CONTRARY TO POPULAR BELIEF, success is not an individual accomplishment. Recent books like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code show that success turns on an amalgam of factors, many of which people have no control over: when one was born or even where. One consistent factor in the success stories cited by both authors is a hospitable environment that nurtures new ideas. Bill Gates had the University of Washington; the Beatles had Hamburg; the Impressionists had Paris.
Julia Spicer, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Venture Association (MAVA), would accede to the vital role support plays in developing new ideas; it is a mainstay of her life’s work. She has worked the gamut in the communications and IT industry from behemoth companies like GTE to smaller start-ups. Her current work at MAVA connects investors and key corporate resources with entrepreneurs developing new businesses. It makes for a dynamic environment that imbues Spicer with a unique perspective on success.
Now in its 26th year, MAVA represents mostly technology-based companies who are willing to help new businesses in various stages of their growth. Signature events like its Capital Connection and TechBuzz showcase game-changing companies and bring new ideas to the attention of potential investors. The yearly event has become proof of MAVA’s growing footprint in the area and beyond; one participant at this year’s event received investment inquiries from California businesses as a result of her presentation.
Knowing that the organization is only as good as the companies it helps, Spicer and her staff also coordinate business seminars for clients. “Because we are a lean and nimble organization,” explains Spicer, “we can address current trends in business in real time.” To illustrate, she cites the example of a recent data analytics seminar they conducted for members that included peer groups and speakers from the field. Spicer knows that MAVA cannot focus on doing everything. “Instead we focus on being open-minded and knowledgeable of opportunities for businesses and investors.”
Working in such a dynamic environment invigorates Spicer. “What charges me is entrepreneurs who are excited about growth, who are willing to change their business plans six times in response to feedback, who produce growth plans, who are dedicated to bringing their product to market. It is daunting work that takes a fire in the belly to be successful,” she says in a tone marked with conviction and admiration.
Drive is the hallmark of what Spicer identifies as the entrepreneurial mindset. When people are passionate, driven, sedulous, indomitable about risk and appreciative of “failing in the right way,” they open themselves to possibility and success.
Last August, the State Department recruited Spicer and five other professionals to mentor young business leaders in Croatia during a three-day program called Startup Camp. Croatia is set to join the European Union this July, but years of communism and ethnic strife have left the country without an example of or experience with a functioning free-market system. The camp’s purpose was to figure out how to create and develop ideas that will stimulate the local economy. Initially, Julia found the Croats to be risk averse so she worked on encouraging them to view risk more positively. She says, “I was there to teach the entrepreneurial mindset, and that is making a difference in people’s lives. It’s an important lesson in empowerment.”
Spicer’s volunteer work also reflects her conviction that this mindset makes a qualitative difference in people’s lives. MAVA supports the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) and Julia speaks enthusiastically about the DC chapter and its work in the community. NFTE trains teachers and students from low-income areas in principles of entrepreneurship and connects their future success in business to staying in school. “Most of these kids come in with life challenging issues and they find a voice in creating a business plan around an idea of theirs. They participate in competitions. It makes them see the value of education,” says Spicer.
Able Flight, a group that provides access to flight training for disabled individuals, combines Spicer’s entrepreneurial mindset with her enthusiasm for flying. Julia has been a licensed pilot since she was 17 years old. “There is nothing like the thrill of getting your wings,” she says and, through Able Flight’s scholarship programs, recipients experience that thrill for themselves. “This promotes empowerment through achievement. We have injured troops who find their confidence through this experience, and it is transformative for everyone in their family.”
If, as her current professional and volunteer acumens show, Spicer values the determination, passion and sensibility that success requires, it is because she has seen their effectiveness in her own career. As a woman operating in a heavily male environment, Julia has had to work hard. Her engineering background helps her, she admits, and she became adept at learning the “rules of the road.” Now, she sees a growing number of women in both the technology and venture capital fields. “The New World is not like the Old World,” she observes.
The new world has its own rules of the road, and Spicer sees a few avenues that will help future entrepreneurs successfully navigate its terrain. She encourages parents to “share and express things that open doors for their kids and help them see and cultivate a curiosity about the world and people in it.” In doing so, parents engender empathy and open-mindedness in their children, qualities that allow kids to learn from others. Julia also believes in pragmatic assessment— the ability to discern the strengths and weaknesses in one’s self, a business or others.“Being good in one area does not translate into being good in another,” Julia remarks. She recognizes that having accurate information stimulates confidence and strategic connections.
Spicer’s oeuvre, both in and out of the venture capital arena, underscores the vital roles passion and nurtured aspiration play in a successful outcome. They fuel that fire-in-the-belly motivation to succeed. “If it’s something you care about, you’ll be successful,” she says. “And, at the end of the day, it is all about approaching life with passion and giving back.”
Jessamyn Ayers writes and lives in Loudoun County with her husband and two children. Her perfect day includes some combination of reading, writing, running, working her dogs and baseball. In addition to her fiction writing, she maintains the blog “The Curveball Contingent” (curveballcontingent.blogspot.com).