Business Class: StartingBlock looks to more minority-focused programming as director departs | Business News


Nora Roughen-Schmidt began her tenure as executive director of co-working space StartingBlock in 2020 — when she and her team undertook the many challenges that came with navigating an unprecedented health crisis and its economic fallout.

Nora Roughen-Schmidt


Two years later, Madison native Roughen-Schmidt has helped the co-working space overcome many of those those obstacles. She is also leaving her post for a consultant role at the Southwest Wisconsin Small Business Development Center. But Roughen-Schmidt still gets to do what she loves, and that’s both making sure entrepreneurs with innovative ideas feel supported as they build their venture, as well as breaking down barriers for underrepresented groups.

StartingBlock now looks to a future of programming for minority-led startups, she said, adding that her last day at the East Side space is June 3. The co-working space that opened in 2018 houses several startups, venture capital funds and organizations that support early-stage companies as they expand.

Presiding over the the task of identifying a new executive director is Peter Gray Executive Search, a Madison recruiting firm that hires leaders looking to tackle social issues, said Mark Richardson, co-chair of StartingBlock’s board of directors.

Since taking on the executive director role, Roughen-Schmidt has helped StartingBlock members get health insurance coverage, start a popular podcast hosted by featuring prominent experts, form connections with the local arts community through an artist-in-residence program, obtain money from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. to support minority-led companies and plan several networking events, among other accomplishments.

In 2021 alone, StartingBlock reached 374 members, according to internal data from the organization. StartingBlock also became the first co-working space in the state to offer the insurance, and there were 12 “Innovate 608” podcast episodes, featuring people like Gov. Tony Evers and Jason Fields, president of the Madison Region Economic Partnership.

The co-working space received a $500,000 Entrepreneurial Partner grant from WEDC and Milwaukee consulting agency the Young Enterprising Society in 2021, which is slated to launch a program this fall for minority entrepreneurs. StartingBlock previously launched its “Social Impact Initiative” in 2018, focused on cultivating businesses that tackle social issues.

“Successful applicants who participate in the cohorts will get free space at StartingBlock, mentoring, education, free participation in the Blueprint Milwaukee accelerator program and $10,000 to put toward their startup,” Roughen-Schmidt said, adding that the Blueprint program helps women, people of color, veterans and other represented groups build businesses in Milwaukee and Green Bay.

The grant was matched by area credit unions and University Research Park, she said.

Roughen-Schmidt was previously the executive director of Viroqua Chamber Main Street, where she not only started a podcast but launched a pop-up shop program similar to Culture Collectives on State Street, which allows business owners to rent space for their venture at a reduced cost for a few months.

That initiative influenced communities around Wisconsin to try following in the Viroqua Chamber’s footsteps, she said.

The director has also served on the Governor’s Council on Workforce Investment for the last nearly three years to help employers anticipate their labor needs, and contribute to the development of skilled workers in the state.

Roughen-Schmidt spent her undergrad at UW-Madison, where she obtained a degree in marketing in 2000. She also has a master’s degree in project management.

“Nora is a valued member of (StartingBlock),” said Scott Resnick, former executive director at StartingBlock and chief operating officer at Hardin Design and Development. “She’s someone who was diligent about finding solutions to difficult problems. She joined in at a fairly precarious time and was able to bring stability to StartingBlock and prepare us for this next chapter.”

“I can’t believe the amount of things Nora and her team have done,” said Nick Myers, CEO of Madison startup and StartingBlock tenant RedFox AI. “She has truthfully transformed StartingBlock.”


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