This is a series of perspectives about startup businesses and social ventures. Business people are invited to envision what a world-class startup ecosystem would look like in St. Petersburg, and to share their ideas for how we get there.
Nicolas Genest is an ideal entrepreneur to query about the state of the innovation ecosystem in Tampa Bay. He’s been part of many highly successful executive teams, both as Chief Executive Officer and as Chief Technology Officer, in Silicon Valley and in his native Canada. He was named among the Top 10 CEOs to watch in 2020 by Insights Success Magazine as co-founder of CodeBoxx Technology.
In spring of this year, he relocated CodeBoxx’s international headquarters from San Francisco to St. Petersburg.
CodeBoxx’s core business is a 16-week accelerated training program covering in-demand technology tools, languages and practices. Graduates, who pay no tuition until fully employed, exit the program fully prepared to be contributing members of technology teams at the region’s most demanding startups and established businesses. The program balances cutting edge coding skills with “soft” skills including collaboration, leadership and teamwork.
Genest’s extensive experience as CTO in a variety of enterprises is reflected in the rigorous yet practical curriculum, which he describes as a “business first” mindset -worlds away from the stereotype of tech workers as disconnected from company culture and business objectives. CodeBoxx graduates from the Montreal and Quebec City cohorts enjoyed a placement rate of 94%.
The first Tampa Bay training cohorts will begin virtually and in-person in January 2022.
What drew Genest, his team and investors to bet on St. Petersburg as the firm’s headquarters? First, Genest believes that the Tampa Bay region has the momentum to be the next Austin – albeit with its own distinctive character and assets. St. Petersburg is well positioned to benefit from the exodus of companies from Silicon Valley and other traditional tech hubs, the rise of remote working, and the draw of smaller cities with a high quality of life and low cost of living.
However, a lack of trained tech talent currently holds the region back, and CodeBoxx aims to address that challenge. Genest believes that there’s a big supply of just the right people for their program, including college dropouts, immigrants, people of all ages seeking to re-skill and up-skill their careers, and people who need to change careers quickly post-pandemic. Wages in the region are lower than the national average, and technology training can move low-wage workers up the economic ladder, while raising the overall level of community wealth and prosperity.
CodeBoxx sees itself as a double bottom line enterprise and prioritizes helping underrepresented candidates achieve careers in technology. The company has formed partnerships with St. Petersburg nonprofits to identify and support high-potential, nontraditional students, including women, people of color, veterans and returning citizens, who might not otherwise connect with coding schools and technology training. The St. Petersburg Foundation is assisting the company to deliver on their social impact mission.
“Smart is everywhere. Potential is everywhere,” said Genest. “CodeBoxx seeks to be the leading provider of technology talent in Florida and to offer opportunities based on potential, not privilege. We believe that the state has all the right people to fill this nearly unquenchable demand, with our help.”
CodeBoxx graduates will fill an important niche in the local startup market, according to Genest. “Lack of tech talent can doom a startup. There’s not enough university-trained computer science graduates to fill demand, and startups often don’t have the resources to compete for them,” he said. CodeBoxx-trained technologists are equipped to hit the ground running and get the job done at a lower price point.
“We are not providing cheap labor, however,” Genest asserts. “Our local clients understand the benefit of hiring CodeBoxx-trained early career technologists who will deliver on day one and be able to grow with the company.”
Additionally, CodeBoxx aspires to be a major player in training metaverse developers, attracting young people who aspire to be part of the burgeoning entertainment, experiential and virtual tech metaverse industries. “Florida is currently a destination for these industries, and the sector will continue to grow and mature as employees attain technology skills and companies grow more sophisticated in what they offer consumers.”
When queried about other factors that helped CodeBoxx decide to transition to St. Petersburg and the Tampa Bay area, Genest was quick to compliment the coordinated support from stalwarts in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, including the Greater St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce, the St. Petersburg EDC and the Greenhouse. The leadership and staff of these organizations helped the CodeBoxx team acclimate to the local business and investment culture and take advantage of opportunities, networks and resources.
Local investor groups also helped to pave the way. “Tampa Bay Seedfunders have become a strong voice for us in Florida,” Genest said. “These are investors who know their market and community well. They helped us gain some wins in our early days and avoid burning through time and money unnecessarily – a potential pitfall for any startup,” he added.
Finally, we wondered what it’s been like navigating the startup ecosystem as a Canadian-based firm transitioning to Florida during the pandemic? In short: it’s been a huge challenge, but one in which the entrepreneur Genest sees opportunities.
“The pandemic became a source of paralysis at the Canada-U. S. border, compounded by the lingering effects of protectionism in immigration, including the issuance of H-1B visas for tech workers,” he reports. Visas to move between the two countries and relocate his family and staff were frozen. He faced frustrating months of denials and delays.
What’s the upside? “If protectionism is this strong among two of the world’s closest allies, it will not be possible to import skilled technologists in significant numbers from anywhere in the world,” Genest said. “The U.S. will have to grow its own – and CodeBoxx is here to help with that.”
Karen Chassin is the Executive Director of the St. Petersburg Foundation.