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Catching up with Charlotte Baker: How Tampa Bay’s support system for tech startups has evolved

Brian Hartz

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Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash

Looking back on her nearly two decades as a tech entrepreneur in Tampa Bay, Charlotte Baker, the co-founder and CEO of cybersecurity company Digital Hands, marvels at how many more resources are available to startups today.

“Once upon a time,” she said, “accelerators were looked at as, you know, they take tiny little concept companies that are pre-revenue and they get some angel money and yay, good to go.”

Baker now finds herself as chair of the board of directors at Tampa Bay Wave, one of the region’s top business accelerators and incubators. She was tapped for the role last month and said she’s amazed at how successful at fundraising Wave’s 100-plus companies have become, saying that, as a group, they’ve brought in more than $300 million in venture capital.

“There are companies in there that are getting $20 million B round checks,” Baker said. “We’re not talking about, you know, ‘Give me $60,000 to prove a concept.’ The goal of the Wave is to help companies grow from concept to commercialization and then beyond. This is quite the organization and I’m just very honored to be their chair.”

Charlotte Baker, CEO, Digital Hands

Baker said Tampa Bay’s startup ecosystem has also changed significantly in that it has become a “net importer” of companies and capital. Tampa Bay Wave, she said, has played a direct role in the relocation of a dozen tech firms to the region, and venture capital dollars are now flowing in at a greater rate than they’re flowing out. As a result, the organization has helped create more than 2,400 jobs.

“We’re talking about capital beyond this community,” she said. “And that is a very big focus of the Wave — access to capital.”

As board chair, Baker looks forward to being involved in the development of programming, particularly that which will benefit companies that are part of Tampa Bay Wave’s CyberTech|X Acclerator, a highly specialized, 90-day accelerator program exclusively for innovative and disruptive technology startups focused on cybersecurity. Members of the CyberTech|X Acclerator cohort benefit from the knowledge of cybersecurity experts at companies such as A-LIGN, Ernst & Young, KnowBe4, Cyber Florida, the University of South Florida’s Muma College of Business, Aditum and Jabil. The program was established by a gift from Arnie Bellini, the founder and former CEO of Tampa-based ConnectWise, who sold the company for more than $1.5 billion in 2019.

“This is an area where I think I can have incredible impact,” Baker said. “It’s a passion of mine to make sure that [startups] get the right exposure, to make sure they get the right introductions, to make sure that they have the right access to capital. Cybersecurity has a huge place in my heart. It’s a very hot industry, not only for venture capital, but it’s a matter of national defense. Cybersecurity is a new arena for warfare.”

Baker said she’s encouraged by the number of women who are entering the cybersecurity field, which is growing by leaps and bounds and creating great career paths for entrepreneurs and workers who might not have considered entering what used to be a very male-dominated industry.

“I went to teach a class two years ago at the University of Tampa, in their new, at the time, cyber program, and I expected to see 10, maybe 20 percent women in the class. It was over 50 percent, and those stats are holding true.”

She added, “Women are not only pursuing cybersecurity [careers], but it’s interesting, versus their male counterparts, they’ve got more certifications and a higher level of education, higher number of degrees. And they’re going after the leadership positions. Today more than ever, cybersecurity is an open field for a woman to pursue her dream. It’s incredibly fertile ground. Demand for skilled labor is high, supply is low and the pay is great.”

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