An interview with Maria Meyers, from the stars to startups

A woman who’s been marveling at the stars since she was a child has found a home helping some of Kansas City’s aspiring business stars get off on the right foot.

The astrophysicist-hopeful turned startup guru helped start the KCSourceLink entrepreneurship network in 2003. More than 20 communities nationwide use the model. She has the street cred to back up the organization, having gone through the startup process several times herself.

Here’s a look at her journey, from science to KCSourceLink — and how she learned eight different computer programming languages along the way.

What triggered your love of physics and science?
When I was 11, I remember being sort of bored one day and there was a Wall Street Journal in our house — and I don’t know why because we didn’t typically have a Wall Street Journal in our house — and there was an article on the front page about multiple universes. And it talked about this thing called an astrophysicist, and I walked into the kitchen, and I told my mother, “When I grow up, I’m going to be an astrophysicist.”

What about that stuck with you through college?
I loved working with the telescopes. I loved the fact that everything about astronomy is so much bigger and longer and farther away. It’s such an abstract concept.

How did you get your first job?
I looked at the top 10 employers and applied. One of them picked me up three days later and said, “Do you know how to program?” I said no, and they said, “Here, let us teach you.” And I became a programmer. That was my first full-time job (at an insurance company in Lincoln, Neb.).

What did you like about computer programming?
At that time, not a lot was automated, so you were sitting next to people and saying, “What is the work that you’re doing, and what are the processes you are going through?”

You were defining that process and turning around and automating it and making their lives so much easier and more efficient. So I enjoyed that. When you program, you get to learn about the people you are doing work for and what their jobs are in great detail. I got to program a dental claims system, so I got to understand a whole lot about teeth — that trust me, you never want to know — for instance.

What triggered your love for startups?
When you’re automating things, you’re always doing something new. I had strong project management training, so it didn’t matter so much what the project was. Startups just became a natural fit.

How was starting the KCSourceLink entrepreneur network at UMKC like a startup?
I walked in my first day, and I had a teacher’s desk and 32 student desks in my office and no phone and no computer. Somebody had already turned on the hotline for us, which was great except I had no phone and no office set up. SourceLink itself was a real startup. I walked in with a little bit of funding and not much else.

So I hired the staff and started building out SourceLink. We were probably the first group that said, it’s great to have an entrepreneurial network, but what would happen if we connected together the entrepreneurial support organizations? What if we created a network out of the support organizations? And that’s how KCSourceLink got started. By 2005, we’d expanded to four other places.

Do you ever shake your head when you hear local entrepreneurs complain about the lack of a local calendar or single network connecting them in Kansas City — when you’re right here?
That’s interesting because we’ve been doing it for 10 years. I like to say we did entrepreneurship when entrepreneurship wasn’t cool, and now it’s cool.

We’re excited to see so many more people interested and wanting to be involved in the entrepreneurial community, which is terrific. There are always new resources popping up for people, and we continue to get the word out about the work that we do. We’ve just seen things change a lot in the past two and a half years.

What’s changed?
A combination of the recession and the recognition that businesses under 5 years old are the ones that are creating the jobs, the willingness of the country to invest in their entrepreneurs and almost giving credibility to a space that’s been really quiet in the past. It’s really making some nice things happen, and we’re happy to be a part of that.

What about the recession has brought this entrepreneurship movement to life?
We’ve actually been through this. This is our third recession since we started KCSourceLink, and when the unemployment rate goes up, so do our phone calls. It’s just sort of standard. And this has been a long and deep recession, so we’re seeing interest in entrepreneurship.

What is the most common question that you get at KCSourceLink?
Can I have the free government grant? Most people are looking for startup information. What do I have to do to be legal? What do I have to do to set up an entity? We get a lot of questions on how to finance a business from a lot of different kinds of businesses. We also get the “How do I determine if I have a market?”


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