The Conductor: Trailblazing the Entrepreneurial Frontier [North Metro Business Journal]

Nearly two-and-a-half years after its launch, the Conductor is thriving and moving faster than ever.

The Conductor, a public-private partnership between the University of Central Arkansas and Startup Junkie, is catalyzing Conway’s next frontier of business development: an entrepreneurial ecosystem. Just over two years since its launch, the Conductor has seen a groundswell of burgeoning entrepreneurs, makers and innovators in the region, with big plans for the future.

The Conductor held its first event, a pitch competition, at UCA Downtown in November 2016. At the time, the initiative had two employees: Kim Lane, now-CEO of the Conductor, and Jeff Standridge, Chief Catalyst. At its inception, the Conductor didn’t have a physical location, and Lane and Standridge held most one-on-one consultation meetings at local coffee shops, and educational and networking events at various venues. In March 2017, Conway Corporation board chair, Johnny Adams, announced a significant pledge toward the city’s Arnold Innovation Center, named in honor of Conway Corporation’s former CEO, Richie Arnold. The space will be in Conway’s City Hall at 1201 West Oak Street, which will be repurposed and is set to open in 2020. It will be run by the Conductor, and will offer free co-working space to the community. Later that year, in September 2017, the Conductor’s purview expanded to include UCA’s Makerspace, in which the Conductor team teaches Maker Trainings, prototyping consultations, and hands-on events for students and community members. The Conductor team has now grown to seven employees. It has employed many UCA students and assisted a multitude of students in securing jobs and internships prior to and following graduation.

Rep. French Hill (center) participates in a hands-on demonstration at UCA's Markerspace as Kim Lane, CEO of the Conductor, looks on.

Rep. French Hill (center) participates in a hands-on demonstration at UCA's Markerspace as Kim Lane, CEO of the Conductor, looks on.

“The Conductor has been an incredible and exciting journey since Day One,” said Kim Lane, CEO. “Our rapid growth has been made possible by an amazing, collaborative community and our outstanding team at the Conductor. I’m so proud of the impact we’ve had and the lives we’ve changed in less than three years, and I’m so thankful for the opportunity to wake up and do this work every day.”

Today, the Conductor has reached nearly 7,500 entrepreneurs and community members through one-on-one consulting meetings and its lineup of cutting-edge events and programs that cover every topic from a “Creating Chain Reaction Machine” and “Making a Balloon-Powered Race Car” in the Makerspace to educational fireside chats with community leaders such as Rhea Lana Riner and Bunny Adcock. The Conductor has a charge to reduce “barriers to entry” for entrepreneurs and innovators and has created programs and events to cater to different audiences. It has reached over 2,100 students in the Makerspace alone, with hundreds of K-12 students taking field trips to the space each year. Through partnerships and strategic programming, it has made significant strides to reducing barriers for historically underserved groups like women and minorities. Attendees at consulting and prototyping meetings and events are 47% female on average, and 30% of consulting clients are minority-owned businesses.

“The Conductor has changed the face of the community in Conway,” said Jeff Standridge, Chief Catalyst of the Conductor. “This was the exact outcome we had in mind when we first conceived the Conductor in late 2014.”

The University of Central Arkansas Board of Trustees and former UCA President, Tom Courtway were trailblazers in establishing the Conductor; the partnership would not have been formed without their foresight.

“The UCA board and leadership are to be tremendously commended for the incredible vision they had in establishing the Conductor, and it’s been an honor to work with the entire UCA community,” Lane said. “President Houston Davis embraced and expanded the vision, making the Conductor what it is today.”

“The Conductor is revolutionizing the community through its high-impact programs and events. Its work continually creates significant opportunities for new and prospective students,” said University of Central Arkansas President Houston Davis. “UCA is proud to be partnered with the Conductor, and is excited about the future of this partnership.”

The Conductor consults with hundreds of entrepreneurs a year, and is frequently lauded for the transformational impact of its work.

“The Conductor has changed my life forever! They have helped me grow in both business and in my personal life,” said Jessica Jones, founder of Zipper Genie. “They provided me with support, taught me new skills, and provided me with resources to advance, so that now I can soar.”

Community Support

Collaborations are the backbone of the Conductor, and it has amassed dozens of local partners and sponsors to spur innovation in the region. One of the Conductor’s leading programs, the 10X Growth Accelerator, is presented in partnership with Metova and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. The Accelerator has enabled dozens of Arkansas’ high-growth ventures to scale, drive revenues and create new jobs in the state. The five-month program meets on a weekly basis at the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce and is funded through a grant from the State of Arkansas. Companies in the program must have annual revenues between $100,000 and $10 million. To date, the program has served two cohorts of high-potential, Arkansas-based companies, and alumni companies have reported unprecedented, exponential growth. One company grew over 900% within the first year of graduating the program, one noted growing 3X in the first month, and one reported the addition of 20 new jobs to their company.

“The Conductor’s 10X Growth Accelerator is the best program in the state for business leaders to go through, no matter your size of business, if you are truly interested in growing your business!” said Keith Jetton, 10X graduate. One hundred percent of alumni companies said that the 10X Growth Accelerator is a valuable program for scalable companies within the state.

The Conductor will kick off the third cohort of the program in April.

Another one of the Conductor’s flagship programs, the Health Sciences Entrepreneurship Boot Camp, is presented in partnership with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, BioVentures, Arkansas INBRE and Conway Regional Health System. The Boot Camp is a weeklong program held on the UCA campus that teaches college students how to start their own health sciences venture. It is all-expenses-paid for accepted students. The Camp received national attention when it won an Innovations in Research and Research Education Award from the Association of American Medical Colleges.

“The Health Sciences Entrepreneurship Boot Camp was one of the turning points in my college career,” said Boot Camp graduate Katherine Bowman. “It's what got me interested in entrepreneurship and it opened the doors to a lot of wonderful opportunities and people that I would not have had otherwise. I truly consider it one of the best experiences I've had in college.”

The Conductor is currently accepting applications for the 2019 Boot Camp.

The Conductor's Health Sciences Entrepreneurship Boot Camp is a weeklong program held on the UCA campus that teaches college students how to start their own health sciences ventures.

The Conductor's Health Sciences Entrepreneurship Boot Camp is a weeklong program held on the UCA campus that teaches college students how to start their own health sciences ventures.

Conductor Milestones

The Conductor is dedicated to bringing national and international attention to Conway, Arkansas and the work of local entrepreneurs. In 2018, the Conductor hosted U.S. Congressman French Hill in Conway, and facilitated events to connect him with startup and scaleup companies in the region. Congressman Hill led a roundtable discussion with a number of the area’s emerging businesses, and enjoyed a site visit of the newly expanded Edafio Technology Partners’ space. Additionally, the Congressman toured the Makerspace and received hands-on training making “squishy circuits” with Master Maker Jason Huselton. Following his visit, the Congressman noted that learning about the Conductor was the highlight of his visit to the District.

“It was an honor to visit the Conductor and learn about the programs and entrepreneurial activity in the community” said U.S. Congressman French Hill in a press release after his visit. “It’s exciting to see this entrepreneurial growth in central Arkansas, and I’m proud to support organizations like the Conductor that create mentorship opportunities and access to capital, which are vital to the success of emerging small businesses.”

Conductor CEO Kim Lane has been an invited speaker at the Global Entrepreneurship Congress in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2017, and Istanbul, Turkey, in 2018. At the events, she spoke to an international audience about the work of the Conductor, and the impact of the innovative public-private partnerships in the community. In 2019, the Kauffman Foundation selected Lane as one of three invited speakers to its 10th Annual State of Entrepreneurship Address, where she will highlight the Conductor and its thriving impact.

“It’s extremely important to me to share the Conductor’s story on a national and international stage,” Lane said. “I’m so thrilled that the work we’re doing is being recognized by so many people around the world. This type of exposure is a true testament to the power of our collaborations and the impact we’ve had together.”

The Future

In 2019, the Conductor received a federal contract that will enable it to significantly increase its operating capacity. Through the funding, it will serve rural entrepreneurs in the central Arkansas region, with a focused mission on bolstering small businesses and positioning Conway as an entrepreneurial epicenter to surrounding communities. It has also established a partnership with Facebook, which enables it to connect local college students with high-paid internships at area businesses through the Career Connections program. Facebook is piloting the program in central Arkansas, with hopes to scale it nationwide in coming years.

“The Conductor is excited to continue its efforts to catalyze a prosperous entrepreneurial ecosystem in central Arkansas,” Lane said. “Conway’s low cost of living, booming young population, notable internet speeds and unrivaled quality of place make it the ideal location for an entrepreneurial ecosystem, and the Conductor is proud to call it home.”

This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of the North Metro Business Journal.