Wendy Lea Is the Cintrifuse CEO Who Jump-Started Cincinnati’s Startup Scene

A pop-eyed, busybody beagle named George Michael greets me as I enter Union Hall in Over-the-Rhine. In the airy waiting area of the spiffy Vine Street office building hang crisp, well-branded #StartUpCincy posters with encouraging mantras: Work Hard & Be Nice to People, Love the Hustle, From Dreamers to Doers. As the human staff gets me checked in, George Michael nudges my leg until I pet him. Even the lobby dog is hustling.

Photograph by Aaron M. Conway

Union Hall is actually a span of three buildings that house the pillars of Cincinnati’s burgeoning tech community, including The Brandery startup accelerator; CincyTech, which advises and offers capital to life sciences and digital companies; Union Hall’s co-working space; and Cintrifuse, the catalyst organization binding them all together. In many ways, though, this is the kingdom that Wendy Lea built. Cintrifuse’s chief executive officer for the past four years, she was brought in to jump-start and legitimize not just Cintrifuse but Cincinnati’s overall approach to the technology industry. Her success—evidenced in part by the $17 million renovated Union Hall headquarters—has secured Lea’s place as a central fixture of Cincinnati’s tech economy. 

Not surprisingly, Lea is tied up on my arrival, either on a call or stuck in a meeting. In the meantime, Eric Weissmann, Cintrifuse’s vice president for communication, community, and economic inclusion, and marketing manager Henry Molski show me around. They push in chairs and tuck away stray boxes as we pound around the complex—Congressman Steve Chabot is swinging by later that afternoon for a debrief of his own. And for good reason.

Cintrifuse is among the most active seed-stage investors in the Midwest, with 334 members (tech or tech-enabled startups). Its $57 million for-profit “fund of funds” invests in venture capital firms beyond Cincinnati, in the hope that those outside firms will become interested in this region and invest their own money into local startups. For just $150 a year, in addition to mentorship and connections to the city’s largest companies, Cintrifuse members receive 24/7 access to the Union Hall co-working space; nonmembers can join Union Hall for $1,000 a year.

Weissmann points to an exposed-brick wall—a staple of hipster interior design—and explains that it used to be the exterior wall of the adjoining building. For years, there was only a grassy vacancy between two buildings where the middle structure had fallen in, its old facade still supported by its neighbors. Behind what is now Union Hall, in 2001, Timothy Thomas was shot by a police officer, precipitating Cincinnati’s ensuing civil unrest. As Weissmann sees it, the city did not want to continue down that path, but rather wanted to build something hopeful on this spot. “It was very intentional for us to be here,” says Weissmann. “You look at what’s happening here and the mixture and the diversity and the involvement from the big companies—and the neighborhood says it’s important.”

New power is about distributed influence,” says Lea. “It’s not about controlling.

At the time of the buildings’ 2015 ribbon cutting, Mel Healey, a former Procter & Gamble executive who was then board chair of 3CDC, explained, “Every city needs a heartbeat.” It’s now a hard, steady pulse. Our Union Hall tour leads past a conference room where someone described as a “water tech accelerator” is meeting with a local EPA representative. Water tech?

I’m informed that the region is becoming a magnet for startups interested in moving water to people without access in developing countries. On cue, we bump into Antony Seppi, program director for Pipeline H2O, a water-tech startup platform, who later explains that our region is in fact a logical hub for that sector of business. “You have one of the largest federal labs here with Clifton’s EPA Water Research Lab. You’ve got the University of Cincinnati, which we’ve partnered with,” says Seppi, adding, “This region’s actually number one, per capita, for water-related patents.”

Walking past earbudded freelancers at work on laptops and startup owners rushing between meetings, Weissmann notes that the overlap of entrepreneurial energy is important. It’s not uncommon for someone from one of the city’s “BigCo’s” (partners such as Kroger and P&G) to start the day by meeting with Cintrifuse leadership and finish up by hearing a startup pitch a few rooms over. Bumping into Seppi—just as I had a question about his line of work—is exactly the type of intentional serendipity Union Hall exists to create.

It’s a lot to take in, the culmination of years of planning and dawn-to-dusk hustle by a rising wave of entrepreneurs who increasingly call Cincinnati home, Lea herself included. Weissmann waves his arm, gesturing to the whole of it—the rush of people trying to build something new. “You can’t untie it,” he says.

Lea is ready, greeting me as a small, aged Shih Tzu eyeballs us. When I reach out to pet him, Lea warns me off. “George is very sweet,” she says. “This one, not so much.”

The warning, in her Southern accent, comes across as both charming and a bit quirky, much like Lea herself. She immediately flips the interview and starts asking about me. She’s smooth and genuine, someone who ends interactions with a light “See you later, alligator.” It’s immediately obvious what an asset she must be in terms of wrangling a team of powerful business leaders.

Growing up in Mississippi, says Lea, “I knew I wanted to be independent.” Now in her mid-60s, she acknowledges that the norm back then was, “You get married. You have children. You live where you’re from, and that’s how it rolls. I didn’t want that.” Her life took its first big change after what she calls “a hard fall” when her first husband, her high school sweetheart, was killed in a car accident when Lea was in her twenties. “Had that not happened, I probably would have stayed in Mississippi and had four kids or whatever.”

Instead she attended the University of Mississippi’s School of Business Administration and worked on the corporate level at General Foods and Allstate Insurance, and eventually cofounded The Sales Consultancy with her then-husband in the 1990s. The business straddled Europe and the U.S. and did work for large businesses like IBM, HP, Microsoft, and Cisco. “It was a blast,” says Lea. “I did it for a long time, and then we sold that business twice in one year.” The second time, her company’s payout was six-times-revenue.  At age 48, Lea had her “exit,” as they say in tech parlance. “I never knew what that meant at the time,” she admits, “but now it means that you just make a lot of money from working real hard, right?”

When she was bootstrapping The Sales Consultancy, she poured everything back into the business. “I never had money until I had money,” says Lea, which is why she had no interest in blowing her earnings on “a house in Naples or Michigan.” Instead, she became an angel investor, apprenticed to Brad Feld of the Foundry Group in Boulder, Colorado. “It was one of the hardest and most magnificent turns of my life, because without risking my own capital on deals I was interested in I would never have experienced what it was like to really run a venture-backed startup,” she says. Chief among those lessons was failure, the collateral damage of the startup world. “I lost most of my money,” she says—almost all of her portfolio failed, save for one investment: Uber.

“That was by a wing and a prayer that I even got in that deal,” says Lea, who admits she didn’t invest too much. “It’s not like I’m a jillionaire because of it.”

Her other big investment was in a startup called Get Satisfaction, where she “fell in love, completely smitten” with the product and the founders. She even went to work for the startup full-time as CEO in 2009. “I was equally naïve about that,” she says. She’d known her own kind of startup, but this was a software development company. And though she says she learned a lot about unstructured data and social media relative to brands, she lost all of her investment money and three-and-a-half years of time. By then she was 60.

“Coming here was a completely wild idea,” Lea says of taking the job at Cintrifuse in 2014. With Get Satisfaction, she’d sold software to Procter & Gamble, flying in and out of CVG on the red-eye “so I knew that gerbil trail,” but otherwise she didn’t know the Midwest and wasn’t looking to move to Cincinnati. Her plan had been to serve on public boards and travel. But former P&G CEO Bob McDonald personally pitched the Cintrifuse position to her, and the lure of molding something new and promising was too much for her to resist.

Cintrifuse CEO Wendy Lea (in booth with dog) interacts with Union hall startup denizens.

Photograph by Aaron M. Conway

Lea quickly became enchanted by the prospect of a Midwest region—per the recommendation of the Cincinnati Business Committee—building a new economic development strategy around tech-based startups. “That intrigued the heck out of me,” she says. She’d watched as funding and exits grew more and more lucrative on either coast, while talent fled to the Midwest due to a lower cost of living and less cutthroat environment. After joining the board of Techstars, the global startup accelerator, Lea witnessed its growth through large corporate partnerships. She also had her eye on Steve Case and his Rise of the Rest initiative, a $150 million seed fund for startups in cities outside Silicon Valley, New York, and Boston.

She came to believe it was the perfect time for the Midwest—and Southwest Ohio, Southeast Indiana, and Northern Kentucky specifically—to build a tech-based economy. “Technology is agnostic to sector and segment,” says Lea. “It seemed to me that the larger companies here [in Cincinnati] had not placed as much value in technology as a driver of growth.” In technology, innovation often comes from startups. Having connections and investments in a thriving startup community would clearly benefit the region’s large corporations, and their support would bolster the startups in return. The environment was tailor-made for symbiotic business relationships.

By that point, Cintrifuse’s Vine Street headquarters was still just, in Lea’s words, “a big pile of dirt,” in addition to a syndicated fund of funds that hadn’t been deployed and a portfolio of just 11 startups. “That didn’t look like enough to me,” says Lea. What she did have was a vision for the organization’s future that was supported by legitimate global business executives and local politicians. “I could translate their vision of a vibrant economic strategy with young digital natives running around—business-building, wanting to disrupt the industries that were here.” One of her greatest strengths, she says, is taking a vast vision and executing it in little pieces “so people don’t freak out.”

Today, Cintrifuse’s $57 million fund of funds is in the top quartile nationally, and Lea says that venture capital dollars flowing into Cincinnati are up 170 percent since Cintrifuse debuted. While she describes Union Hall itself as a “front door to entrepreneurship and the creative class,” the fund of funds is a major driver. It capitalizes the entrepreneurs and offers a path to innovation for larger companies that can also tap startups through pilot projects. Many cities in the Midwest might be chugging along with their own economic development plans, but most don’t have the mix of corporate relationships Cintrifuse has, nor the syndicated fund.

In other words, those other cities might have startup weekends or a bunch of small business accelerators or “a mayor who’s cottoned on to the coolness of startups,” she says, but they don’t have something that supercharges all the pieces and parts, like Cintrifuse or Union Hall. Or Wendy Lea. The city’s tech strength stems from the connections and collaboration it fosters, and Cintrifuse’s tendrils bind all of those pieces into a true startup ecosystem. Lea grows philosophical for a moment while contemplating it, reflecting on how power dynamics are changing. “New power is about distributed influence,” she says. “It’s not about controlling.”

On March 29, Cintrifuse announced that Lea would step down as CEO in September. When we caught up by phone after the announcement, Lea explained that she has three aims for her next venture: working on a Midwestern public board’s technology committee, doubling-down on her work with Techstars, and serving in an advisory role to state economic leaders on how to deploy startups to grow their economies. “[I’ll] maybe plan a little trip to the Himalayas in between, because I have that way of living, and I’d like to hang out with the Buddhists in the mountains a little bit,” she adds. “But putting that aside, I’m a worker girl. I’m all about giddyup.”

Lea is handing over the keys to a well-oiled machine. Cintrifuse’s first syndicate fund has been fully committed, with 61 percent drawn down by 17 venture funds that have invested in 554 start-ups by year-end 2017. Cintrifuse’s current members employ 1,534 people locally and 4,290 nationally, and in April it partnered with Indianapolis-based Powderkeg—a national community of tech businesses located outside of Silicon Valley—to increase member access to venture capital for both organizations.

A significant ripple effect of Lea’s legacy here will also be the people she mentored—women entrepreneurs especially. Since Wyzerr, a startup that gamifies surveys, moved to Cincinnati to join The Brandery, founder Natasia Malaihollo says Lea has been “our super mentor,” helping Wyzerr think through sales and fund-raising strategies. “Her experiences have proven incredibly valuable in helping us not make the same mistakes she did.” With help from The Brandery, Wyzerr raised $1.8 million in seed funding and counts Walmart and McDonald’s as customers.

Cincinnati’s tech strength stems from connections and collaboration, and Cintrifuse binds the pieces into a true startup ecosystem.

Lea assisted Little Sponges—a startup that makes bilingual education software in six languages—define its business model and suggested the startup use HubSpot’s in-bound marketing software to better understand current and potential customers. For Little Sponges, which started in Cincinnati preschools, including Cincinnati Country Day School and Head Start, female mentorship was vital: More than 80 percent of the business’s employees and contractors are women. “[Lea’s] authentic leadership style and extensive knowledge of technology and entrepreneurship make her an incredible mentor to many female startup founders,” says CEO Natalya Seals.

Perhaps modestly, Lea frames much of her mentorship of local women entrepreneurs as inadvertent, a product of doing her job at Cintrifuse. Which doesn’t make it any less impactful. Malaihollo notes that people generally underestimate women’s skill sets, especially when it comes to business. “From my own experience, it feels like women have to prove themselves more,” she says. “Women have to consistently outperform in order to be considered ‘good enough.’ ”

Lea’s triumphs are enough to shatter any glass ceiling. There’s been more than 150 percent growth in Cintrifuse members over the past three years, and more than 30 cities and municipalities have reached out to ask for advice on replicating the model. The whole StartUpCincy movement was intended to be a big-tent solution that could combine resources and build interdependency, but it also created products and programs with real results that converted skeptics.

“It’s an overused word, but I will put it into Wendy terms: that ‘giddyup’ is her legacy,” says Weissmann. “Motivating us as a community not to sit idly by and wait for ideal conditions—that’s not very startup-y, that’s not the way you get things done. Gotta get moving. Gotta gear up. Gotta just try things.”

Lea admits that, when she moved here, she thought the Cintrifuse position would be an easy, fun job. That wasn’t exactly the case, at least at first. “Great things are built out of difficulty,” she says. “Rarely does anyone jump in with a big idea and it works perfectly and off you go.”

Wendy Lea relaxes on the rooftop deck at Union Hall.

Photograph by Aaron M. Conway

Everyone she met was friendly to her but often resistant to Cintrifuse, she says, offering to help but only if they could dictate the terms. “It didn’t look like a headwind to anyone, but it felt like a tsunami to me,” she quips.

Now it’s time for someone else to jump in and try things. Cintrifuse’s board of directors is working with a national search firm to find the next CEO, and Lea hopes to stick around to help with on-boarding. Either way, this new leader will inherit a situation miles ahead of the one Lea walked into. And that’s just the way she prefers it.

“It ended up beautiful. It just took four years to get it to this state,” Lea says. “So this is a natural transition. I’m an ‘early stage’ girl—the messier the better for me. Once it gets some order to it, it’s no longer that interesting.”

See you later, alligator.

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