Marcus Whitney


Nashville has always been known as a place where aspiring musicians can come to try to pursue their dream, but in the past decade, the city has been attracting a completely different class of dreamers… entrepreneurs. There are a few names that come to mind as the who’s who of entrepreneurship in Nashville.  One of those names is Marcus Whitney. As President and co-founder of Jumpstart Foundry as well as Founder and CEO of the Unlikely Company, Whitney has helped cultivate scores of entrepreneurs looking to make it big in Music City.

“We are starting to see businesses being launched successfully that weren’t previously in the mix of companies you would expect to see in Nashville,” Whitney states. “We are also seeing support systems emerging, most notably Nashville Fashion Alliance and the Social Enterprise Alliance. Both have matured here over the last year to support different types of businesses than your standard healthcare, music, and hospitality businesses.”

Whitney is confident that fashion is Nashville’s next great industry. “I think fashion is big. We have strong media capabilities, especially with the heritage of the music industry and a major media outpost like CMT. I think there’s a massive opportunity for fashion to do well.”

He also believes the tech ecosystem has developed and matured significantly over the last 15 years due to the diligence of strong community leaders. “Another group that is emerging now are the Makers, people who want to develop software and hardware combinations. That extends into anything someone wants to make; fashion and furniture would fit there as well. We already had a very strong creative class and now we have a migration of millennials that rivals any city in the country so innovation is a guarantee. The challenge will be how well we can connect the establishment with innovation.”

Launching any business in a new city comes with challenges or barriers of entry; however, Whitney mentions that although they exist in Nashville, they are quite lower than in other cities if people are willing to work. “In Nashville, the primary barrier is relationships. There are so many events you can go to, to plug into the community that is most important to your business. You have to prove yourself to the people that laid the groundwork.”

Whitney certainly has been part of the group of people who has laid the groundwork for the next generation of entrepreneurs. He helped launch Jumpstart Foundry in 2009 when Nashville’s entrepreneurial scene was just emerging. The Entrepreneur Center was just beginning and there was a group of interested individuals that believed there was more that they could do to support entrepreneurship in the city. “We brought in mentors for every company we invested in just to support them and guide them through their journey. We’ve come up together.”

Since then, Jumpstart has evolved due to more groups emerging that offer the similar support as the organization once did. “We now focus on healthcare and more developed companies, increased our investment to $150,000 per company, and provide more specific value to those companies. We help them raise more capital, accelerate market traction, and help build out their team.”

One of the most innovative companies to emerge from Jumpstart is NextGxDx, an IT company dedicated to improving the genetic test ordering process for the medical community. “Founder Mark Harris had the foresight to see that genetics would be a big deal in healthcare, to personalize medicine and do some predictive analysis for what might be risks, and there will be lots of innovation in genetics but no way to organize or figure out the best genetic test for a particular situation.  So he created a database and model to help physicians and health systems best leverage genetics to provide better care.”

Another noteworthy company is Utilize Health, a platform that matches patients with neurological disabilities to the therapies and facilities they need to maximize their potential for recovery. In 2007, at the age of 17, Jessica Harthcock was paralyzed from the chest down, and her doctor told her she would not walk again. After experiencing first-hand the difficulty of finding adequate information on rehabilitative therapies, researching facilities, traveling to see doctors, and negotiating with the insurance company, while at the same time learning how to use a wheelchair, keeping her spirits up, and being a student, Jessica decided that it shouldn’t have to be this hard and, after graduating from Vanderbilt University, launched Utilize Health.

“Jessica is such an incredible person and CEO.  [She] launched a business to help a community of people who often get overlooked – the disabled population, especially those with neurological disabilities.”

Whitney’s newest venture, The Unlikely Company, is dedicated to helping an underserved segment of entrepreneurs establish and grow their businesses. “When I left Emma in 2007, I thought launching a business was going to be easy and I was smacked in the face with the difficulty. I feel like much of my life has been dedicated to helping people who have the burning desire to start a business.” One of the goals of the organization is to develop entrepreneurs who will have an opportunity to close the income inequality gap while creating businesses that will address society’s biggest problems. “We are now in a world where globalization, technology, and venture capital are a reality. An industry can be turned upside down in 12 months; look at Airbnb and Uber. We want to inspire and educate people about the path of entrepreneurship.”

With new businesses emerging and others relocating here on what seems like a daily basis, many skeptics are questioning if the city can sustain its unprecedented growth. “I mostly look at Nashville from a momentum perspective. I don’t think it makes a whole lot of sense to look at it in a snapshot. You want to see the trajectory and movement,” Whitney states. “I think there were a lot of people that were questioning the hype and the news we were getting over the last five years, [and rightfully so]. I’ve seen that die down a little bit as we have not only built some successful companies but we’ve also relocated lots of companies here.”

Whitney credits the Nashville Chamber of Commerce with helping to negotiate deals with companies as large as Nissan and Bridgestone down to more recently Eventbrite, Warby Parker, and Lyft.

“We needed some of the hype to attract companies and hopefully we’ll continue to attract talented people and investment capital to continue to move forward. It’s an exciting time for Nashville. We will continue to grow over the next decade. We still have major issues, challenges, and soul-searching but I don’t see any end in sight to the growth we are experiencing.”

To learn about what characteristics Marcus Whitney looks for in an entrepreneur, download the Executive Nashville podcast from iTunes.

Photo courtesy of Marcus Whitney.