During her tenure as director of the Minnesota Cup, Melissa Kjolsing brought a lot of changes to the state’s largest startup competition. After five years, she’s ready for some changes of her own.
In August, Kjolsing told the University of Minnesota, the institution that organizes the Minnesota Cup, that she planned to step down from her position at the end of the 2017 program. Kjolsing said that the University has already started its search for the next director, and expects to have someone in the position next month.
Kjolsing joined the Minnesota Cup in 2012. Since then, the competition has added new divisions, events and increased the prize money it awards to winners. The Cup has also focused on adding an increasingly diverse number of founders and judges.
Minne Inno sat down with Kjolsing on her last day as director of the Minnesota Cup to discuss her contributions to the competition and what she plans to do next.
Note: This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Minne Inno: What drew you to the Minnesota Cup in the first place?
Melissa Kjolsing: An old boss approached me and said that the prior director was stepping down and they were looking for someone new. I remember saying: ‘You should do that! That’s a cool job.’ And he’s like, ‘No, for you.’ I was really excited by the idea and started doing a bunch of research. I had been involved a little bit before, and saw a few gaps in the program. I knew that this was a really unique platform, but how do you grow it? I talked to [Minnesota Cup co-founder] Scott Litman about the job. Essentially, I told him that the Minnesota Cup was an underutilized asset. Bring me in and I’ll change that.
MI: What was on your to-do list when you started the job?
MK: I saw an opportunity to take this thing and make it more impactful on the community. I really felt I had something to prove. One thing we wanted to do was extend it beyond the six-month competition period. We wanted people to know that it’s not just a competition, it’s also a resource. I think that’s a huge shift in the way people think about MN Cup. It’s not just this one time a year thing that you plug into, but it’s a community that’s living and breathing and you can interact with it any time you want. That attitude has made more people willing to approach this competition even though we’re in a very big institution.
“entrepreneurs come in all shapes and sizes. It’s important to create a community with those people onthe front end.”
MI: The Twin Cities Startup Community seems like it’s changed a lot over the last five years. What are some things you’ve observed?
MK: There have been significant changes in the energy, consistency and sophistication of things. There’s momentum here, and people are feeding off of each other. It’s also really exciting to see that the risk around some of these things isn’t as great as it used to be because there’s a clear demand. There are some key industries here, but there’s activity everywhere.
MI: What role do you think the Minnesota Cup has played in that change?
MK: It’s been really exciting to be at the table as all this happens. We can provide data and other resources through groups like Grow North, but what I’m most happy and excited about the inclusion of it all. If there’s one thing I can leave in the community, it’s that entrepreneurs come in all shapes and sizes–all ages, all genders. Whatever it is, it’s important to create a community with those people on the front end. That way, people aren’t guessing at what those groups want. Inclusion isn’t about taking from someone else, but adding and appreciating the new solutions that happen because of it.
“I’ve spent a lot of time doing a lot of really interesting work, and I want to see what somebody else can do with it.”
MI: After five years, what made you decide it’s time for a change?
MK: I think change is good. I’ve never been opposed to it. I feel like I’ve given a lot to the community. I’ve spent a lot of time doing a lot of really interesting work, and I want to see what somebody else can do with it. There’s an opportunity to improve a lot of the things we’ve done. I also really like to grow things, so I want to do that. I think the Cup can and will do amazing things. It’ll just be under different leadership.
MI: You’re a co-founder of a startup (Recovree) with your brother. Do you plan to allocate more time to that after leaving the Cup?
MK: I definitely want to make a run at the startup space. The social capital I’ve built up is amazing, and the amount of empathy I have for entrepreneurs — It’s a grind. I’m looking forward to taking some of the things I’ve learned, the people I’ve met and apply them in a different way. We have a couple pilots [for Recovree] set up for this fall that we’ll be executing. The rest of the year is booked for us. It’s all about seeing if this has an ability to be something.
MI: So what else is next for you?
MK: The economy is great right now, and there’s really cool stuff going on in the community. There’s more sophistication in the startups that are starting to emerge. I want to continue to work in that early-stage space, but just a little bit farther down stream with folks who have proven things out. I’m excited by some of the entrepreneurs that have come back into the community, and I’ll likely stay involved with that in some way.
MI: How do you hope to see the Minnesota Cup continue to grow?
MK: I think there’s a significant opportunity in greater Minnesota. About 85 percent of applicants come from the seven-county metro. And I hope there will continue to be a lens around inclusivity. There’s so much more that can be done there. And listening to what the entrepreneurs want. I think that’s one of the reasons the Cup has been so successful over the last five years. It’s an interesting role. There’s a lot of relationships, and it’s important to make sure those stay central.