At Cal Poly, Judy Mahan helps give startups a leg up

Judy Mahan with SLO HotHouse.
Judy Mahan with SLO HotHouse.

Judy Mahan always aimed to practice business law. But after five years as a corporate and securities attorney in Silicon Valley, the dot-com collapse forced her to reassess her goals.

Today, she uses her acumen to help business startups succeed as director of two Cal Poly programs: the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE), an entrepreneurship mentoring program for Cal Poly students, and the Small Business Development Center for Innovation (SBDC), offering services and assistance for small businesses. A key program for the SBDC is SLO HotHouse, an incubator for new startups. The program is governed by Cal Poly, but receives funding from the city of San Luis Obispo, San Luis Obispo County and local businesses.

After she left Silicon Valley in 2004, she headed overseas to Paris, where she worked for a short time as in-house counsel at automobile manufacturer Renault. At that point, years of urban living convinced Mahan and her family to make a dramatic lifestyle change by moving to Morro Bay.

“We chose the location first and decided we would figure out how to make it work professionally,” she said.

Mahan and her family made that move 10 years ago, and for five years, Mahan owned a law practice in Morro Bay, working mostly with overseas companies with subsidiaries in California. During that time, she began consulting local small businesses. After a one-year sabbatical in Micronesia, she learned of the CIE and SBDC programs.

“I met the co-founders and various stakeholders and decided that this was the organization I wanted to work with,” she said.

She volunteered with the organization for a year and a half, then came on board full time as assistant director in February 2013. Mahan was promoted to director in the fall of that same year.

Mahan shared her thoughts on startups, innovation and the role of women in the tech world.

How has your experience practicing law helped you in your current position?

I genuinely enjoy negotiating deals, but always with an eye toward creating a win-win for both parties and also keeping in mind the business goals at hand, seeing the forest for the trees. I try to share that mindset with the startups I support in the SLO HotHouse.

What are the greatest challenges of your job?

I do have to wear many different hats, and I think that’s what constitutes both the challenge and the reward. Running the incubator, organizing and fundraising for major events such as Techpitch (an opportunity for tech startups to pitch their ideas to a board of investors), assisting the startups and small businesses who are clients of the Cal Poly SBDC, and managing a team of 23 SBDC consultants providing business development support to these startups, managing the budget, overseeing staff, and staying engaged with all our stakeholders. It gets crazy! But the job certainly never gets boring, there’s always a new challenge.

What about the greatest reward?

The biggest reward by far is seeing our startups grow and succeed. I am so excited and proud of the co-founders of the incubator startups, as well as our SBDC clients, when they accomplish major milestones, it makes my day every time. Whether it’s obtaining funding, generating revenue or finding a CTO (chief technology officer); seeing them overcome these hurdles and keep moving forward is always hugely inspiring.

More women are pursuing careers in technology. What can be done to help them succeed?

For women to have an equal voice in the future, they have to have an equal voice in the tech industry. Tech governs everything we do as consumers every single day. Luckily, with all the new STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programming being implemented in our local schools, I do believe we are creating more opportunities for young girls in tech. For women founders of tech startups, their only barriers are their ingenuity and determination.

If there is one thing that does need to change, it’s the urgent need to have more women involved in the decision-making processes that open up opportunities for these young and upcoming women. Company boards and executive teams desperately need more women in their ranks. Today, at Fortune 500 companies, women account for 17 percent of board members, 15 percent of C-suite executives and 5 percent of CEOs. That’s not OK. Think about it, these companies are missing out on half the world’s perspective. The gatekeepers are still mostly men, and until that changes, there will still likely be some bias against women in the tech industry.

What words of advice do you have for women and girls pursuing tech careers?

Just do it! And truly, no matter what career women choose, find great mentors. It’s OK to bring your woman’s perspective to the table, especially in tech. I have recently read that women are lead adopters of technology compared to their male counterparts, own more tech devices and spend more time on social media. So if a social media startup doesn’t have women on their team doing UX (user experience) and UI (user interface) design, will it affect the adoption rate for their big new idea? Probably.

Are you seeing more women getting involved in SLO HotHouse?

We do currently have a number of incredible startups founded or co-founded by women in the SLO HotHouse: Inpress Technologies, Bottlefly, Moja Outdoors, Z Living Systems and Twenty Seven. It tallies out to about 30 percent. That’s pretty good, but we can certainly improve on that. I am personally committing to do whatever I can to move the needle on that very issue, even if it means implementing a few affirmative action policies to support just getting women into our programs.

Any other recent or developing trends?

This past year, we saw a lot fewer apps and more innovative hardware products, as well as some interesting SaaS (software as a service) models. I was invited to tour Facebook recently and attended a brief talk with (Facebook chief operating officer) Sheryl Sandberg. Per their data, she mentioned that most smartphone users spend their app time on four core apps daily and that’s it. It has become incredibly hard for startups to pierce on the app market. That being said, mobile and cloud-based services are ever-expanding markets at this time.

How much have things changed since you came to Cal Poly and the CIE/SBDC?

We have grown so much! When I started, we were a small two-room office at the Tech Park. We now have two major facilities: our new 15,000-square-foot SLO HotHouse downtown and our on-campus version of the SLO HotHouse — the Hatchery. We currently have 16 startups incubating full-time downtown, we offer co-working, and we run a phenomenal SBDC program providing business development support to close to 120 small businesses county-wide.

How have you adapted to meet this demand?

We have garnered substantial financial support from the local business community, SLO County and the city of SLO, which has helped us tremendously from an operations perspective. We have grown very fast, and managing that growth has been a challenge from just the plain workload perspective. But we definitely have a great team in place, we are streamlining processes and looking forward to potentially a few more hires to help manage the incredible growth we’ve had over the past couple of years.

What are some of the new initiatives the CIE is working on?

One great new initiative is that we are opening up incubation to local community startups. Up until now, our CIE Incubation Program was only accessible to students graduating from Cal Poly. Starting Jan. 1, we will be including local non-Cal-Poly-affiliated startups into the program. We are currently building out the application and review process, with the help of local business leaders.

What is the best piece of advice you would give new startups?

Seek out resources! There is so much available locally: the SBDC, SCORE, Mission Community Services, the local chambers. We all offer consulting, workshops, training. Become a co-worker at the SLO HotHouse and connect with like-minded, talented, driven entrepreneurs. Apply to incubate, and become immersed for two full years with daily support to help you launch and grow your business. Supporting local startups is not just our mission, it’s our passion for sure.

Judy Mahan

Title: Director, Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship Incubator and Small Business Development Center for Innovation

City of residence: Morro Bay

Family: Husband, John Mahan, and two daughters, Adi, 13, and Stella, 10.

Hobbies: “My daughters and I all compete in surfing with the National Scholastic Surfing Association. Also music. Our oldest daughter has started doing small local gigs. We love to go hear her sing and play guitar, and discover other local artists. I am also a very avid reader. I just finished ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ by Daniel Kahneman. Amazing book.”

Favorite apps: “I love Waze and Foursquare — to know about the traffic and best place to eat something different and local, as we are always road-tripping up and down the coast for surf. Trying to love MyFitnessPal, but I may just have to let that one go.”