An Entrepreneur's thoughts on how Minnesota can better support today's business builders
Cem Erdem built a thriving international business in Minnesota and has worked to help the next generation of entrepreneurs do the same.
But the CEO and founder of Golden Valley-based Augusoft would like to see some changes in his adopted state to smooth the path for them.
“This is a good town for startups but there’s a gap here. There is not a bridge to go from seed money to Series A funding,” Erdem says. “Businesses need help getting from $100,000 to $1 million. Without that, promising startups can run out of fuel.”
To do his part to promote emerging companies, Erdem, 48, started Entrepreneurs Rally, a mentoring program, five years ago. He founded Project Skyway in 2010; the tech venture accelerator worked with early-stage tech enterprises and in 2012 he converted it to the Skyway Fund to invest in rising companies.
“We look for drive and persistence,” he says. “We need more Minnesota companies with wealth who will invest in these businesses.”
For 23 years, Erdem has helmed Augusoft, a software company that provides enrollment and class management software to hundreds of colleges and universities.
“I serve the education field and I think entrepreneurship should be more embraced in our state to build a culture that supports people who want to pursue their dreams instead of being managers and employees,” he said. “That should be promoted at our community colleges.”
Erdem himself is a product of the system; he learned English at MCTC in Minneapolis. A native of Turkey, he was a 25-year-old reservations clerk at the Istanbul Hilton when he went on vacation to Santorini, Greece. There he met a woman on a break from law school. When she became his future wife in 1994, he decided to follow her to the U.S.
“I knew nothing about the culture, couldn’t speak the language well, but I came with the intention of building a life,” Erdem says.
He had heard about “a thing called the Internet” and, trusting his gut that it would be a game-changer, the young immigrant started one of Minnesota’s first Internet service providers and founded an early webmaster’s association.
“I had to succeed. I had no fall-back option,” he says.
Erdem believes Minnesota’s growing community of immigrants and refugees could be an untapped source of brilliant ideas.
“People say entrepreneurs are risk-takers, but it’s more than that. They are people who don’t mind living with uncertainty, and they handle change better than the average person,” he explains. “Immigrants have already gone through a huge upheaval that impacts all aspects of their lives.”
The facts back up Erdem’s assertion that new Americans are disproportionately positioned to build businesses. While immigrants compose 13% of the nation’s population, a 2011 analysis of Fortune 500 Companies found that immigrants or their children founded more than 40% of them.
Erdem, who was among the elite entrepreneurs invited to the White House when President Obama announced his initiative to promote startups in 2011, sees ambitious entrepreneurs born on foreign shores as particularly sensitive to the values embedded in the American economy.
“Here, it’s not about ancestry; if we work hard and are smart we can make it,” he says. “Would I have challenged myself this much if I had stayed in Turkey? Probably not. When you leave everything behind and put yourself in an environment without a support system, it creates tremendous drive."
Leadership: Cem Erdem, founder/CEO [pictured]
Description: Leading business management software provider to non-credit programs in schools.