Aly Merritt is a former copy editor with a residual addiction to journalism, and is currently the Managing Director of Atlanta Tech Village. She was previously the Head of Community at SalesLoft, an Atlanta-based sales engagement software company, and in past Lofter lives, she’s also been a part of customer experience, support and product management, as well as Chief of Staff.
She has spent the last decade of her career working with the Atlanta startup community to advance both local startups and Atlanta itself on the national stage, with a special focus on diversity, equity and inclusion, and contributes to their growth and culture by connecting startup hubs, VCs and organizations across the city. She also works daily to build a network of strong women in business and tech in Atlanta and across the country.
She previously organized and emceed the ATL Startup Village, a bi-monthly meetup to generate publicity, visibility and potential investment for startups in Atlanta, hosted at Atlanta Tech Village. She sporadically spends time writing about tech and the startup community on her blog, AlyintheATL.com.
Aly lives in Atlanta with her husband, Alex (who is an attorney and therefore very challenging to argue with), and their toddler son (who primarily argues over which is the “right” blue sippy cup). She still is unable to reconcile herself to the Oxford comma.
What You’ll Learn In This Episode
- Update on what’s been going on at Atlanta Tech Village
- ATL Unlocked
- InnovATL and the ATL innovation ecosystem
This transcript is machine transcribed by Sonix
Intro: [00:00:04] Broadcasting live from the Business RadioX Studios in Atlanta, Georgia. It’s time for Atlanta Business Radio. Brought to you by on pay. Atlanta’s New standard in payroll. Now, here’s your host.
Lee Kantor: [00:00:25] Lee Kantor here another episode of Atlanta Business Radio, and this is going to be a good one. But before we get started, it’s important to recognize our sponsor, Onpay. Without them, we couldn’t be sharing these important stories. Today on Atlanta Business Radio, we have Ali Merritt with Atlanta Tech Village. Welcome.
Aly Merritt: [00:00:44] Hi, Lee. Thank you so much for having me.
Lee Kantor: [00:00:46] Well, I am so excited to get caught up with you. So what’s been going on at Tech Village?
Aly Merritt: [00:00:52] Oh, gosh, there’s been a lot going on, not just at Atlanta Tech Village, but in the Atlanta ecosystem as a whole. And I am super excited to talk about it. Where do you want me to start? What’s been going on or what’s getting ready to happen?
Lee Kantor: [00:01:03] Well, let’s kind of get an overview of this. The Atlanta innovation ecosystem. How do you kind of see it all like from a 40,000 foot view?
Aly Merritt: [00:01:13] Oh, 40,000ft? Well, I think that one of the great benefits of Atlanta is that collaboration is our superpower. And so the Atlanta innovation ecosystem is made up of not only innovation hubs like Atlanta Tech Village, we include I think we’re at eight innovation hubs in the Unlocked group now, and we are adding in corporate innovation centers like the Chick fil A hub and boomtown accelerators up at up at the Battery. And then we’ve also got all sorts of things happening at the university innovation hubs at Emory and at Georgia State and obviously Georgia Tech, Morehouse and more. And then you’ve got all of the groups like Metro Atlanta Chamber and Startup Atlanta. So I think there’s a bunch of different pieces in our innovation ecosystem that make it up as a whole.
Lee Kantor: [00:02:00] Now, is there a kind of quarterback for all this, or is everybody kind of doing their own thing, serving the niche as they see it?
Aly Merritt: [00:02:08] Great question. For a while it’s been sort of a organic, bespoke effort, if you will. But more recently, obviously Metro Atlanta Chamber has a intense interest in the innovation side, although Mac has to cover, I think we have 17 or 19 counties that they cover. And so they cover a bigger piece than just innovation. It’s the Metro Atlanta Chamber or the metro Atlanta area as a whole. But startup Atlanta, which has been around several years and has been doing great work, has more recently been able to come to the forefront of driving a lot of the innovation pieces and sort of spearheading the more startup hub side, like what I run and interlocking that with some of the Metro Atlanta Chambers efforts and then connecting into the city and the mayor’s office, especially for driving some of the innovation visibility forward at a high level in Atlanta.
Lee Kantor: [00:03:01] And I know that here at Business RadioX, we’ve worked with the folks at Tag on some of the events that have been going around around the city as well. It’s just there are so many things happening and there are so many groups that are touching technology and innovation. Sometimes it’s hard to know how do I as an individual kind of plug in and where is you know, where are my people? Where is the appropriate place? Do you have any recommendations on how to, you know, first kind of get a lay of the land, but also to to find where where you would most benefit?
Aly Merritt: [00:03:33] Absolutely. And I think we’re at perfect timing for that. First of all, Tag is one of our fantastic ecosystem group partners. We have several, including Tie Atlanta, and they all play a specific part in the system by reaching out across the different hubs and actual physical spaces and schools as well. But one of the best places to start we’ve got I’ve got two suggestions. The first one is start up Atlanta. As mentioned, they sort of are quarterbacking a lot of the efforts. They have not only an ecosystem guide. They have not only an ecosystem guide on their website startup atlanta.com where you can find out all the different everything from a VC to an accelerator to a place to go, but they also have a shared events calendar. And that’s really where I recommend that a lot of people new to the Atlanta ecosystem are new to jumping into the innovation side start. I specifically asked my team and every other hub as well as the ones at Emory, the ones at tie tag events were all putting events into the shared community calendar so that you’re able to see at a glance what’s happening in the ecosystem. You can find things by geography. So where you are in Atlanta, which can be really important with rush hour traffic, but you can also find it by topic or by areas of interest.
Aly Merritt: [00:04:50] And then Startup Atlanta is working with a push from the Metro Atlanta chamber in the city called Innovators. So I in N of ATL and ATL 2023 is we’re right in the midst of it right now. It’s running September 26th through October 20th. So it kicked off last week with a lot of the events around Venture Atlanta, which is one of the largest venture conferences in the country, as well as a ton of ancillary events. And it’s continuing through this week and for the next couple of weeks. And so those events are not only at the start of Atlanta calendar, but also at the end of ATL 2020 3.com calendar. And you can see areas all across the city. One of my favorite panels just happened a couple of days ago called Built in the Burbs, and it specifically was focusing on the Hatch Grigg incubator at KSU, talking about the fact that there’s more going on than just ITP. I love ITP. I’m an ITP here, but OTP also has an enormous amount of innovation going on and we should be able to cross that border.
Lee Kantor: [00:05:51] Yeah, that’s Atlanta is less of a geography and more of a state of mind. I think there’s people all around, you know, Georgia that consider them part of Atlanta, you know, that aren’t in the city downtown.
Aly Merritt: [00:06:07] Now, there’s a larger, I think, mindset to what Atlanta encompasses. And to your point, more than just geography.
Lee Kantor: [00:06:16] Now, I know that your work is very tech centric. Is there a place for the folks that are doing things that aren’t, you know, software or technology may be first, but there they obviously use technology, but they they is there a place for them to kind of join this innovation ecosystem?
Aly Merritt: [00:06:37] Oh, absolutely. I think that’s the beauty of all of the different hubs and spaces in town, is that we all have slightly different verticals, niches or segments that we’re focused on, but we have a really lovely Venn diagram at a high level where we all overlap. Obviously we are very focused on the tech side. We’re working for proprietary tech startups at DC, at Georgia Tech, the Advanced Technology Development Center. Their focus is a bit heavier on tech, although they also have a lot more physical product side. I sent somebody there the other day that really wanted to get into some electrical engineering questions, for example, but then you’ve got innovation across the city. So the gathering spot has a huge focus on music design, media and entertainment, for example. And then you’ve got other areas that are focused all across the board of innovation. The Russell Center, which is the largest black innovation center in the country. And they focus on innovation at a high level, and they have an enormous amount of hospitality, for example, in addition to some tech, some media, some entertainment. But you’ve got areas like Salt Box, for example, which is doing great work for the people who used to have to ship out of their garages. You can only stack so many tiny boxes in your garage and ship them out for Etsy or your storefront and salt box streamlines the shipping, logistics the storage and gives you a space to work out of. At the same time, for people who are doing a lot of B to C and physical products. And then because we do still have a heavy duty tech focus, though, across the city and a variety of areas, the Atlanta Blockchain Center looks at tech in a different way than we do. And Atlanta Tech Park has really cool autonomous cars and then tech Alpharetta, while they have a focus in tech, they’ve been doing a lot of gaming and esports up there as well.
Lee Kantor: [00:08:20] Yeah, and we work with the GSU Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute and they’re, you know, a lot of folks that are going through that program are more brick and mortar and smaller kind of mom and pop. And it just that’s what’s so exciting to me about Atlanta. And I think why Georgia such a strong state for from an economic standpoint is there’s so much diversity and collaboration. I mean, when you combine the amount of folks that are doing interesting things and couple that with people that want to help and collaborate and lift each other up, you know, you really have a magical opportunity, I think.
Aly Merritt: [00:09:01] Absolutely. And I think your point about brick and mortar more traditionally brick and mortar enterprises, there’s a lot more programing happening now to support what previously were considered lifestyle brands or mom and pop businesses to enable them to start utilizing I’m going to use the word tech again, but I really mean tech in a very low level form of things that can make your life easier as the mom and pop brick and mortar business owner, but also in ways that you could in fact scale that that it doesn’t just have to be a franchise anymore. There are ways to scale brick and mortar in a sustainable fashion that also allows you as the owner and the team to grow.
Lee Kantor: [00:09:38] Yeah, I mean, at one point I think that a lot of, especially the tech oriented businesses were looking at like it was either a home run or an out or a grand slam in and out even. But now it seems like people are more open to, Hey, look, you can make a living doing this. Good for you. I mean, go for it. Like there’s a place for that person. It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing part of the adventure because it’s hard enough to start a business, but to have one that’s thriving at some level and feel like they’ve failed, you know, where that could be really a good lifestyle business or a smaller scale business. And that’s okay.
Aly Merritt: [00:10:20] Absolutely. That contributes to the ecosystem. It contributes to training new employees, making a change of life for a bunch of different people and life better in your in your neighborhood, in your local area. Um, and, you know, I think the other part of all or nothing is for a long time. I think brick and mortar have thought about tech as also all or nothing. You’re either you’re tech enabled or you’re not. We’re going to do everything on paper. And a lot of times when I’m speaking to small business groups versus, say, a startup group, startup groups are asking me which tech to use. And the small business groups are asking me why they should be using tech. And I think that’s starting to change as the small business groups are seeing ways of making things more efficient and those small efficiencies of scale allow them to do things like provide better health benefits for their workers because now they’re not spending all that time and money doing something else. And that’s changing the quality of life for themselves and their local ecosystem.
Lee Kantor: [00:11:14] So where do you think that the innovation, the Atlanta innovation ecosystem needs more of and how can we help?
Aly Merritt: [00:11:22] Oh, that’s. That’s. He said we only have like 15 minutes. I think that’s a bigger question. Unfortunately, I think at a small scale, to your point, starting to think less narrowly about what a innovation business or an innovative business looks like, that it doesn’t have to fit. We’re going to scale and become the Uber of whatever fill in the blank. I think opening up and thinking about the fact that we do have a thriving media entertainment music business in Atlanta and that they’re doing innovative things as well, sometimes with tech and sometimes not. But basically, I think reaching out and continuing that level of collaboration that is Atlanta’s superpower and strengthening the bonds between all the different networks in town. Because as soon as you reach out to one person, another network, that exponentially opens up connections for you and for your network there and the right person with the right idea, the right resource might be in that other network. They just haven’t thought about it like that. So I would say broadening our horizons a bit and being open to including a variety of definitions under innovation.
Lee Kantor: [00:12:35] So let’s try to help some of the folks out there that are listening that maybe aren’t, you know, kind of taking advantage of the many, many opportunities there are to connect with people and collaborate. If you let’s look at different personas. If you’re a maybe an aspiring entrepreneur, maybe you’re somebody who is working in a in a corporate job and you have this itch that, hey, I’d like to be an entrepreneur at some point. Where would they where do you think a good beginning step for them to go and see if there is something with that idea that they’ve had that that might be potentially be able to kind of grow?
Aly Merritt: [00:13:14] Yeah, absolutely. I very heavily push for in-person events when you can make it. Right now there’s just a level of serendipitous interaction that doesn’t happen in a Zoom chat window, for example. And so I strongly encourage people to start looking at the calendar and coming to events. Most of the events for Natal and all the events that we host in the other hubs in town are free. We are participating, for example, in Unlocked, which is a series of events at different locations throughout the metro area. About every month or two we are putting out a different location. Ours is, let’s see, Tuesday, the October the 10th. So our next one is coming up shortly. And then there will be one at Atdc, one at the Russell Center. I strongly recommend you going to those and start learning about the different spaces and start meeting people and putting yourself out there. First of all, there are also a fair amount of virtual webinar style events going on, but I do really believe that a lot of the connection that you need to make when you’re trying to dig into an ecosystem and see if it’s the right fit is the in-person events. And so starting there and finding something that’s in your area of the city so you’re not having to fight traffic is a great place to start.
Lee Kantor: [00:14:30] Now, what if you’re at maybe a larger enterprise level company and you haven’t really tapped into this ecosystem yet? Is there places that you would start at or is that website you mentioned earlier, the startup or was it startup?
Aly Merritt: [00:14:47] Oh yeah. I mean, one of the things that we see a lot of is people who are moving from a more corporate position, who are looking to break into tech or startups or just interested in it is going to, for example, a pitch event because usually you’re going to have a swath of the people across the ecosystem, everything from investors to startup entrepreneurs to people who work in the space, and they can start getting a feel for what it’s all about being in a tech space and just meeting people. We have a bi monthly event, Atlanta Startup Village, but there’s an upcoming event called Startup and Standups. For example, the Atdc is doing where they’re doing comedy and startups together. What better way to start breaking into something then with a little bit of humor and just start meeting those people? A lot of the corporate innovation structures also have built in in-house innovation spaces, and so we get people who are coming in from those teams in the corporate areas, and a lot of the corporations have partnerships with the different hubs and especially at the university level in the city. So just going to those locations and starting to chat with people I think is the very first thing. But I do strongly recommend starting with an event, even if it’s just attending, say, a tech star’s demo day to see some of the startups. Pitches are a really great place where you can see what it’s all about. Encapsulate it in five minutes, but meet a lot of people in the ecosystem at the same time.
Lee Kantor: [00:16:12] So now that you mentioned Atlanta Tech Village, is there stuff there that a person could plug into or is that something like an invitation only? Like can anybody just show up and start going to events there? Or what’s the best way for someone to plug in there?
Aly Merritt: [00:16:32] Great question. Most of the events for us and most of the hubs in town are all free and open to the public. We would just love people to attend. Atv does the first and third Fridays we do start up chow Down where we feed all our villagers lunch, and people from the public can buy a ticket for that lunch for like $10 and come in and meet with different entrepreneurs. They can attend pitch practice, which happens right after, and get a feel for watching people do their 32nd pitch and refine those tech. Alpharetta and Atlanta Tech Park both do coffee mornings where you can just come and meet the startups, meet different people and socialize. And we also at Atlanta Tech Village, like I said, we’ve got the bi monthly pitch event, so I strongly recommend that. But we offer workshops on a weekly basis, most of which are free and open to the public, and they cover everything from entrepreneurship 101 to things that you need to think about with IP that are a little more advanced. And those are all free and open to the public and on our calendar and on the startup Atlanta calendar as well.
Lee Kantor: [00:17:31] Now, what’s been the most rewarding part of your job at Tech Village or just kind of cheerleading this innovation ecosystem? What what is there a story you can share that maybe you saw somebody or you met somebody and you saw them kind of grow and, you know, kind of you watch their dreams come true.
Aly Merritt: [00:17:53] That’s that’s exactly it. That is the most rewarding part, is watching someone start with an idea that they’re super passionate about to the point where they will cash in everything else that they have going on to focus on it because they think they’re going to change the world and then watching them actually be able to do so. It’s so incredible. We had a founder pop into our office yesterday or day before and say we just signed our term sheet. It’s not even public yet. We just told the team, Y’all are the first people we’re telling. That kind of excitement where we’re able to celebrate with something, with somebody, that it’s a life changing moment for them. And we’re the first people they want to tell. We are the first people that they want to share that news with because we’re able to be a part of their journey and we’re there to support them and celebrate them, frankly. So as soon as their PR comes out, you’ll see it all over our channels. That’s what’s so rewarding is I’m helping people change their lives and the lives of others.
Lee Kantor: [00:18:47] And what I love about the Atlanta ecosystem is that when those people do have massive success, they want to stay connected to the community. It’s not like they’re just checking out and saying, okay, you can find me at the beach, you know, like they still want to plug in and they still want to help that next wave of entrepreneurs achieve their dreams.
Aly Merritt: [00:19:10] Absolutely. We have an entire roster of mentors and advisors, many of whom are made up of very successful founders and people who have already had their exits and they want to give back and pay it forward and be able to help the next group of people.
Lee Kantor: [00:19:24] Well, Ali, thank you so much for sharing your story today. You’re doing such important work and we appreciate you. Before we wrap, though, can you share again the tech village website and the startup website so people can connect with you and the ecosystem as a whole?
Aly Merritt: [00:19:42] Absolutely. Atlanta Tech, Village.com And we do offer a tour a week. If you wanted to come tour the space and get a feel for the community. You can sign up on our website for those tours and then start up atlanta.com. We’ll give you the shared community calendar and the ecosystem guide. And then in ATL in oV, ATL 2020 3.com will give you all of the events that are happening for the remainder of this month.
Lee Kantor: [00:20:10] All right, Ali. Well, thank you again for sharing your story. This is Lee Kantor. We will see you all next time on Atlanta Business Radio.
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