From Entrepreneur to Entrepreneurial Leader: INCLT’s Executive Director’s Journey

Innovate Charlotte

A lot has changed for Keith Luedeman since he sold his startup, GoodMortgage.com, back in 2016 and stepped away from the day-to-day.

Contrary to what many might think about life post-startup, he wakes up earlier these days than he did when he was running his company. Some mornings, his first meeting kicks off at 7:30 a.m. Perhaps less surprising, he’s picked up the pace on exercise, opting to bike to as many meetings as possible, weather and attire expectations permitting.

His work is considerably different, too. He became the interim executive director of Innovate Charlotte (INCLT) in August of last year and plunged headlong into the long, hard and gratifying work of strengthening the Queen City’s startup ecosystem. He has tacked on to that a slew of other commitments as investor, mentor, adviser and connector. As a result, the number of hours he works in a given week hasn’t changed all that much, but the purpose of his work, the timeline and the goals have shifted dramatically.

“When you’re running a business, you become very focused on results: today, this week, this month, this quarter and this year,” Luedeman explained. “The problems I’m working on now are more long-term problems. There are areas where we can make an impact in a year, but the problems aren’t going to be fixed in a year. So you have to think about how you can keep the flywheel turning a bit faster each day, and we’ve got to start now to make that impact.”

Passion for the Work

When Luedeman first exited his company, other entrepreneurs who had gone through the process cautioned him against overcommitting. And on the surface, it seems as though Luedeman hasn’t heeded their advice.

These days, an average month for Luedeman in divided between his many responsibilities:

  • Chair of the Entrepreneurial Leadership Circle at Queens University’s McColl School of Business, which encourages entrepreneurial ventures of all sizes to stimulate economic growth.
  • Venture partner with the Carolina Fintech Venture Fund, where he invests in and mentors companies.
  • One of the Charlotte operating partners with IDEA Fund Partners, a seed and early-stage venture capital firm.
  • Board of Venture For America, a fellowship program for recent college graduates who want to become startup leaders and entrepreneurs.
  • Invested privately in a handful of companies.
  • Meetings with local startups several times a week, to offer advice and mentorship as needed.
  • Office hours once a month at Packard Place for anyone who wants to meet and pick his brain.
  • Actively recruiting mentors and startups to take part in the INCLT Venture Mentoring Service, a mentorship program that gives founders access to teams of successful business and startup leaders as they grow their companies.
  • Building partnerships with other ecosystem builders across the state.

Some weeks, that comes to 30 hours of work. Others, it’s more like 60. But he keeps going, keeps working, for one simple reason.

“It’s still an awful lot of fun,” he said. “It’s using different mind muscles than I was using when I ran my company. I’m working with a nonprofit, which I haven’t done before. I’m working with the city, which I haven’t done before. I barely see any days that have any resemblance to the other. And if I can make a positive impact, then it’s good for the ecosystem and I’m enjoying it.”

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. The same problems have plagued Charlotte’s startup scene for years, and transforming an entire community is an art, not a science.

“When it comes to ecosystems and all the partners, it is strictly influence. You can’t order something to change. All you can do is enable it and nurture it and help it. And developing those skills is probably making me a better leader at the end of the day,” Luedeman said.

But he can see changes taking shape that are good for the community as a whole — something as simple as the sheer number of events geared toward startups.

“I remember years ago, you’d be lucky if you had two startup-focused events in a month. Now you have two or three in a night,” Luedeman said.

Gaining Ground in Charlotte

There are more concrete improvements, too. For instance, Luedeman recently shared with the city’s Economic Development Committee the number of jobs startups in the Charlotte region have created in recent years. Back in 2014, local startups were responsible for 10,803 net new jobs. Last year, that number was 13,134.

INCLT, as an organization, is working to drive those numbers up. But again, it involves playing a long game, not a short one, he said.

“INCLT probably won’t be a big driver of job growth in the next year, but over the next two or three years, we will be,” he said.

Whether or not Luedeman will still be at the helm of the organization at that point remains to be seen.

“I haven’t set an agenda,” he explained. “At some point, I’m hoping to get the organization up to the point where it’s funded, and we can hire a full-time person, and I can still remain active and volunteer and be on the board. Here we are, a year in, and we’re not there. And that’s OK.”

It’s taken some getting used to, but these days, Luedeman really is OK with progress taking time.

“I’m still as driven. I’m just learning how to drive in a different way,” he said.

This article was made possible thanks to support of RMCSoft. It’s a local custom software and hardware company that does not invest heavily in sophisticated branding or fancy offices. What they are passionate about is hiring the best PHP, .NET, and Java Script developers they can get to solve customers’ problems.

Want to learn more about how to support INCLT? Contact Igor Gorlatov at igor@inclt.org.

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Source: Innovate Charlotte