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The unconference that connects entrepreneurs to a wealth of resources / By Molly McManus

Pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. This is the American dream. Its promise, the standard. So when two young Mexican-American brothers started their first business with a mere $750, they proved that anything is possible when you believe, and they built a business that is, today, worth $1.5 billion.

Bertrand and Roy Sosa represent the amazing entrepreneurial opportunities available not only in this country, but also in the city of Austin. Their desire to create something new, grow a business, be innovative in an industry and revolutionize the world is what the Relationship and Information Series for Entrepreneurs (RISE) is all about. RISE Global is a nonprofit that hosts a weeklong event in Austin, giving specific tools to entrepreneurs. The best news: The conference is free for participants. The largest event of its kind, RISE brings together this flourishing city’s innovators, creators, business owners and anyone else who wants to know more about the world of entrepreneurship.

Founded in 2007 by the Sosa brothers, RISE is an annual event established as an all-inclusive, community-driven, weeklong “unconference,” as coined by the founding duo. From sponsors, participants and facilitators to sessions , tracks and competitions, the components of RISE continue to grow along with the conference each year.

“We’ve really built a stage for entrepreneurs to showcase their act,” Bertrand explains, referring to session hosts who administer important information, as well as participants who, in the past, have been funded, hired and guided by some of Austin’s great entrepreneurs.

In 2011, RISE encompassed 350 sessions with 4,500 attendees. Each session is capped at a total of 25 participants. This is meant to ensure a valuable, engaging and interactive presentation, facilitated and taught by a seasoned entrepreneur on a specific theme or topic. Bertrand and Roy will both host and attend sessions themselves, keeping involved with the growth and development of the organization. RISE 2012 holds promise to be the biggest and best year yet.

“It’s about quality of content,” Roy affirms about the focus of this year’s RISE.

With more sessions and more speakers, the Sosas continue to up the ante. Austin RISE Week 2012 takes place March 26 through March 30 at various locations throughout town chosen by session hosts. The sessions are held throughout the day with each night ending with a celebratory event. The kick-off event will feature a well-known and motivational keynote speaker. Last year, Robert Johnson, founder of BET, was the keynote. Other keynote speakers have included John Mackey, founder of Whole Foods, and Red McCombs of Red McCombs Automotive Group, who’s also the co -founder of Clear Channel Communications.

The Pitch Competition allows entrepreneurs to propose their business ideas to potential investors and a panel of judges who will award the winner with $500. Held at the Moody Theater, the awards ceremony will close out the week of RISE. Various awards are allotted to entrepreneurs, including the Royito’s Don’t Do Mild Award, worth $5,000, given by Roy Spence, founder of GSD&M Idea City. When the Kauffman Foundation pushed the government to create Global Entrepreneurship Week USA, it started a trend throughout the nation. Being inspired by this call to action from government to celebrate entrepreneurship week, the Sosa brothers began to envision what this could look like in Austin, ultimately wanting to exhibit a positive representation of entrepreneurship.

“[Entrepreneurs] are the backbone of what makes this country great, and it’s very important to support them in every way we can,” says Claire England, interim executive director of RISE Global.

Wishing to honor entrepreneurship, the Sosa brothers realized they wanted more than a celebration. They wanted to give the community tools and advice that would have immeasurable value, something outside the box; not just a networking party or a conference where attendees hear one person speak and learn what they could have ascertained by reading their book. The Sosas knew from firsthand experience that there was already a lot of material out there to help entrepreneurs understand the principles and building blocks of entrepreneurship, and decided to approach this challenge differently.

“It’s how the information is administered that is important,” Bertrand clarifies. “We wanted the information to be easy for participants to digest, making it fun, dynamic, interactive, where everybody has a role.”

Through RISE’s sessions, participants will learn how to negotiate with venture capitalists, how to pitch to venture capitalists and how to negotiate terms with a potential executive. They also learn how to raise money, put together a management team and build technology, as well as learning the importance of marketing, social media, business law, governance, technology, cloud computing and redundancies. With just one step in the wrong or right direction, there can be massive repercussions for a small business, especially when it’s extended out three or four years.

“If RISE can help someone navigate the woods and come out the other side with as few scratches as possible, then their impact has the potential to be bigger and better, with the ability to focus more on what’s important, such as building product, innovating new things and creating change,” Bertrand says, basing this on his own journey of creating and growing a business.

When Bertrand and Roy started their first business, they had a number of factors in their favor. They were the right age and passionate about their pursuit. They had a network of support to fundraise, lived in a city that was thriving and continues to grow in a country that fosters entrepreneurship. This basic foundation, in addition to the Sosas’ desire to alleviate some of the struggle that goes along with entrepreneurship, was magnified and reproduced to start RISE, an event that people can easily access and get excited about.

“This is the kind of concept that is so supportive of entrepreneurs and the community at large that it can work in any community,” England explains of RISE’s universality and its steady migration from an Austin-centered conference to a year-round international program dedicated to empowering entrepreneurs.

With New York being the first city RISE intends to expand to, there is no limit to the scope of RISE. The drive to push RISE to an international level is in line with the Sosas’ background and experience in the entrepreneurial world. Born in Mexico City, the largest city in Mexico, and raised in Monterrey, the third-largest city in Mexico, Bertrand and Roy moved to the much smaller Austin during high school with their mother so she could go to medical school to pursue nursing.

“I knew after college that I was going to do something on my own. I was not going to be working for somebody else,” says Bertrand, who worked with Roy for MCI WorldCom, now Verizon, after graduating from the University of Texas. It was his last job before the brothers started NetSpend, a payment company for prepaid debit cards available at Walgreen’s, H-E-B or CVS. Before starting NetSpend, the only significant players were the likes of MasterCard and Visa. After NetSpend, a flood of other competitors entered the space, making the payments industry a trillion-dollar market opportunity.

NetSpend opened the doors for the Sosas’ other payment companies: Mango, MPower and Rev WorldWide. Rev WorldWide services 20 million union workers in the United States who can get prepaid debit cards through their work, an alternative to a bank or other financial institutions. Rev is currently servicing people and organizations in 12 countries and is continually expanding.

“We offer them things like savings, bill payments, money transfers, everything you would expect from a bank-account relationship,” Bertrand says of Rev.

This amazing innovation that started from scratch can be attributed to just a few people believing in the brothers, giving them the $750 and, at the very core, the Sosas believing in themselves. The American dream has proven to be extremely real for Bertrand and Roy, who believe that anyone can accomplish their dreams. It’s about having a good idea, finding advocates and executing your plan. RISE was designed to help budding startup entrepreneurs do just that.

RISE is the glue that assembles the pieces of the entrepreneurial puzzle. It’s a space where people are united through inspiration, sharing information or just by being in a support group, connecting with others dealing with the same issues. The mistakes, failures and successes that are relayed throughout the week of RISE are extremely beneficial in tackling certain situations or avoiding them altogether. Whether you are a new entrepreneur or an old pro, the Sosas believe that anybody and everybody has something to offer. RISE offers the opportunity to establish and expand an invaluable network and a wealth of information that will continue to exist beyond the conference.

RISE has and will continue to evolve from, “an opportunity to share, to an opportunity to collaborate and to learn on a more consistent basis,” Roy explains.

By participating in RISE and joining forces with others, a business venture can become less ominous and more attainable while gaining support from the entrepreneurial community of Austin. Ultimately, RISE has become a brand that nurtures this spirit of entrepreneurship. Don’t miss your bootstrapping opportunity of a lifetime.

AUSTIN RISE WEEK 2012

March 26 – 30. For dates, times and more information: riseglobal.org.

Tracks
Fashion and Beauty
Food and Beverage
Green
Health and Fitness
Music Entrepreneurship
Restaurants and Food Trailers
Slow Money
Social Entrepreneurship
Technology
Women Entrepreneurship

Sessions

Communicating, Connecting, Convincing: How to Pitch and Get Your Idea Across. Hosted by Ron Hash, March 26 at 10 a.m.
Value of Public Relations for Small Businesses. Hosted by Lisa O’Neil, March 26 at noon.
How to Get Funding for a Small Business or Nonprofit. Hosted by Allen Rogers, March 27 at noon.
Launch Your Consumer Product in 90 Days With Less Risk. Hosted by Bryan Daigle, March 27 at 4 p.m.
Why and How to Build Your Website with WordPress. Hosted by Karen Kreps, March 28 at 2 p.m.

Events
RISE Kick-off Event with Keynote Speaker
Fast Pitch Competition
Social Innovation Fast Pitch
Funding Forum
RISE Awards Ceremony

Awards
Best Entrepreneurial Story
Best Social Entrepreneur
Most Innovative Entrepreneur
Best Serial Entrepreneur
Best Entrepreneur (To nominate someone or yourself, email info@riseglobal.org.)

ROYITO’S HOT SAUCE DON’T DO MILD AWARD

In 2011, Erine Gray won Roy Spence’s Royito’s Hot Sauce Don’t Do Mild Award, giving him $5,000 to launch his business, Aunt Bertha. Gray’s company provides accessible, online human-services information in order to help more people reach self-sufficiency. Food, health, housing and education program information can be found within seconds in your zip code. Sending in an essay and business plan, Gray was selected by Spence because he was following his passion and setting in motion a plan to assist the greater good through Aunt Bertha. Gray’s website went live in June 2011, three months after he was presented with the Royito’s award. Prior to winning, Gray had been collecting data for the site and had every intention to launch it. Nevertheless, the award gave him the confidence and the push of support that he needed.

“I was no longer anonymous,” Gray explains of his fear in launching his business and wanting to stay under the radar.

Once he was given the award, with support from RISE and Spence, Gray reached a point of no turning back.

“The award heightened my sense of urgency,” says Gray, whose heightened confidence gave him the final momentum he needed.

Currently, Aunt Bertha is available only to the city of Austin. However, the award has given Gray the opportunity to hire people to aid in collecting data. By accelerating his pace, Aunt Bertha will soon be available throughout Texas, in every town and every zip code. Gray continues to work with his nationwide model with the vision to expand Aunt Bertha to the rest of the United States. For more information, visit auntbertha.com.

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