I definitely will 100 percent support their vision. And that is what I’m preparing for, and along with the 12 years experience of TechStars Chicago, we’re well positioned to do this at a high level. Our core focus is on quality before quantity, and I couldn’t be happier in being a part of that focus.
 
IVCA: It sounds like they found the right person. The mentoring portion of the TechStars training period is vital to the Class of 2020. How do envision the mentorship program, and how will you guide it?
 
Sales-Griffin: After the core TechStars value of quality over quantity, the second is participation of mentors. I am so blessed to be part of a robust and give-first community in Chicago. And in that sense I want to respect our mentor’s time, and our founder’s time. I personally will spend my time with the 2020 class so I can deeply understand what their needs are, what the knowledge gaps are, and what perspectives will be most valuable to them.
 
Because if I break down what the founders need down and understand it correctly, I can steer those entrepreneurs toward the right mentors at the right time. It’s known as an intense process … it has even been nicknamed ‘mentor madness’ in the first month. [laughs] It will be a little mad, but I want to steer it to be calmer than usual.
 
IVCA: Finally, how can the Illinois Venture Capital Association help you as you embark on a new class of TechStars as Managing Director?
 
Sales-Griffin: I have to say, that so far this has been an amazing start. I literally pinch myself every day for the vital work I get to do with this program. And today, when I realized that I was going to be interviewed by the IVCA as the new Managing Director of TechStars Chicago, It’s crazy to me. When I started out in 2006, I couldn’t even imagine myself being in this position, must less talking about it and doing the work.
 
For anybody in the Association who is aspiring to be an investor or mentor, you can do it, and I can help you do it. I’m grateful to the IVCA for this platform and opportunity, to be part of what the members of this organization have being doing for along time. It’s about my mentors like Troy and Jim Dugan from OCA Ventures, and everyone else I’ve met in the investment community. I’m looking forward to meeting all of you, and you can contact me via email at [email protected] .
 
The TechStars Chicago ‘Class of 2020’ will be announced soon, and will begin the program on January 27th, 2020. The Demo Day that culminates the program will be on April 21st, time and place TBD. For more information about Techstars Chicago, click here.