Chamber's New Entrepreneurship Director Poised to Help Startups Grow

by Mark Carter  on Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014 11:30 am  

Jordan Carlisle

Jordan Carlisle’s new job with the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce wasn’t much of a stretch. After all, he already was working with the Arkansas Venture Center out of space donated by the chamber, and the new duties mirror his agenda as a local startup champion.

But his official hiring in May as the chamber’s first director of entrepreneurship and innovation programming certainly expanded his scope, and represents the city’s foray onto the national radar as a startup ecosystem boiling over with potential.

That's not just local hyperbole. Earlier this year, the Sparefoot blog named Little Rock one of the country’s top five under-the-radar tech hubs.

Carlisle -- Little Rock native, University of Missouri graduate and former tech startup founder -- stepped into his new role at a good time. Tech-based entrepreneurship in Arkansas is enjoying a renaissance.

Buoyed by University of Arkansas research and the presence of international business giants Wal-Mart (with its army of retail vendors setting up shop locally), Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt Transport Services, northwest Arkansas has generated much of the startup-related news over the past decade.

But central Arkansas is beginning to take center stage. The ARK Challenge startup accelerator, founded in NWA in 2012, expanded this year to Little Rock. While the Fayetteville accelerator focuses on startups in that region’s industry clusters of retail, food processing and transportation and logistics, the Little Rock edition works with startups in the big data, health-care information technology and government sectors.

The ARK Challenge joined the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub, the Arkansas Venture Center and the Arkansas Fellowship program, each launched in the last year, as tangible symbols of the Little Rock metro’s startup ecosystem growth. Plus, Conway continues to generate startup activity, and the chamber-administered Little Rock technology park is poised to take shape along Main Street in downtown Little Rock.

Earlier this summer, the Little Rock Tech Park Authority hired Brent Birch, former CIO of Arkansas Business Publishing Group, as its first director, and the tech park board targeted five downtown properties for which to negotiate and eventually launch the park.

Carlisle believes the tech park will become the "centerpiece for innovation" in the city. In the meantime, he's ready to serve as an entrepreneurship liaison.

"It makes sense because of the tech park and all the other activity now that you would have this position," Carlisle said. "My goal is to bring more people into the picture."

While chambers of commerce are often associated with big business, Carlisle noted that 80 percent of the Little Rock Chamber's membership is classified as small business. He sees his job as developing programs and events that benefit 80 percent of chamber membership.

Early-stage tech startups may not hold Chamber membership, but they represent potential future membership and the key component to the region’s future growth. A healthy tech-based startup ecosystem, the reasoning goes, will not only help retain the state’s top talent but also attract new talent to the city.



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