While the structure of the cohort remains the same each time around, one thing that will change is the instructors. This time, the group will be led by not one, but two local business leaders: Ty Vuong and Tove Hoff Bormes.
We’ll be introducing you to both of them with a Q&A feature, starting with Vuong. Keep reading to learn more about this Hartford native who brings a laundry list of experiences and a background in psychology to the table.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell us a little about yourself and your business experience.
I’ve been working directly with DRACO, a nonprofit focused in the space between academic technologies and that entrepreneurship approach towards it. The guys who started the company and myself are all graduate students. I have my master’s degree in human factors, and they have Ph.Ds. We were all on this Ph.D track where most of what you do is lofty, theoretical, analytical, qualitative and quantitative analyses. You create these theoretical structures, and oftentimes, that research goes to waste. What these guys thought was, “You know what would be cool? Instead of letting this research go to waste, we could look at different ways we can create businesses out of it.” That’s where DRACO originated, and we live in that space where research and science meet the science of business.
I’m also an instructor teaching undergraduate courses. I’m teaching Psych 101 at Southeast Tech this semester, which is fun because it’s right by the Zeal Center, where DRACO’s office is. Coming into DRACO, what I really enjoyed was that student-involvement portion, getting students more involved in opportunities to be more entrepreneurial-minded and more problem-solving and critical thinking. These are the problems so many students walk away from college not really having addressed, and I see that even in teaching my Psych 101 course. Students are going to leave the class and not remember things like the classical definition of conditioning, and that’s fine. But by seeing this gap in critical thinking, we started exploring different student-driven competitions that require a bit of an entrepreneurial bend — the Governor’s Giant Vision, the Hult Prize — all these kinds of competitions are about looking at problems that our local communities are facing and saying, “Hey, what can I do to solve this problem, and how can I make it a business?”
I did a lot of things before this too. I have military leadership experience, I’ve worked in the food industry, I’ve been a certified nursing assistant and an EMT, I’ve worked in call centers, I teach motorcycle safety for the state of South Dakota, I’ve been an electrician, and I worked at Wells Fargo for five years doing banking and finance and operations. I’ve always had a passion for psychology, so I decided to quit my full-time job at Wells Fargo to go back to school, and I haven’t looked back. I think having this eclectic knowledge of different industries will be helpful because I can go in and see where these folks are coming from and make them feel understood.
CO.STARTERS is for entrepreneurs who are in the ideation phase. What do you consider to be the biggest challenge for entrepreneurs at this stage?
I think the biggest challenge at that point is the commitment. Ideas are great, and they’re fun to kick around, but the downfall is that so often we get into this ideation phase, and we never move on to the conceptualization or application phase. We’re stuck thumbing through these ideas and never doing anything about them. Doing something with it and finding out it’s not the route to go is still beneficial because it’s an opportunity to at least be able to say we’ve learned something.
With ideas, we just get stuck and never put our pencils down and start writing, thinking and answering some of these questions that we will cover in CO.STARTERS. A lot of the CO.STARTERS Canvas is that idea of figuring out your customer, your problem, your solution, all of those things. That’s a big hurdle to overcome because it’s hard for people to take that risk and commit that time, simply because we’re afraid that if we do it and fail, then we’re a failure, and there’s also this idea that we don’t have the time, even though we do. It’s just a matter of how much of a commitment we want to make.
What are you most looking forward to with CO.STARTERS?
What I’m looking forward to the most is working with the people with the energy, the passion and the willingness to take a risk whether it’s fruitful or not; there’s a certain personality quirk that’s needed to get them over that difficulty hurdle. Even joining CO.STARTERS is a risk in itself because we’re going to start poking and prodding your idea, and it could fall apart. Those people who are willing to take that risk, they’re a special group because they know that they could fail, but they’re still going to try. I appreciate and respect that, and I want to be able to cultivate and help that.
What would you consider a success coming out of this program? What do you hope participants achieve?
I hope they learn something. It’s a cheesy answer — that’s the educator in me — but success to me is that you walk away with something you didn’t have before, whether that be a network connection, an understanding of a product that you didn’t know existed before or whether that just be learning that an idea didn’t work. Those are all successes because we’ve learned something we didn’t know already. We’ve taken uncertainty and made it more certain. Do you want to hold onto false hope, or do you want to actually flesh it out and get some certainty out of it?
When you think of the entrepreneurial community in Sioux Falls, what comes to mind?
The first thing that comes to mind for me, and I don’t want this to sound negative, but it’s the cultural hurdles of a Midwestern culture. We have an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality. Why go with something new if what’s been working continues to work? That to me is such a tough hurdle for Midwestern entrepreneurs to overcome. So when you come up with a new business idea, unless it’s something that people around here already have some cultural awareness of, it’s going to be a tough PR battle because you’re fighting the status quo.
I see it as a hurdle, but I also see it as an opportunity because if you can find something you can get people to do here, I think it’s something that you can get people to do anywhere.
What do you bring to the table for this group of participants?
My strongest skill is in the world of psychology. My biggest strength is approaching things from that psych standpoint, that human factors standpoint; it relates so well to this CO.STARTERS program. Even going through the facilitators training, I was able to see how researching the problem, finding alternatives, figuring out the benefit, all of this stuff is people-related, and it all comes from the person themselves, the entrepreneur, the person trying to do these things. My understanding of habit, human behavior, how to build brand recognition, cultural awareness, I think are going to be really helpful in exploring these ideas. I like teaching, engaging with folks, sharing information, getting folks involved in things.
What would you tell someone who’s thinking about applying to CO.STARTERS?
The first thing that comes to mind is just do it. What do you have to lose? If I knew someone who had an idea and wanted to flesh it out, I’d tell them it’s better to know than to have uncertainty. It’s better to have tried and taken a shot than to play the “what if” game.
CO.STARTERS applications are open now at startupsiouxfalls.com/accelerator.