The Startup Champions Network (SCN) Fall Summit is happening in Fort Worth this October. Ashley Ray, the Social Media and Communications lead at SCN, has been shining a light on the University of North Texas Health Science Center team hosting this event in Fort Worth. Here are some highlights of Marco Johnson, the Associate Director of Entrepreneurship at HSC Next.
If you’re trying to start a business, navigate the myriad resources available, or develop your business model in Fort Worth, Marco Johnson is the guy and Sparkyard is the platform. Marco’s work in a nutshell? Business wayfinder. His toolbox includes assets created for Sparkyard as well as the vast network of resources he has been mapping. Sparkyard was developed by UNTHSC in collaboration with the City of Fort Worth and Texas Christian University (who are both summit sponsors) to connect entrepreneurs to the right resource at the right time. This free portal works to decode the Fort Worth entrepreneurial ecosystem and collect and report on data to inform ecosystem needs.
“While Fort Worth has many resources that cater to entrepreneurs and business owners, the resource landscape is generally fragmented, siloed, and resources don’t communicate well with each other. Furthermore, entrepreneurs don’t have a simple “roadmap” to follow that helps them launch or grow their company,” says Marco.”
That’s where Sparkyard comes in. Launched in 2019, Sparkyard offers a number of easy tools to help navigate the entrepreneurial landscape in Fort Worth such as the Growth Circuit, Spark Plan, Resource Navigator and one on one support offered by Marco himself.
“Starting a company is hard. In some cases, one of the hardest things a person will do in their lives. It’s difficult and lonely and there’s no roadmap for it. Sparkyard was created to be an antidote to all those things. To let people know that there are resources out there that can help them – particularly the free ones.”
There’s also an advocacy piece to Marco’s work.
“We do a lot of data research that calls out the nature of our ecosystem and how we perform compared to the other four largest cities in Texas, which are Houston, San Antonio, Austin, and Dallas. Fort Worth is the kind of the little sibling compared to all of those, but we’re still the 13th largest in the country,” says Marco.
Going from humanitarian work to ecosystem builder
Marco came to this work after over 20 years of working in international development.
“I did a variety of things overseas from humanitarian refugee work to microfinance, to agricultural development, to private equity. I lived mostly in developing countries that had experienced a recent conflict or disaster. After being chased out of yet another country by unfriendly authorities I finally got burned out. I was like, okay, I’m too old for this. I need to settle down. So, I came back to the States”
Marco got a job in Fort Worth at a foundation that a friend was working at. After starting the job and really digging into the work, a lightbulb went off: the common thread that weaves all his experiences together is a focus on helping people overcome challenges so they can sustainably build (or rebuild) their lives and communities. And everyone knows entrepreneurs are problem solvers. That’s when Marco realized he’s actually been supporting entrepreneurs for 25 years.
Getting the most out of SCN
Both Marco Johnson and Cameron Cushman (our other summit host) have really been taking advantage of the resources available to SCN Members. They both took the Ecosystem Health Challenge last year and Marco went through the Map What Matters Challenge this Spring.
“The Ecosystem Health Challenge was hugely helpful. I remember looking at it and going, yeah, this looks interesting but I wonder if this will be too basic. I was probably a little too big for my britches because when we got into it within the first 15 minutes, Tom Chapman (Chapman and Company is also a Summit sponsor) totally blew the lid off everything I thought I knew. Those courses were transformational for me and I continue to have my mind expanded by Tom to this day,” says Marco.
Developing an underdeveloped ecosystem
The Fort Worth ecosystem is still coming into its own. Despite losing folks to Dallas and Austin, one of the strengths in Fort Worth is their willingness to help.
“Even though our ecosystem is undeveloped, people really want to help, they just don’t always know the best way to do it. But if you ask a question and you reach out, people usually are really good at engaging with you and trying to get you to the right place. Hopefully a lot of those people are using Sparkyard,” says Marco.
Why are you a part of SCN?
“It’s family. It’s the only organization I know of that is comprised of like-minded people who are also working on 20-year plans to develop their local economy. This whole phenomenon of ecosystem building is relatively new, and most people look at you like you have a third eye when you try to tell them you’re an entrepreneurial ecosystem builder. To be able to talk to a group of people who know the struggles, the terminology, and what we’re all trying to achieve is great.”
About the Author
Ashley Ray is the Social Media/Communications lead at Startup Champions Network where she loves sharing stories and successes from their amazing ecosystem building members.