Woodfin believes in Birmingham as hot spot for tech innovation, entrepreneurs

Birmingham, Ala., isn’t Silicon Valley, or even as well-known as cities such as Austin, Texas, when it comes to being a hub of technology.

But the successes of Birmingham-based companies like Shipt, recently acquired by Target for $550 million, is changing the way the city is perceived and the way those working in it perceive themselves. There is tech magic happening in the Magic City, once known for steel and today known for its world-class medical facilities.

That was the message recently at Sloss Tech 2018, which opened with Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin sitting down for a discussion with Influencer (INFLCR) founder and CEO Jim Cavale.

Cavale’s 1-year-old company, based in Birmingham’s Innovation Depot, is one of those hoping to follow Shipt’s lead. Cavale recently completed a $1 million raise in 55 days, with most of the support coming from Birmingham investors.

“There are three components that a city needs to be successful when it comes to small business, growing and creating jobs, like Shipt has clearly done,” Cavale said as he prepared to introduce Birmingham’s youngest major since 1896. “No. 1, we need investors. But it’s not all on the investors. We need legitimate companies with talent. And lastly, No. 3, we need leadership at the city level that can get behind it. You know what? We’ve got all three, right now, right here in Birmingham.”

Woodfin believes the ecosystem is in place for Birmingham to compete nationally in the technology and innovation space. That positive energy even led a local news station to examine this possibility: Is Birmingham a tech city?

Woodfin certainly believes it is an important piece of the city’s positive momentum.

“For our city to grow, it’s not necessarily going to depend on major corporations,” Woodfin told the audience at Birmingham’s Lyric Theater. “The backbone of our city, the growth of our city, the definition of our city and the culture of our city will be how we support small businesses.

“Making sure we build an ecosystem that really focuses on talent and the support of local talent — that is going to be at the small business level.

“We don’t have to be the next Austin. The city of Birmingham does not have to be the next Chattanooga or Nashville or Atlanta or Charlotte. We need to be the next version of our best self.”

A key part of the strategy is in fostering the development of talent.

“We have local talent in this city and in this state. … we need to be intentional about retaining our talent,” Woodfin said. “But we also need to be intentional about attracting our talent. When you have things like Shipt happen, it sends a signal to everyone that you can be successful here in the innovation space, in the start-up space, in the tech space, in the entreprenuerial and small-business growth space.

“The biggest thing we can do, in my role and as it relates to our administration, is to celebrate and be cheerleader for the existing ecosystem and small businesses, and the figure out a way to promote what we are already doing right.

It all comes down to creating an environment that rewards risk.

“We have to talk about the intangibles sometime,” he said. “The intangibles of hope, curiosity, daring to be different, not afraid of no, not afraid to fail. That’s the spirit that exists in this city. Part of that spirit is a dotted line to what I call crazy — crazy enough to take the risk, the high risk. I believe in high risk and high reward, and I think that feeds into the same mindset of entrepreneurs and people in the start-up space who are not afraid to fail.”

Woodfin’s outlook made an impression on Cavale, who summed up his highlights from SlossTech. He was in the audience at the inaugural SlossTech event in 2016, an event that inspired him to create INFLCR.

Said Cavale: “You’ve gotta start with Mayor Woodfin’s quote of Andre 3000 on stage with me, when he said, ‘The South’s got something to say.’ I think Birmingham has something to say.”

“Acquisitions of companies like Theranest and of course Shipt, and growing emerging companies like Momentum and Daxko — billions of dollars going into these companies to create thousands of new jobs her in Birmingham. It’s an example of the ecosystem that Mayor Woodfin and the start-up community and the investment community are working to cultivate. Randall said a lot about how this is not an ‘I’ thing, it’s a ‘we’ thing. We’ve got to do this together. That is what the ecosystem looks like together.

We don’t need to be the best Chattanooga, Atlanta, Charlotte mimic. We’ve grow the best version of Birmingham we can be.”

Here are full highlights of Sloss Tech 2018.