Jon Leonardo was an Elon University junior when he won a summer job in Washington D.C. that changed the direction of his career.
Yesterday, the co-founder of Triangle Entrepreneurship Week announced a new brand for his popular events, Forward City, and a plan to hold them in 200 global cities over the next several years. He’s got big name sponsors and directors in 12 U.S. cities already on board to aid the launch.
But it was his humble beginnings at Elon, the mentorship of a well-connected D.C.-area entrepreneur and the by-in of the Triangle region that helped Leonardo develop a business he believes fills a niche in startup training and can help more people around the world build successful companies.
Leonardo was already interested in startups when he moved to D.C. that summer—he’d built a laundry business serving Elon’s student population and started a charity lacrosse organization. But during that summer, he and two partners (one his mentor and now Forward City advisor) planned a week of entrepreneurial events to be held in D.C. that fall. And the week was so successful that Leonardo planned an Entrepreneurship Week in Raleigh after his May 2011 graduation.
When more cities began to request Entrepreneurship Weeks for their startup communities, Leonardo saw an opportunity to grow and brand the series. In January 2013, he left a consulting job to pursue the business full-time. He planned eight weeklong events last year, and set a goal to develop a business model to grow even more.
Leonardo’s start coincided with the proliferation of startup events and workshops, so it became clear Entrepreneurship Week would have to differentiate itself. He spent last year testing different types of events and discussions, and by year’s end, determined that startups didn’t need any more networking or basic startup advice. They needed help growing from small to large—and real advice in doing that from experienced founders and investors.
“There are a ton of amazing organizations saying, ‘Take a leap, jump into entrepreneurship,'” Leonardo says. “But once they take that leap, there is a gap in the knowledge and resources they need to grow.”
Triangle Entrepreneurship Week was a large part of that discovery process. Last September’s event attracted more than 2,000 participants, Leonardo’s largest week yet. Experienced entrepreneurs and investors in the community lent knowledge and advice to earlier stage founders.
And Leonardo wanted to provide the kind of insights he wished he’d had when building the laundry business.
“We had no idea about the legal side, organizational structure, how to grow, but we had a company and we were making money,” he says. “We realized after the first week in D.C. that we weren’t alone. Once they take the leap, they’re kind of lost.”
The name Forward City allowed for easy branding—for example, this year’s September event will be called Forward Triangle. The name also represented the forward momentum the organization hopes to provide entrepreneurs.
Forward City events will now be held throughout the year in each city, rather than during one week. They’ll include Discover Sessions, during which experienced founders share their stories and lead discussions with an intimate group of attendees. During Forward Pitch events, vetted companies sit around a table with several investors and pitch and discuss their business, and without a fancy powerpoint presentation. Forward City may also partner with local organizations to host cocktail parties and VIP sessions. But there won’t be startup showcases or large pitch events, Leonardo says.
Helping the company’s growth is new hire Erin Wiley(pictured right), who previously managed partnerships and development for Global Entrepreneurship Week, helping it grow in recent years from six countries to 200.
The organization’s 12 local directors now share in the growth of the events by receiving compensation based on the sponsorship dollars raised and tickets sold. And they’re provided with a specific process and timeline for how to plan a Forward City event.
National sponsors now include American Airlines, Raleigh-based Brasco Marketing & Design, Glenmorangie Scotch, Herman Miller and the accountancy BDO.
Leonardo expects to hold Forward City events in the Triangle, Miami, Tampa, Washington D.C., Dallas, Los Angeles, Detroit, Cleveland, New York, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Nashville and Cincinnati this year. He expects to soon expand to cities in Central and South America.
He also could grow the company in unexpected ways. He could raise a fund or build a product to aid Forward City businesses in some way, he says.
But, for now, Leonardo wants to help businesses grow and the entrepreneurs behind them become better leaders.
And he hopes that mission will resonate in cities around the world.