Pipeline CEO Discusses Entrepreneurial Program’s New Funding

Joni Cobb, CEO and President of Pipeline
Joni Cobb | Courtesy of Pipeline

Buoyed by new funding, Pipeline Inc., a Kansas City-based fellowship for Midwestern entrepreneurs, is looking to increase programming for its network of past participants and expand its presence throughout Missouri and the Midwest.

Last month, Pipeline announced a $1.4 million challenge grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the second such grant the program has received from the Kansas City-based foundation. In 2011, Kauffman awarded Pipeline $800,000 to help it expand from an organization focused on Kansas to one that now also works with entrepreneurs from Missouri and Nebraska.

Following news of the latest grant, Pipeline CEO Joni Cobb talked with Missouri Business Alert about the support of the Kauffman Foundation and the mission and expansion of her organization.

The interview has been edited for length and content.

Missouri Business Alert: What is the mission of Pipeline, and how has it changed with the regional focus?

Joni Cobb: Pipeline is very unique. We hear a lot about entrepreneurial accelerators and incubators and mentoring programs. When we were created in 2006, we did a lot of brainstorming and talking with national experts. There were a lot of those types of things available to entrepreneurs, but what we were really concerned with was, and our model is, to serve entrepreneurs who have maybe done those things and were getting some real traction. We want to support that entrepreneur as they grow and scale so that they’re more likely to stay right where they are and not necessarily have to pull up stakes and move to the coasts. Our design is to help high-growth entrepreneurs as they’re starting to hit that growth and trajectory. … Another very unique piece of what we do is we are completely nonprofit. We don’t take equity, we don’t give them money and they don’t give us money. It’s completely free to participate as you come in if you make it into one of those coveted spots. So we really rely on sponsors and partners like the Kauffman Foundation and like people in the private sector that come out and match that grant. One last thing that’s good to know is Pipeline is industry agnostic.

MBA: What are some of the specific plans you have with the new grant money?

JC: This grant does two things. First of all, the Kauffman Foundation wanted to continue to support our ongoing fellowship model in the regional format, so it’s [encouragement to], “Keep going, keep doing great work, we love what you’re doing.” The other piece of it is to add on member programming that’s more robust than we currently offer. We’ve been doing a really great job, I believe, of keeping our members connected, and keeping them coming to the modules and involved with what we do and supporting their growth. But this grant is really designed to let us put some specific programming behind the entrepreneurs as they grow. By the end of this grant, we will have 11 classes of Pipeline, over 100 entrepreneurs that we don’t say goodbye to. We talk to them every day. It’s a lot of people. So while it’s wonderful to support the fellowship that incoming year, we now have this opportunity to really leverage an impact with what we’ve already done to accelerate growth with this larger member base. … Lastly, I think the other piece this grant is designed to do is elicit who our new partners will be. We anticipate that our existing partners are very happy to continue to support us both financially as well as work with us, but it’s always been kind of a sore spot for me that we’re not across the entire state of Missouri. … I’m really hoping some Missouri partners will step up to the next evolution of Pipeline across the entire state.

MBA: What are some challenges you want to see Pipeline improve upon?

JC: One of the things that we’re piloting this year is our mentor model. It’s not necessarily that it’s broken; it’s just that as we’ve gotten larger, and as we’ve been evolving, I’ve noticed, and the entrepreneurs have noticed, that it felt like it needed to shift. What I mean by that is the entrepreneurs going through the fellowship year, the first year, were finding that they would lean more on members and would access those national mentors, not to brag about what they were doing, but to try to present themselves in the best light possible. I’m not sure if that was the best, highest use of these phenomenal resources. … It’s also important to us that we see what our partnership can be across the entire state of Missouri. … And then I think this member piece is really an opportunity as well. While we’ve been doing a good job in the last year, I’ve noticed that I’m getting tired because I’m just spending so much time keeping everybody together because it’s just a large group. You can’t scale one person. You have to come up with some institutional ways that the group can stay more active in the region and reach our services as they need them. That’s what this grant is all about, is really addressing that opportunity. We don’t want to spend all these years preparing entrepreneurs for high growth and then miss our opportunity to help them when it really matters.

MBA: What is the progress that’s been made since the first Kauffman Foundation grant?

JC: That first grant was just the best timing in the world because we had been in a one-state region for five years. It was time to move beyond those borders, and the foundation was clear about that for a couple years before we actually received that grant. What that grant allowed us to do is just expand both the pool of entrepreneurs who can apply to Pipeline, and it also allowed us to expand the family around Pipeline. … By going to a regional format, we were actually able to engage a lot more of those people as well, which helps not only the entrepreneurs in their backyard, but in the whole region. So now we have investors in Nebraska investing in entrepreneurs in Wichita and Kansas City, and entrepreneurs themselves from the various years helping each other across three states. It’s really allowed that regional collaboration to happen at all levels, which is something that we really always dreamed about in the very early years.

MBA: What are a few examples of entrepreneurs who have really benefitted from Pipeline?

JC: If you go to our website, there’s a tab that says Our Entrepreneurs, and there’s over 80 entrepreneurs on there. You’ll see faces, that if you read the papers, you know are going through a lot of growth. You’re hearing a lot these days about Toby Rush of EyeVerify. Well, this is his company post-Pipeline participation. … We’ve had eight exits. All of those entrepreneurs are very loud and proud. Davyeon Ross, Bruce Ianni, they both sold their companies, met in Pipeline and started a new company called ShotTracker, which is all over the media right now. They were involved in the Final Four, and they have a device where they’re getting into wearable technology and tracking their shots. There’s just so many, it’s really hard for me to say.

Note: The application process for the next class of Pipeline fellows opens in August. Find out more information on Pipeline’s website.

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