Lakshmi Shenoy has become the face of Tampa's entrepreneur scene by tapping her own creativity and background.
You probably shouldn't say that entrepreneurship came naturally to Lakshmi Shenoy, but it kind of did.
Growing up, Shenoy was the kind of kid who was always coming up with ideas and executing them. Once, she created a program to save the rainforests, soliciting donations for the initiative and putting out a conservation newsletter to donors, whether they had any idea it was coming or not.
That was when she was eight years old.
“That was sort of the start of it,” she says. “Building new ventures has always been something that I am just inclined to do. And I've also just always been a pretty creative person.”
Shenoy is now the CEO of Embarc Collective, the innovation hub in Tampa. In her position, she helps entrepreneurs develop and grow their businesses, making sure they get the training and help they need to raise money and thrive. This while learning the skills necessary to optimize the value of their company and run it long term.
In the years since she came to Tampa, Shenoy’s role has expanded beyond the doors of Embarc and, in a way, she’s become the voice and face of entrepreneurship in the city, winning awards and becoming the go-to source on the topic. She’s also become a force for helping women and working on conservation issues.
Of the “things that are really important to me, one is supporting other women and ensuring that we’re creating as many opportunities for women, especially women that are changemakers in in the community, and in the country and the world,” she says.
Shenoy says the nonprofit, which operates out of a 32,000-square-foot center in the city, was created to spur innovation and to help grow future business leaders. Each entrepreneur working with Embarc gets an individual account manager to work with them as well as coaches, all designed to provide individualized support. There are currently 125 companies in Embarc.
Shenoy, tasked with overseeing all aspects of the organization and who dedicates a considerable amount of time to outside causes, manages to spend 20% of her week working directly with the startups.
She does this because of a love for solving problems with startups and helping them overcome barriers they may have. Her philosophy is not to give a company founder an answer, but to ask questions.
Embarc doesn’t take an equity position in any of the businesses it works with, so the work is to help the entrepreneur think through the challenges and create the right frameworks for them to reason through challenges on their own, she says.
“Entrepreneurship is incredibly difficult. It’s incredibly lonely. And if you try to do it alone, and in a silo, you’re not setting yourself up for success,” she says, adding that “It’s really about how do we create a really effective support infrastructure so that we can better the chances of a startup’s success.”
Embarc launched in 2019 with Shenoy at the helm. She moved to Tampa from Chicago for the job, after being recruited by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik. As of Aug. 1, Embarc businesses — including Ideal Agent, BlockSpaces and TrustLayer — have raised $173.8 million in capital.
Shenoy came to Tampa after working early in her career on building brands and working on “the visual and the copywriting side of building new entities.”
That early portion of her career included a stint with Leo Burnett, the legendary Chicago advertising agency. But she was too impatient for advertising. She wanted to continue advancing, to find opportunities. She considered getting a master’s degree in Fine Arts, but instead went to Harvard Business School to get her MBA.
That began a progression that eventually led her to the world of innovation and startups.
Her MBA studies began in 2008 just as the economy was beginning to crumble and the world was entering a recession.
Seeing the instability in the world, particularly in the financial services sector where many of the class wanted to go, brought a “collective realization” that a degree, even from Harvard, “wasn’t necessarily a sure thing.”
“You felt this entrepreneurial bug. It was like everyone caught it. It was a good type of virus to get,” Shenoy says. “So that was that. Coupled with the fact that I had a natural aptitude toward building new things, that was the start of me really starting to hone that skill around startups.”
In 2014 she joined 1871, a Chicago innovation hub as business development director. That position and other roles there got her name in front of change makers like Vinik, and since arriving in Tampa, Shenoy’s helped build Embarc from the ground up, creating the brand and designing the $10 million hub space. That work building the nonprofit gives her a first-hand understanding of what entrepreneurs face and allows her to share what’s worked and what hasn’t as they brainstorm ideas.
And she learns from them as she continues to grow Embarc.
“I think that’s the beauty of the community that we have. There’s no ego at all, it’s just sort of, like, ‘I see the dream that you’re pursuing. You see the dream that I’m pursuing, how do we help each other get there?’”