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Grooming The Next Generation Of Tech CEOs In Tahoe

Courtesy Sierra Nevada College

We’re headed into graduation season soon, and Reno Public Radio’s Amy Westervelt has the story of one local college student who has already scored a CEO gig. 

By the time Sasha Severance celebrates her graduation from Sierra Nevada College in May, she’ll have been a CEO for about three months.

Severance owes that opportunity to Elevate Blue, a tech accelerator in Incline Village, which essentially builds companies around great ideas.

"This is our reception area, and this is sort of a secondary conference room for us at the moment. And bike storage! You know, we want this to be a fun place to work," says Jameson Stafford, who founded Elevate Blue with the dream of attracting startup founders eager to create the next Google or Facebook to Tahoe instead of the Bay Area.

"We have these little pods, with 3 people to an area -- although I've seen these guys have 5 or 6 to a desk," Stafford says, showing me around the open office area at Elevate Blue, where the members of one would-be company are crowded around a desk. "The idea is to have them spread throughout the building, so that engineers can collaborate, entrepreneurs can collaborate..."

One of those companies is called Pet Surf. It's creating a mobile app that's sort of a Hotel Tonight for pet owners, helping them find and book boarding for their fur babies. Stafford hired Severance to run it earlier this year. He says it was her pitching skills that sealed the deal.

“At first we thought, can we really hire a recent college grad to run this? But then we gave her the task of pitching it to our board and she did great.”

Although Severance is young, she’s been soaking up the entrepreneurial waters of Incline Village her whole life. She says her dad was a startup guy long before her.

“He was being introduced to and networking with a lot of people so then I was being introduced to them.”

And her mom was no slouch either.

“My mom was the architect-designer of the Lake Campus of Sierra Nevada College. So for all those buildings to be put up, of course we had donors. And a lot of those donors were residents of Incline and had tech startups.”

Here at I.V. Coffee in Incline, tech legends blend in with the rest of the folks waiting in line for their lattes. For former Zynga exec Robert Goldberg, that makes Incline an interesting incubator for would-be startup founders.

“This community is unique – it’s mostly guys like me, so you’ve got this pretty amazing foundation of talent for entrepreneurs to grow on.”

The small Lake Tahoe town has long been popular with wealthy Californians eager to avoid paying state income taxes. But in recent years, it has become a mecca for successful tech entrepreneurs. They visit the area for weekend trips, first, then make it permanent after a successful IPO.

A lot of those founders wind up investing in local startups, judging local business plan competitions, or guest lecturing at Sierra Nevada College.

“There are amazing people here. Just to name a few, you know, Roger Wittenberg, he's the guy who invented Trex, he's also a trustee at the college. You just turn a corner and run into these amazing people all the time," says Bob Prager. He's the first salesman Oracle ever hired. He's also a board member at SNC and sits on Elevate Blue's investor panel.

"Organizations like Elevate Blue and the college are changing this area dramatically," he says.

As she settles into her new role with Elevate Blue and Pet Surf, Severance says she has absolutely benefitted from having easy access to so many successful business people. Her advice to other students hoping to land in the C-suite?

“Really take advantage of the age you are right now and what you’re doing right now as a student.”

Severance says she’s found that even very successful people will give students time that they wouldn’t set aside for a business person. 

And Severance isn’t the only one. This year dozens of students will graduate from the entrepreneurship program at SNC, all eager for a shot at running their own company.

Amy Westervelt is a former contributor at KUNR Public Radio.
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