Four Athens supports the startup ecosystem in Athens, Georgia, in a number of innovative ways. There’s the coworking and incubator space, accelerator program, meetups and mixers, and even the coding classes for kids and adults. It’s all in an effort to change the reality of this startling statistic: Despite the presence of Georgia’s largest public university (University of Georgia), Athens has a per capita income that is 23 percent lower than the state average.
We are not economists, but our belief is that there are a ton of low-wage, service industry-oriented jobs due to the large student population and a lack of ‘professional’ jobs in the area to retain qualified, higher paying employees,” explains Tamara Neff, head of community outreach and marketing for Four Athens. Here are some other highlights from a conversation we had with Neff about the cool things Four Athens is doing to support and encourage startups.
What would you say is Athens’ biggest challenge facing its startup ecosystem? Finding high-quality entrepreneurs who are excited to tackle the challenge of building big companies.
What about its biggest strength? And what makes Athens most unique from, say, another similarly sized ecosystem? We are a younger community, with a vibrant cultural scene that attracts a wide range of people. We are heavily focused on giving without expectation, and believe in helping to build each other up rather than competing outright. We are situated next to a very well-regarded research university which pumps out thousands of new graduates annually. These graduates go on to work throughout the world, and therefore those entrepreneurs who choose to stay and build a company here have an alumni network that is global. In addition, the research created by the university presents tons of commercial opportunities for the right entrepreneurs.
UGA is in Athens, but does that brainpower tend to go elsewhere? Like Atlanta? And what role can an organization like Four Athens play in keeping that talent in Athens? We believe in not only keeping talent local, but in connecting the global talent generated by UGA and harnessing it to help build companies locally. Those far-flung alumni can help with funding, mentorship, and introductions to potential customers.
What is Four Athens’ relationship with UGA? Is there a formal one? There is no formal relationship. We currently operate an Idea Accelerator, which is partially funded by UGA, and hold a twice annual Students2Startups event on campus to connect students to opportunities with local startup companies. We also work with tons of student entrepreneurs directly from the University.
Talk about the accelerator program. When is the next one? Four Athens’ accelerator program runs twice a year (fall and spring). The most recent cohort had nearly 40 applicants, and 12 teams finished the program. The next session begins in September 2016, and the application will go live July 1 at www.fourathens.com/accelerator.
Let’s talk about the coding classes Four Athens offers. What was the catalyst? There were two sparks to the program: (1) a need for talent within our growing companies and (2) a willingness of a few UGA students and community members to expand opportunities for people in the community to learn to code.
Some of the coding classes are offered in conjunction with local schools. When you talk to teachers about coding, are they coming from a place of basic knowledge? Not necessarily that they know how to code, but that they know what it is? Or, is it a situation where you’re blowing minds a little bit? Most people are familiar with the fact that technology is encroaching on all aspects of their lives, but they may not have stopped to think about how all-encompassing it is, and how it will continue to do so. So we talk about future opportunities for today’s students and paint the picture of a future where everyone will need to understand some facet of coding.
We host in-school and weekend classes that are not tied to any particular school. For instance, we are offering code classes during the weekend of Athfest, the big annual music festival in town linked to local education efforts more broadly, and continue to pursue strategic partnerships in the area to offer more classes. All our classes can be found at fourathens.com/classes and the youth classes specifically at https://www.fourathens.com/youthclasses/.
Has the response to your coding classes been greater than anticipated? The demand has been great. Satisfying the demand, particularly with a large portion of the population being lower income, has been challenging due to financial constraints. Many families understand the importance of tech education, but are simply unable to afford it. We have set up a scholarship fund to help offset the cost of our classes so that students can take advantage of these opportunities regardless of income level. More about our scholarship fund can be found here: www.fourathens.com/donate.
What about the adult classes? Are they comprehensive enough that someone could get a job coding after taking them? We currently teach introductory and intermediate level courses. Numerous students who have taken those two levels have subsequently been employed by local companies. As that base of talent grows, we will begin offering higher-level courses, internship programs and other opportunities to place people directly into open jobs in the community.
Finally, what’s the etymology of Four Athens? We started with the concept that you need four “people” to bootstrap a startup: as coined by Rei Inamoto at SXSW in March 2012, it takes a hipster, hacker and a hustler to build a good startup team. We think you also need the community at large (service providers, mentors, supporters and cheerleaders) to help in the journey, so we added and made it four. Plus, it’s a nice play on doing this “for” Athens.