Kerty Levy is a mentor, investor, and community leader in Des Moines. After traveling the world (literally — she grew up in Belgium and Sweden, earned degrees from UC Davis and Harvard, and worked in China early in her career), she settled in Des Moines and has become an integral part of the Iowa startup and tech community. As Managing Director of Techstars Iowa, Kerty is helping local startups build connections and foster innovation, and hopes to position Iowa as one of the best destinations in the world to experiment, develop, grow and successfully commercialize technology.
What’s your background, and how has your experience prepared you for your role as managing director at Techstars Iowa, a new mentorship-driven accelerator program in Des Moines?
I have a curious, open, and global mindset. I’ve been an advisor and coach, an investor, a business strategist, a developer and promoter of products and initiatives. In my role at Techstars I will be recruiting the best possible entrepreneurs, seeking a plethora of investment options for them and helping them achieve their goals. It just seemed like the perfect fit. Techstars Iowa will run for thirteen weeks from September to December of 2020. It’s open to startups addressing innovations across a broad technology landscape, and to those who will benefit particularly from the Iowa ecosystem. The program will welcome ten startups next year, and applications will be accepted from February 17th to May 10th. Startups interested in participating in Techstars Iowa can learn more by visiting the Techstars Iowa program page. Corporations interested in learning more about Techstars accelerators and Techstars’ dedication to corporate innovation can learn more at the Techstars website.
How do you encourage innovation and idea-sharing on your team?
I aim to hire people who I consider to be smarter and more capable than me. Then, I let them go unleash their brilliance. Everything I ask them to work on is purpose-driven, and I don’t micromanage. I listen to ideas, encourage testing of those through customer discovery or prototype usage, and let them learn whether there is value to continue or not. One thing I have learned throughout my career is to take the stigma away from failure. Some of the best lessons are learned through failure, and they can get buried if there is excessive shame or embarrassment surrounding those experiences.
Growing up, did you always gravitate toward technology and marketing?
I have always loved to explore and have embarked on many adventures, whether it be climbing mountains, taking road trips, or working in new cities or industries. My curiosity is sparked by the unknown. Technology is full of unknowns, and I love to learn from experts. I read a lot of books and articles, listen to podcasts, meet with founders, search the web, and I learn new things every day. A big part of marketing is about excellent storytelling and reaching the audience who will care. I have always enjoyed the challenge of enabling that connection.
You speak English, French, Mandarin and Swedish. What drove you to learn four languages, and how do you use them in your career?
French was thrust upon me when I was living in Brussels as a child and attending a French school. I went from mute to eight-year-old fluency in a matter of weeks. I’m half Swedish, and my parents offered me the opportunity to go to boarding school outside of Stockholm for eighth grade and I jumped at the chance. Again, within a few months I was speaking 13-year-old Swedish rather fluently, albeit with a basic vocabulary. I decided to study Chinese in college after I spent the summer of my sophomore year interning in Beijing. I also decided to move to China after I graduated and stayed in Beijing and Hong Kong for six years.
Other than speaking Swedish at a summer internship in Stockholm, the only language I have continued to use professionally has been Chinese. I worked as a consultant for many years and conducted market research in China using the language daily. I also managed a team in China when I was at Kemin Industries, visited multiple times per year, and held weekly conference calls. Chinese is a very useful language to speak. I love languages, and even though you can use translation apps today it is truly satisfying to communicate directly in a language other than your native tongue. I would love to be fluent in many more languages.
How do you share your time and talents outside of tech and Techstars?
I’m the Chair of the Des Moines Airport Authority this year and am excited to volunteer for this role at such an important time. We’re in the midst of an airport upgrade and expansion that will further enable economic development in Central Iowa by having a best-in-class facility with the latest in technology and convenient services. I’m also finishing up the year as president of the Des Moines Rowing Club. I love rowing, especially sculling. It’s one of the most peaceful means of getting a great workout! I’ve also been a paid advisor, an investor, and a volunteer mentor for startups and small businesses for many years and will continue to do that in my new role. And I have a wonderful husband and two daughters with whom I enjoy much travel and many outdoor activities.
Who are your mentors, and how have they influenced your career path?
Roberta Lipson, for whom I interned in China many years ago, had a very profound influence on me. She moved to China shortly after Deng Xiaoping implemented China’s “Open Door Policy,” inviting foreign visitors (and businesses) to the country in 1978. Roberta built a medical device and industrial equipment trading company and then pivoted majorly after opening up the first-ever Western-owned hospital in China. She had intended to provide ob-gyn services to foreign embassy staff in Beijing but quickly realized that many of the Chinese middle class wanted to be patients as well. What looked to many as an insurmountable feat looked to Roberta as hard work to be done and more connections to be made. She subsequently focused entirely on building out a hospital system in major cities and ultimately sold the business to a Chinese conglomerate with whom she continues to cooperate. What I love about Roberta is her adventurous spirit, her fearless tenacity, and her generosity of time and expertise. There have been quite a few “what would Roberta do?” moments in my career.
What advice would you give a young person considering a tech career path or aspiring to a tech leadership role?
Go for it! It’s much easier to take organic chemistry or study Java programming in college than it is to do so when you’re older. I did both after I turned 40 and I sometimes think about what I could have done had I been enabled with these tools in my early twenties. Also, don’t be intimidated. People who aren’t the best coders or researchers might be excellent leaders of teams of coders or researchers because perhaps they see the big picture more clearly, or how the technology meets a market need, or maybe they have amazing communication skills.
This year’s Catalysts series focuses on underrepresented groups in technology. Why is it important to have people of different backgrounds in technology?
Diversity always brings multiple perspectives. Perspective is shaped by experience and beliefs. If everyone around the table comes from the same background, they’re likely to entirely miss potential opportunities and a variety of solutions to problems being faced. Many people don’t think twice about hiring people for teams who are similar in profile to themselves, but Techstars is consciously seeking people from different backgrounds to enable voices with a broad range of perspectives to participate in programs as founders, investors and mentors. Our partner, Grinnell College, is proud to have students from every state and more than 60 countries. As is true for Grinnell’s faculty and staff, these students bring varied geographic, ethnic, racial, religious, and socioeconomic experiences and are collectively passionate, with intense intellectual curiosity and a lively interest in the world and each other.
What’s on the horizon for Iowa’s tech industry, and how would you like to see it grow?
There are so many exciting and catalyzing initiatives taking place across the state right now. New accelerators are popping up, and high schools and universities are transforming the way they educate to help solve large problems in the world. Much of the focus is on using technology as capabilities in automation, machine learning, and artificial intelligence evolve. Iowa has so much talent, I would love to see entrepreneurialism grow. I would like to see even more investment going into innovation, continuing to fuel new ventures
People describe you as a visionary. What kind of impact do you want to leave on the Iowa tech industry?
I want to enhance the startup network so that when a great technology is discovered there is a broad and deep base of advisors, contractors, employees and investors to help bring it to market in a profound way. I would like to work with the entire startup ecosystem to elevate Iowa as one of the best destinations in the world to experiment, develop, grow and successfully commercialize technology.