Katie Rae Nurtures Boston’s Entrepreneurs
TWICE A YEAR, KATIE RAE BOUNDS ONTO A STAGE in Boston to the strains of the Dropkick Murphys playing the foot stomper “Shipping Up to Boston.” Rae emcees a “Demo Day” event that features entrepreneurs graduating from the program she runs, TechStars Boston, and the audience is full of investors getting a first look at a dozen new business ideas. At the most recent Demo Day, in November, entrepreneurs pitched start-ups that do everything from help couples get pregnant faster to help charities wring more revenue from donated clothing; investors have committed to writing checks for $6 million and counting for the companies. In the two years since she took over the TechStars program, the 44-year-old Rae has become the high-profile ringmaster of Boston’s start-up circus. “Katie just has this magical ability to pull people together,” says Gus Weber, a colleague of Rae’s when she worked at Microsoft’s New England Research & Development Center. “And people will do anything for her.”
After some corporate shuffling at Microsoft, Rae decided to leave the company in 2010 rather than move to headquarters in Washington state. Later that year, she was chosen to run the relatively new TechStars program, which offers fledgling entrepreneurs a bit of funding, three months of free office space, and access to a group of mentors. Up to that point, says venture capitalist Fred Destin, “TechStars was run in a way that was pretty average, and they had a low funding rate for the companies that went through it. Katie took over a damaged brand, and she increased the number of mentors involved with it. She really galvanized the community.” Antonio Rodriguez, another local venture capitalist who knows Rae, says that “her style is nurturing, like a camp director, and nurturing entrepreneurs is not something we’ve been very good at in Boston.”
This year, Rae doubled the frequency of the TechStars program; there are now fall and spring sessions. But perhaps more important, she supervised the launch of a spinoff program called the Boston Startup School. That several-week crash course in topics like software development and product design is offered to a handpicked group of recent college graduates and designed to help make them more appealing hires to start-up companies and effective from day one. “It was really a perfect extension of TechStars,” Rae says. “Our start-ups were all having trouble finding people to hire, and we saw an opportunity to help.” Nearly 90 percent of the graduates of the first program, held at Harvard’s Innovation Lab over the summer, have since landed jobs.
Rae, who lives in Brookline, says she hopes to dedicate time to several new projects in 2013, including initiatives to get more women who have the means making investments in start-up companies, and help more women and minorities attract the funding they need to get their own start-ups past the idea phase. She also co-teaches a course at MIT with the inventor of the Web, Tim Berners-Lee, that has spawned a half-dozen start-up companies. If that sounds like a lot to juggle, Rae doesn’t seem daunted. “If it’s going to help the entrepreneurs, I’m happy to help,” she says. “That’s my basic stance on things.”