Jolene Gurevich was going to be an investment banker on Wall Street. But her roots as a competitive Latin ballroom dancer in New York gave her the inspiration to make a move toward entrepreneurship, and Venture for America provided her a clear path into the startup ecosystem in Baltimore. Now manager of the Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute (Mtech Ventures) incubator at the University of Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay Seed Capital Fund, Gurevich guides the trajectory of scientists-turned-entrepreneurs.
Gurevich characterizes her current role as with a “startup within the university.” She frequently meets new entrepreneurs, and works to empower companies to grow through the incubator.
“I loved working at a startup, but I thought that if I could help not just one company grow but multiple companies grow then I could have an outsized impact,” Gurevich said.
We spoke with Gurevich about what she’s learned on her journey since moving to Baltimore from New York in 2014.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Run us through the highlights of your career so far. How has it evolved over the last few years?
I never in a million years thought I would have wound up living in Baltimore. I grew up in New Jersey, went to college in New York and studied finance and knew I was going to be in investment banking on Wall Street. I interned at an investment bank and at a hedge fund. All through college, I was completely in this finance world. But, on the other hand, I was always interested in entrepreneurship, and there are a couple reasons for this. The most formative one is that I was a competitive Latin ballroom dancer when I was growing up. I saw the owner of my dance studio turn one dance studio into a national franchise and that was really exciting to be on the inside and showed me what is possible through entrepreneurship.
At the end of college I found out about this program called Venture for America. Venture for America is a two year fellowship that places recent college grads at startups in cities that are having a reemergence of entrepreneurship. The idea is that if you work at an early stage company and get in at the ground floor and help build that company you will learn by osmosis by being around the senior leadership. That way when you go and start your own company in the future you’ll do it that much better because you’ve seen it done already. Instead of going the banking route, I decided to apply to Venture for America and saw it as a more structured and accessible path to entrepreneurship for me because I wasn’t involved in the startup community in New York and this was a clear way in.
Having a finance background and really wanting to work for a female CEO, I got into VFA, I found [Baltimore edtech company] Allovue and connected with [founder and CEO] Jess Gartner and that was it. I joined Allovue as the fifth hire and first non-dev hire, and moved to Baltimore. Being involved so early, I got to do everything. I did finance, I did operations, I did HR. When we launched with our first customer, I moved over to the customer facing side and built out our customer support infrastructure and all our training for new users. Then I was traveling all over the country working with our new users — during my time at Allovue I trained over 1000 school district finance professionals. I got to really see a company grow from the 8 employees it was on my first day and no customers, to when I left the company we were more than 20 people and dozens of customers. And then when I was ready to move on, I found my way to my current position through the Venture for America network.
What are some of those lessons learned or those big win experiences that prepared you for the role you have now?
The thing that is very consistent across all of those experiences — and really has its place in the startup world — is that the feeling of starting something new, from scratch, is very familiar to me. You’re always starting from scratch, you never know what you’re walking into but you know that you’re going to do it anyways. I couldn’t do this job if I hadn’t lived all of these examples of times when I didn’t know how to do something and I went and figured it out.
At Mtech Ventures, we work with a lot of deep science tech — it’s not a new app, it’s not consumer facing; it’s B2B. The growth path for an entrepreneur that starts out as a scientist is really different than the sort of evolution of an entrepreneur that comes from a business background or who sees a need and tries to build something to solve it. We’re starting with a technology that a faculty member or a graduate student has developed in the lab and then wants to build a company around the technology. For example, we have a company in the incubator that developed a new cooling technique that’s much more energy efficient, and they are the only lab in the world that does this. And that’s just one example, all of the companies that we work with are doing something that is totally new in their field and having had the experience of working with no other option other than to figure things out really helps me work with our entrepreneurs to help them identify the possible applications of their technology; it’s blue ocean.
How has your career so far shaped how you think about entrepreneurship and what you’re trying to accomplish?
When I first moved to Baltimore, all of the literature about entrepreneurship at that point was “work really hard,” “put in really long hours” and just brute force it. While I think that certainly is part of it, I’ve learned that there is so much more strategy that must go into it. You have to keep educating yourself constantly about the market, the different business opportunities. You can’t just work, work work, because you don’t know if you’re working on the right thing, you have to get out there. I think when we talk to our aspiring entrepreneurs, the biggest thing that I advocate for is making sure that you have product market fit before you go out and start a company. I didn’t realize the importance of this beforehand, before I worked here, because it just wasn’t so obvious to me.
Both of these experiences at Allovue, and now at Mtech, have really shaped how I think about entrepreneurship and how it fits in with my future career aspirations. I’ve always wanted to start a company at some point, I’m waiting for the right idea and the right team, but I also had a dream that one day I would be able to mentor and invest in entrepreneurs. It is so cool to me that I get to do that in my role now and I didn’t have to wait until I was much later on in my career.
What are some of the growth points that you’ve had as you’ve transitioned into this role? Any advice that you would give to other people who want to make big jumps in their careers in a space similar to yours?
A few things. You have to have a perspective on things and you have to have an opinion and you owe it to yourself to voice it. This is something that I am still learning — how to say something, to believe it, and then not regret it afterwards. I think it is so important for women to find their voice and for women to speak loudly. If I could go back I would have told myself to trust what you think and just because you’re not the person that talks the most in the room — and you know I’m talking about rooms where I was surrounded by finance bros — it doesn’t mean that what you have to say doesn’t matter. If I had been able to know that earlier, that would have been helpful.
Another thing is that it’s really important to have people who will advocate for you when you’re not in the room. I know that I have been really lucky in that most of the mentors I’ve had have come through VFA on either the advisory board or donors. I really took advantage of the fact that I could just reach out to them with a question or to go for coffee, so when it came to being ready for my next thing I had put in the time to build a relationship with them and they were happy to make introductions and send my resume out.
And all of the different entrepreneur support organizations in Baltimore and the Maryland ecosystem have all been so helpful, both when I was working at Allovue — in helping me connect to mentors and other people working at startups — and now in this role finding resources for our companies and helping me learn on the job, they have all been super invaluable. You can’t be afraid to ask the people that you know to help support you when you’re ready for what’s next. I will drive home the point that I have noticed that some of the younger people that I’ve met, they don’t see the resources around them. You have to take advantage of everything that is around you. Don’t take no for an answer. If it doesn’t work here, go somewhere else. Go ask someone else. Go try something different.
I will also say that I am so, so glad that I studied finance in school. My finance education has helped in so, so many different ways. A month ago I helped one of the companies in the incubator do a valuation for the first time. They are thinking about going out and raising some capital. They’ve had some acquisition offers and wanted to gauge whether these offers were viable. If I didn’t have that background, I wouldn’t have been able to work with the team that was doing the valuation and help guide them. And I feel like that happens to me every week.
What is the one thing that you do for yourself that keeps you charged up?
I have a goal this summer that every weekend I am going to spend one day outside. Things like going to a new beach that I haven’t been to, going hiking, doing a new trail. I love Patapsco State Park and am looking forward to really getting to know it.
Find Jolene Gurevich on LinkedIn or send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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