Why you need to know her: Because she serves as the connector of corporations, entrepreneurs, investors, and educators with the goal of catalyzing innovation across the region. She will also help strengthen Dallas-Fort Worth’s case as a relocation site by presenting prospective companies with an overview of the innovative entities, programs, and projects that thrive in the area.
Natalie Fletcher may be new to the Dallas Regional Chamber, joining as the director of innovation in September, but she’s spent several years getting acquainted with the region’s innovators. Fletcher first entered the market as a graduate of Baylor University, where she interned at the school’s Launch Innovative Accelerator. She came to Dallas seeking to learn more about Tech Wildcatters, one of Dallas’ first accelerator programs. What started as a two-week shadowing stint turned into an almost two-year job as partnerships coordinator, a role that required her to work with startups and corporate innovators. She’s come a long way since her first few weeks with the accelerator.
“My piece of the puzzle … is … pounding the pavement and making sure everyone who needs to be connected to each other [is].”
“I was just jotting down notes,” she says. “[I thought,] ‘I need to look up this fund, I need to look up this company.’ It was drinking from the fire hose in a big way.”
Over the years and numerous hours of research later, Fletcher got her bearings and made invaluable connections that would serve her well beyond her time at Tech Wildcatters. Her network led her to her next job as a sales and marketing strategist for a startup called FullFunnel. There, she once again leaned on her research skills to quickly learn unfamiliar industries in order to build a marketing strategy for clients. So when the chamber sought a new director of innovation, both her skill set and network played key roles in the decision.
“One of the reasons why we selected Natalie was because of the researcher-at-heart that she is,” says Duane Dankesreiter, the chamber’s senior vice president of research and innovation. “We asked her a lot of questions, and she knew enough about a lot of different things that she could go into any room and have a conversation. That matters in our world because you have so many different companies and so many different people that … it takes all of us.”
She was quickly initiated into the “it-takes-a-village” mindset at the chamber. Two days after starting her new role, Amazon announced plans to build a second headquarters. The chamber immediately jumped on the opportunity, collecting proposal ideas and strategizing in hopes of landing the region another big win. The chamber’s workload suddenly stockpiled, and the team still needed to complete the projects already in progress. That’s where Fletcher stepped in, keeping all trains chugging as visitors across the region popped in and out of the office to talk about luring the e-commerce giant.
“I had to let go of things sooner than I wanted to, but that was OK because I had faith in what Natalie could do,” Dankesreiter says.
“It was a good opportunity for me to hit the ground running,” Fletcher says.
She’s spent her first couple of months reconnecting to the community in her new role, discovering the new innovators that have entered the space, and creating a roadmap for how she can drive capital investment in the region. It’s all part of the chamber’s latest five-year strategic plan, which is about 2.5 years old and outlines innovation as critical to economic development.
The opportunity provides room to address gaps in the market, says Jeremy Vickers, who formerly held the position between September 2011 and June 2015. “Between 2010-2015 [the chamber] executed based on the idea that the ecosystem was immature,” he says. “But from 2014 to now, there has been the explosion of the ecosystem.”
As director, Vickers was able to help get the Dallas Entrepreneur Center off the ground as a co-founder; help start Innovate DFW, a calendar of startup events later turned over to Launch DFW; help create the Texas Research Alliance, an agency cofounded by Arlington, Dallas, Fort Worth, and Richardson chambers that connects research to businesses for commercialization; and help launch Dallas Innovates, an online news source (in collaboration with D Magazine Partners) for regional innovation efforts.
Fletcher will be addressing a much more mature innovation community, Vickers says. “Her background and skillset, what her experiences are, coupled with the [chamber’s] bullet points, will define and create a vision of what role innovation plays for the chamber,” he says. “The individual makes the job.”
Fletcher has already identified two targets: increasing venture capital activity, and spurring a more diverse ecosystem. “I love this city. I want to help it grow,” she says. “My piece of the puzzle in doing that is by pounding the pavement and making sure that everyone who needs to be connected to each other [is].”