A passion for helping startups and watching legacies be built.
By Ellen Linnemann
With a background in marketing, Jess O’Brien has worked with companies of all sizes – from small businesses to national franchises. But it was her experience of being part of the Atlanta Tech Village, a co-working technology incubator village, while working at a small marketing agency that perhaps had one of the biggest impacts on her career path. That history is now an instrumental role in growing this type of ecosystem here in Beaufort.
In May, O’Brien was named the executive director of the Beaufort Digital Corridor, a nonprofit tech incubator servicing start-up entrepreneurs working on unique tech products, SaaS, IOT and tech service providers and venture capitalists. At the BDC she’s responsible for all day-to-day operations required to keep the nonprofit running and thriving. O’Brien, 33, is also part of the demographic that the BDC seeks to attract and nurture here in Beaufort, giving her a keen eye for what it takes to bring tech talent to the region and help them continue to grow.
The BDC currently serves just under 50 members and, O’Brien notes, has played a critical role in a number of recent success stories for tech entrepreneurs – including Rooler.
“Restaurant owner and tech startup founder Gary Lang had launched a third-party, add-on program for restaurant point-of-sale systems that greatly enhanced the dynamics of reporting, analytics and forecasting for independent restaurateurs,” she said. “Lang heard about the BDC via word of mouth and was pleasantly surprised that his startup qualified for the incubation program and its subsequent success despite building a tech startup around the restaurant industry during a pandemic.” Lang said Covid nearly killed his business, and if it weren’t for being in the incubator program, he would have dropped this project. Instead, as part of the BDC, Rooler now has a completed business plan and is primed for investor funding.
Before being named director, O’Brien served on the inaugural BDC Board of Directors from 2018-2020. “There is nothing more gratifying than watching legacies be built,” she said. And when it comes to her favorite productivity “hack,” she said investing in a great project management software is the ultimate time-saver – quickly pointing out that the secret is that it doesn’t really matter which software you use, the key is how you use it. “My philosophy is the simpler, the better – I prefer to set up three lists labeled “To Do,” “Doing” and “Done” and sort tasks accordingly.” O’Brien also notes that one can create a free account with Trello, which has template project boards to get you started.
“My 2022 growth plan for the BDC includes expanding opportunities for women, minorities and diverse individuals, advancing on-mission programs, the addition of new member benefits and the expansion of space, staffing and talent development,” she said. Her personal growth plan entails mastering a new artistic endeavor, spending quality time with family and traveling abroad. With her commitment to attracting, nurturing and promoting Beaufort’s technology entrepreneurs, and her passion for helping startups succeed, 2022 is sure to be the start of more great things ahead for technology here in the Lowcountry.
Three takeaways from Jess O’Brien
1. No Risk, No Reward. “Don’t leave yourself with ‘what-ifs.’ If you don’t act on it, someone else will for sure, and they’ll get paid for it,” she cautions. When it comes to getting paid, O’Brien notes that if the financial risk is what is stopping you from running your own business, check out the CLIMB Fund. “They are a not-for-profit state and federally certified Community Development Finance Institution (CDFI) based in Charleston. In 2020 itwrote 42 new small-business loans valued at $5.4 million, including the first ever in Beaufort.”
2. Invest in yourself. Investing in a good support team is instrumental in your success, she notes. “Even if you aren’t a tech startup, there are many local organizations focused on mentoring and providing assistance to small business owners, such as your local Chamber of Commerce, Rotary or related professional association groups.”
3. Be an agent of change. “Without change there can be no growth,” stresses O’Brien. “At the BDC, we’re continually working to engage entrepreneurs and professionals with new and exciting opportunities. Sometimes this means adding a fun theme to an otherwise generic networking event. If you feel stuck in a rut with the same old ideas, find a few fellow brainstorming partners to get the creative juices flowing.”