Written for Nonprofit Leadership Course at Youngstown State University
Thoughts on incubators and startups from a President & CEO
A bit about the organization, and the author – BRITE Energy Innovators, previously known as TBEIC, is a nonprofit business incubator that specializes in energy and technology firms. BRITE is the only energy-focused incubator in the state of Ohio, serving energy and technology startup companies to help launch their products as a collaborative networking platform. BRITE offers office, event and co-working space, a complete lab facility (BRITE Energy Labs) for the development and testing of energy storage (batteries) and IoT (the internet of things) solutions, and the support of a community including businesses and other entrepreneurs. Its mission is to encourage innovation in Warren and around the state in order to create jobs and cultivate a stronger economy. I was first introduced to BRITE at a conference called ESBE (Energy Storage and Business Efficiency) and was immediately immersed in a room full of impassioned speakers, innovative ideas, discussions about funding and support for startups. Attendees were introduced to new automotive companies that were preparing to launch their electric and innovative products here locally. As I drove home from the second day, I felt high off the energy of the experience and found myself wondering about the team in Warren that put this together and how I could get a chance to get involved. My experience at the conference motivated me to seek an internship position, and given my professional background, they made a business development position so I could contribute to their vision. I’ve worked at nonprofits before as an intern and volunteer, but the energy and enthusiasm I have observed at BRITE is the closest thing I can imagine of what it would be like get hired at Google.
Rick Stockburger, the President and CEO of BRITE, is the pioneer who, along with his incredible team, brought the ESBE (Energy Storage Building Efficiency) conference to life and sets the tempo for our team. Rick kicked off his career of service by joining the military in 2003. He was deployed in Kosovo, Afghanistan and was part of the response to the aftermath to Hurricane Katrina. After ending his service in 2010, he came across an article written by Forbes about Cleveland, OH being the most miserable city in the country to live in. This article struck him as unfair and inappropriate and utilized severely biased data which greatly misconstrued the city. In response he founded a media company called Saving Cities and shot several documentaries to help promote Cleveland and to challenge the narrative surrounding “the Rust Belt”. “Saving Cities Solves the Rust Belt Brain Drain,” is the title of an article that was published about his work and later promoted by The Harvard Business Review. Saving Cities was a social venture and a for profit company that was sold to a larger media company that bought the brand and the experience motivated Rick to pursue a university education which was covered by the GI Bill. He studied political science for his undergraduate degree at Kent State University and completed his masters in community and economic development at Penn State taking anywhere from 25 to 30 credit hours each semester to expedite his graduation.
After graduating, Rick took a position in business development at a small mining manufacturing company where he dealt with the irony of helping a business grow in a dying industry. One of his responsibilities was as an administrator to facilitate funding from a government program called EB5. The company eventually sold most of its shares to a larger firm. These two aspects of the experience would prove useful in helping him develop the skillset and attitude to contribute to future challenges. In 2014, he was able to once again pursue his love of service by founding an organization called Launch League, a community for scalable startups. In his opinion the best book about startup communities is called Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City, by Brad Felt. He quickly found himself surrounded by a village of likeminded individuals who helped him establish a vibrant startup community in Akron. After a few years he realized that he needed more stability in his life as his family was growing. One of his best friends was working with him as the executive director of Launch League had received a call and invitation to work at TBEIC. They passed the opportunity on to Rick and despite initially being on the fence about joining TBEIC as he loved his work in Akron, he accepted the position after learning that David Grohl Alley was located behind the office, who happens to be his favorite musician.
Rick has always been more motivated by service and making an impact than finances and believes that people deserve a chance to succeed. He is quick to admit that he has never really been the smartest person in the room, but he has always had a knack for getting the smartest people to follow his lead and commit to be a part of something larger. His leadership style and vision are the driving force behind the day to day work at BRITE. His tasks include: ensuring the continued survival of BRITE’s mission and impact, raising money, cooperating with strategic business partners, helping target companies (both entrepreneurs and manufacturers) grow and connect, promoting BRITE’s mission across the state of Ohio and strategically expanding BRITE’s staff while investing in their success. The most challenging part of his work is in the nature of the mission itself and how the public perceives it. Being an energy business incubator there are a lot of people who do not understand what BRITE does or, because of misperceptions, disagree with BRITE’s narrative. Local culture and the history of the valley is also a challenge as Rick often must explain to people that, “we are not going to be the 1960s Mahoning Valley and we do not want to be.” On a more national scale he is frequently found wearing Warren, OH themed t-shirts to events to help promote both BRITE and the City of Warren. His love of the city prompted the creation of the ESBE conference, which serves a dual purpose of getting people to start associating Warren with Energy and Tech development and manufacturing as well as promoting BRITE’s services and capability of making an impact beyond the local community. A big part of the intention was to change the economic attitude about Warren’s potential from a place to get out of to a place to get into for energy innovation.
Rick’s favorite and least favorite aspects about his job are tied together in irony. He said that the best thing about being a father is watching your kid grow up and at the same it is the hardest thing to see. As BRITE grows, it is changing, as a good leader he surrounds himself with talented hardworking individuals whom he trusts to bring their talents and passion to BRITE. He desires to see BRITE evolve beyond his vision and influence, as more roles and parts come into play it is snowballing into the larger collective impact of the group. He acknowledges that letting go has its challenges, but he is confident that things are moving in new and innovative directions. While BRITE has been around since its’ founding as TBEIC in 2011, Rick and his staff have recreated the space, the culture, and the impact that has been made since he joined the team. He advises young aspiring professionals desiring to work in nonprofit, such as the BRITE interns, to experience as many things as they can and to be open to diversity of input. He credits his military experience for expanding his worldview and giving him exposure to people who have different beliefs, structures, goals and worldviews. Experiences like that build both empathy and perspective that is useful for decision making. He encourages people to bounce around, work at jobs for one or two years and to seek out fun and engaging opportunities that let you take on responsibility and ownership of projects. A sincere level of “buy-in” is valuable not only to organizations who people work for but also for the employees who are able to commit and push the boundaries of what has been done before. Young professionals may be at a disadvantage because of their age so he says they should seek out people who share the same vision and support their success and to always remember that you are interviewing companies as much as they are interviewing you.