Jessica Lee Leaves New York City to Join INVANTI, a Startup Generator in the Midwest.

Joining Cohort 2, Jessica has begun researching the issues that face America’s small business owners.

Tell us what we need to know about you.

A big influence in my life has been my parents’ small business, growing up in and working in that environment. My parents are immigrants and they started a car dealership in Southeastern Virginia. During my childhood, I spent weekends at the car dealership talking to customers and essentially helping to build the business. That experience was very influential. It taught me a lot about entrepreneurialism, taking initiative, succinct thinking, and it instilled a strong curiosity for people different from me through talking to a lot of different types of people from all walks of life — poor people, rich people, whoever! The lessons I learned from that time are very much ingrained in me and a part of who I am.

In college, I actually started a company related to small businesses. The JOBS Act had come out just then that legalized certain types of equity crowdfunding for non-accredited investors. I was doing a lot of research on that with a professor, but also started a company out of it to help local small businesses in Charlottesville, where I went to school, raise capital for a food truck or new kitchen equipment or similar initiatives without having to go through the traditional bank loan route. So still very much along the line of staying connected to those roots.

From there I studied Computer Science because I wanted to build the technology platform for my company or help contribute to it. I see computer science as a means to an end, a useful tool that can move my ideas forward. I launched my technology career and worked in San Francisco for four technology companies spanning from consumer healthcare to financial tech, most recently at Stripe.

Increasingly in the past year, I’ve been thinking deeply about how I can reconnect to my upbringing. Although I learned many valuable skills while working in tech in San Francisco, I also began to feel removed from being exposed to the diversity of dynamics that drive this country.

In San Francisco it’s a lot about, how do you get to IPO? How do you sell your company? How do you grow as fast as possible? It feels less in touch with the rest of the country and world at times. I thought about how I can re-align myself with why I got into technology in the first place.

When INVANTI approached me, I was delving into various technical and non-technical interests of mine, including machine learning and political philosophy. I thought, “Oh, this is a perfect way for me to jump into a topic that has been influential in my life while learning about what it takes to revitalize a Heartland city.”

I’ve also been thinking a lot about civil discourse in the U.S. — I grew up in a more conservative area in Virginia compared to any other place I’ve lived in for the past 4–5 years. I think a lot about political polarization in the U.S., and I’ve never lived in the Midwest but I’m interested to see that dynamic in South Bend and in Indiana.

You’ve talked before about how you enjoy taking a non-linear, more challenging path to achieve your goals. Talk about your decision to join a startup generator in South Bend, and how that fits into your life path.

Yeah, I feel like when there’s a group mentality for something I’m immediately skeptical and usually run the opposite way — it’s instinctive for me. I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing, it’s just how I operate.

I enjoy figuring out how to get something done with limited resources.

In high school (I went to a very normal public high school), I really liked biology. I was doing more in-depth learning of that beyond your high school biology courses. My school didn’t have opportunities to do research, so I reached out to as many researchers as I could to try to find volunteer work in labs so I could do more bio research and more advanced lab research.

And then, I wanted to work in San Francisco, because back then I thought if you wanted to work in tech you should be out in San Francisco. My university is not a feeder school at all, and doesn’t really send a lot of people to that area. I just had to figure out a way through conferences and hackathons that I attended to get my foot in the door. I had to find a way to accomplish things, but not in the traditional route. I really enjoyed the challenge and got to see a lot of the world through it.

Through INVANTI, I see a similar theme in the sense that— you start a company or work on important issues that might apply to many other cities in the U.S. It feels very real to the socio-economic and political issues that I think about consistently.

Some of my friends said, “Oh, you’re going to Indiana! I’ve never been there!” but I’m really excited by that because it’s a sign of me breaking out of my usual circle and maybe finding something that will stimulate my creativity and ability to think outside the box. That’s what I mean by a non-linear system— not only finding myself a diverse array of people, but also a diversity of thought and perspectives. I think connecting the dots of disparate ideas and networks is essential for the genesis of truly unique opportunities, and that requires breaking out of our bubbles sometimes.

Tell us what you know about South Bend right now and how you feel about moving here.

I know Notre Dame is there. I know the automobile industry was a big part of South Bend at one point, but now the city is undergoing a kind of revitalization movement, which is really exciting to be a part of. Others have sent me articles about the mayor of South Bend and his aspirations for the city. So, there’s all these interesting political dynamics for me that I don’t feel like I’ll fully understand until I get there.

I was at a seminar in Seattle a few weeks ago for political philosophy, and I met someone from Grand Rapids, Michigan, who had actually heard of INVANTI and he said, “Oh yeah they’re building a lot of technology infrastructure out there.” So I’ve picked up tidbits here and there.

INVANTI is a startup generator in the Midwest.

We recruit entrepreneurial talent and provide them deep insight into the most important problems facing Americans today. We then generate new solutions and business models and ultimately build companies that matter: