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Q&A with Jill Wilkins of NewBoCo

Since 2016, Jill Wilkins has been the Events Director at NewBoCo — producing and running all of the nonprofits’ major events including EntreFEST, ICR Agile, NewBoCo’s Annual Meeting and more. NewBoCo recently announced multiple leadership changes including Wilkins being named as the company’s new Chief Operating Officer.

Before her time with NewBoCo, Wilkins spent 10 years with the Cedar Rapids Downtown District and the Metro Economic Alliance, where she led the newly established Downtown Farmers’ Market, created Market After Dark and ran other large scale events and conferences.

Our Q&A is below:

You’ve been the Events Director at NewBoCo for almost five years now. How has the organization grown and changed during that time?

It’s amazing to look back and think about how NewBoCo has grown and changed over the years.  When I joined the organization in 2016, our DeltaV Code School and most of our innovation programming and K-12 computer science programming didn’t exist. As of today, we’ve had 37 DeltaV students complete the program and 35,000 students have been taught computer science through our CS curriculum. That’s a big impact! 

With growth in programming has come an increase in staff and the ability to grow our impact throughout the community. We have an interesting group of smart, unique, caring, and talented people on our staff. I learn from them every day and it’s exciting to see what crazy idea they may spin up next.  

How has NewBoCo handled the shift to online events in response to COVID-19? Have the last eight months changed the way that NewBoCo will plan/handle events post-pandemic?

I have been a part of the event industry for 13 years. I’ve managed events through multiple natural disasters, but the pandemic has by far been the most challenging.  We very quickly had to pivot our ICR Agile Conference, which was scheduled for April 30.  Since it was so close to when the shutdown began, we debated cancelling, but I don’t think that is in our DNA here at NewBoCo.  We see a challenge, face it, and figure out how to make it happen.  We innovate!

Going through the process of switching in-person events to virtual has been a valuable experience. It has forced us to really evaluate and hone in on the key pieces of what our audience needs and wants. It has also forced us to rethink how our attendees, and the world for that matter, can engage and collaborate with each other.  The attention to detail and creating an experience for people doesn’t go away in the virtual setting.  In fact, it is probably even more important.

I cannot emphasize enough how badly we want to get back to in-person events. The thought of that is so exciting, and we will get there.  Going forward, there will always be some virtual components.  The virtual setting eliminates geographical barriers for attendees and speakers and is allowing us to literally engage with the world.  We don’t want to lose that. Instead, we want to weave it into the in-person experience to create a much more robust event. I can’t wait!

NewBoCo recently announced multiple leadership changes with Eric leaving to focus on ISAV. Can you talk about what your new role as COO will consist of?

I am very excited to be moving into the COO role at NewBoCo.  I will still be working on our events but this role will provide me the opportunity to help contribute more to the larger organization.  NewBoCo’s staff is comprised of “teams” that focus on Entrepreneurship, Education, and Innovation, and it will be fun to work with all areas. 

First and foremost, my role will be to support Aaron as he moves into the Executive Director role. A big focus of mine will be to support our staff in a variety of capacities.  As we continue to grow as an organization, I will be looking at different processes and ways that we can work more effectively and efficiently as a team. The event planner in me loves to organize and think through logistics and I look forward using that to translate our strategic vision into execution. It’s also important to me that we provide a variety of opportunities for our staff to develop, grow, and contribute to the community. I’m sure that this position will evolve a lot over time, and I’m prepared to be flexible and dive in where needed.

What are the biggest challenges a nonprofit like NewBoCo faces when it comes to supporting entrepreneurship?

Resources. We are a small but mighty organization that is working hard to make a big impact.  However, just like many other non-profits, we are competing with other organizations for resources and awareness.  We have a strong ecosystem in the state of Iowa but we need to continue to work together to encourage people to act and build on their crazy ideas, to want to build their business here in Iowa, and to help our current businesses grow. I think it’s important to continue to find ways to work with other organizations to build a strong foundation and do more.

Prior to NewBoCo, you spent 4 years as the Event Planner at the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance. Can you talk a little about your time there and the impact it had on you as a community builder and leader?

I am grateful for my years at the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance. During my time there, I had the opportunity to work with a wide variety of community leaders, government officials and business owners.  This taught me how a city and community really functions and how to work through and with the different channels to get things done.  I had the opportunity to create and implement my own big ideas.  It was exciting and rewarding to see those ideas have a positive impact on the community.  I also learned and saw firsthand the impact of volunteers on a community. The amount of people willing to give of their time and talents to help others succeed is truly inspiring and the real heart of a community.  Anyone who wants to can have an impact. 

Where do you see Iowa’s startup ecosystem being at five years from now?

I think we are at the beginning of an exciting time for Iowa’s startup ecosystem.  The addition of more accelerator programs in the state of Iowa shows that the ecosystem is growing and that there’s a desire and need for this programming. There are a lot of organizations in the state doing cool impactful work and I’d love to give them a socially-distanced high five.

In our own backyard, I am so excited to see what Eric and the ISA Ventures team can do over the next few years. They will be bringing a new level of funding opportunities that hasn’t been available in the past and it will be a game changer. The programming that Alex Taylor, our new Managing Director for the Iowa Startup Accelerator, is creating will provide many more options, plugin points and support for startups at various stages in their entrepreneurial journey. 

What advice would you give to your 18-year-old self?

I’d tell myself to have confidence, don’t be shy and just go for it. My reaction to most things now is “Sure! Why not? Let’s figure out how to make it happen!”  I have grown a lot to have that be my first response, and that has come from the impact of great leaders in my life. They have truly led by example and encouraged trying things without the fear of failure. I’d love to see what I would have done if that had been my initial reaction when I was younger.

Are there anything additional thoughts/comments you have on NewBoCo or Iowa’s startup ecosystem that you’d like to share?

My passion is community building and bringing people together.  I and the rest of our team at NewBoCo are committed to being helpers.  We want to build our community so our businesses and founders can thrive. Please do not hesitate to reach out!

I’m proud to be a part of Iowa’s startup ecosystem because of all the other helpers I’ve met, and people who are not afraid to trust their crazy idea, put in the hard work and make it a reality.  

Q&A with Jill Wilkins of NewBoCo | Clay & Milk
A central Iowa ag-tech accelerator has secured more backers and finally has a name. The Greater Des Moines Partnership first announced the accelerator last year, naming four initial investors. On Monday, the Partnership said the program will be called the "Iowa AgriTech Accelerator" and named three new investors. The new investors include Grinnell Mutual, Kent Corp. and Sukup Manufacturing, all Iowa companies. They join investors Deere & Co., Peoples Co., Farmers Mutual Hail Insurance Co. and DuPont Pioneer. Each investor has agreed to put up $100,000 for the first year of the accelerator. Startups entering the program will receive $40,000 in seed funding in exchange for 6 percent equity. Tej Dhawan, an angel investor and local startup mentor, is serving as interim director until the AgriTech Accelerator names a permanent leader. Dhawan held a similar role with the GIA before Brian Hemesath was named as managing director. As interim director, Dhawan said his main job includes hiring the accelerator's executive director, establishing a business structure and initial recruiting for the first cohort. The accelerator will place few filters, such as location and product, on the applicant pool, Dhawan said. "When you’re seeking innovation, innovation can come from every corner of the world so why restrict ourselves," he said. One area the the AgriTech Accelerator won't recruit from is biotech. For its first cohort, the AgriTech Accelerator will work out of the GIA's space in Des Moines' East Village, Dhawan said. A future, permanent home is still to be decided. The accelerator's program will host startups from mid-July through mid-October, ending with an event connected to the annual World Food Prize. The GIA, which the AgriTech Accelerator is based on, also ends with presentations at an industry event. The accelerator has also started lining up a mentor pool. The Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Soybean Association and the Iowa Pork Producers Association have agreed to provide mentors, as has Iowa State University. While the AgriTech Accelerator is loosely based off of the GIA, it will differ in its business structure, Dhawan said. The GIA runs through a for-profit model for both operations and its investment fund. The AgriTech Accelerator will have a nonprofit model for its operations and a for-profit setup for its fund. Dhawan said the nonprofit model is being used so the accelerator can better work with other nonprofit partners, such as trade associations. "These are all organizations that are nonprofits and can be amazing stakeholders without ever having to be investors in the accelerator," he said. "It becomes easier to work with trade associations in their nonprofit role when we are also a nonprofit." When it's up and running, the AgriTech Accelerator would be one of a handful of ag-focused startup development programs in Iowa. Others include the Ag Startup Engine out of Iowa State University and the Rural Ventures Alliance from Iowa MicroLoan. Matthew Patane is the managing editor and co-founder of Clay & Milk. Send him an email at
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