By Nancy Dahlberg
If you happened to miss last week’s news, Refresh Miami’s executive director, Maria Derchi Russo, is joining Florida Funders as Director Community, a part-time position, as the hybrid of a venture capital fund and an angel investor network expands into South Florida. But don’t worry Refresh Miami fans -- Maria is also staying right here in the role she has held for more than five years.
In the last several years, the Tampa-based Florida Funders has invested in 9 Miami-based startups -- HealthSnap, Secberus, Lula, ClassWallet, Bambino, Simplenight, Cast.ai, TempMee, and Aerosens -- so the organization hasn’t been a stranger to the South Florida region. But now the group is making a bigger push to grow its network and investment portfolio in South Florida. It's opening an office.
Florida Funders’ Director of Investor Relations Christian Leon is based in Miami and Florida Funders also plans to hire an analyst for the region. Florida Funders said VP of Investor Relations Saxon Baum and CIO Ryan Whittemore will also be committing significant time to grow the VC’s South Florida presence. Florida Funders is looking for office space for the growing Miami team.
For the organization's new director of community, Florida Funders couldn’t have found a more community-focused leader than Maria. In addition to her role leading Refresh Miami, one of the largest tech groups in the Southeast with 12,000 members, Maria is also the founder of Women in Miami Tech, which has been meeting regularly and on Slack for several years to support one another and the growth of women in technology in South Florida. For nearly two years, she held roles at Miami-based venture capital fund TheVentureCity, including as Investment Director and Miami campus director. Before that, she was assistant director of the University of Miami’s entrepreneurship center, The Launch Pad.
We reached out to Maria for more of her thoughts about her new role at Florida Funders, which she started this week:
What drew you to this new role as Director of Community?
What excites me most about this new role are the added tools it provides me to continue helping South Florida entrepreneurs grow their businesses. In addition to the resources we offer via Refresh Miami, I’ll now be able to provide founders with much-needed funding to scale their startups. I’ll also be able to leverage both the expertise of the Florida Funders team and the 1,600+ members in our angel network.
What does a director of community do and how do your past roles prepare you?
Community building in general is all about bringing people together who share a common interest. It has been interesting to watch the rise of community building as a profession – I think a lot of people who end up in these roles were doing it long before they knew it had a name.
For the first ten years of my career, I worked in digital marketing. In my spare time, I organized events for the South Florida Interactive Marketing Association (SFIMA). While in grad school, I spearheaded the social committee, which not only allowed me to expand my personal network but also combines my experience organizing events with my love of helping people connect with each other.
Then 5 ½ years ago my life changed when Brian, the founder of Refresh, gave me the opportunity to take over this incredible organization. I had been a member of Refresh since it was about a year old and loved the community he had built. At the time it sounded like a fun thing to work on while I figured out what I wanted to do next. Little did I know the path it would take me down.
Suddenly something I had done for fun in my spare time was my job -- I had found my passion. Then about a year into my role at Refresh, I created Women in Miami Tech. It was like I couldn’t help myself – I love meeting new people, making them feel welcomed, relating to them over shared interests and helping them find their ‘tribe’.
In terms of what I’ll be doing as Director of Community for Florida Funders, it’s really about relationship building. I’ll be meeting with founders, investors and entrepreneurial support organizations to discover ways we can work together to strengthen this ecosystem. Of course, I’ll also be on the hunt for great startups to fund and participating in the full deal process.
With 9 South Florida portfolio companies already, will part of your role also be working with those founders?
Yes! As a member of the Florida Funders team, I’ll be a resource they can lean on as a sounding board and/or to help connect them with relevant contacts and resources. I’ll also be organizing events throughout the year to connect each portfolio company to each other – particularly as the portfolio grows.
As part of your new job, you’ll also be leading a Scout program. Tell us about that.
The scout program is all about expanding our reach in South Florida while also giving those interested in getting into venture capital -- typically a very hard industry to break into -- the experience they need to help get them started. Scouts will make intros into companies in their network that are a good fit for Florida Funders, and in return, they have the potential to earn equity in the company if we end up investing in them.
You aren't leaving us at Refresh, right?
Of course not! I’m more committed than ever to Refresh and I’m so excited for what we have planned for 2021 – including a new website roll-out, chock-full of tools to better connect the ecosystem, and expansion of our news coverage which is filling a real need in our community.
READ MORE ON REFRESH: From Sunshine State to Startup State is Florida Funders’ vision
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