By Nancy Dahlberg
Ana Paula Gonzalez, who launched and built 500 Startups’ Miami operation, is now SoftBank’s director for the SoftBank Miami Initiative.
In her new role, Gonzalez will be leading SoftBank investments in Miami founders as well as founders relocating to Miami. In January, SoftBank Group announced it was launching a $100 million initiative specifically for Miami startup investments. SoftBank has already announced investments in homegrown Miami startups QuikNode, Lumu, and most recently Eight Sleep. a sleep fitness startup that relocated from New York. Gonzalez’s role will continue to evolve but working with the funding initiative is the starting point, she said.
“I’ll be helping build SoftBank’s presence in Miami as a key player that will hopefully cement Miami’s reputation as a global tech and innovation hub,” she said.
This move is significant, and adds to the big bet SoftBank has already made on Miami, led by SoftBank International Group CEO Marcelo Claure. SoftBank not only launched the $100 million Miami Initiative, but its operations for the SoftBank Latin America Fund, a $5 billion fund that sparked a doubling of venture investment in the region, and the SoftBank Opportunity Fund, a fund launched last year that invests in minority-led startups, are based here in Miami. SoftBank is also an investor in Miami's unicorn, REEF Technology.
To be sure, Gonzalez has played a critical role in Miami’s ecosystem building. Gonzalez, originally from Guadalajara, Mexico, moved to Miami in 2016 and began connecting with the ecosystem immediately. Most notably, she headed the expansion of 500 Startups, the first marquee VC firm to open an office in Miami.
500 Startups announced in early 2018 that the firm was “doubling down” on Miami and would be opening a large office in Miami, headed by Gonzalez, after spending a couple of years testing the waters by holding events and an accelerator here. Over the past three years, 500 Startups has mentored hundreds of founders, hosted accelerators and bootcamps, and brought Silicon Valley style Demo Days to downtown Miami. “We believe the city is uniquely poised to become a global hub for entrepreneurship and innovation that will hopefully connect South Florida with Silicon Valley, the East Coast, Latin America, Europe, Africa and beyond,” Gonzalez said then.
She still believes that, and says with the tech boom now ongoing, Miami has now reached that inflexion point that community builders have been hoping for and working toward. I reached out to Gonzalez to learn more about her new role. Here are excerpts of the conversation.
What drew you to this opportunity?
Two things, really. One is the caliber of the SoftBank team that I will be working with -- truly impressive, highly talented, smart people who really want to create a dent in the world. They really want to have a big impact on the trajectory of the entrepreneurs that we are investing in.
The second piece is to be able to join such a big platform as SoftBank to have impact on Miami at another scale, and also for the things that can spin out of that, such as supporting other regions like Latin America out of the Miami platform.
And you know I love Miami so being able to deepen the impact in the city with this platform was really for me a no brainer.
So what do you hope to do?
We are starting with the investments piece and we are planning other initiatives I can’t really share right now, but the idea is to have a very comprehensive vision to support the ecosystem.
What will success look like?
I think that success 12 months from now will be a very established investment platform for SoftBank in Miami where any founder knows they can come to Miami and they will have the resources to scale. There is this other SoftBank initiative that my colleague Laura [Gaviria Halaby] is working on initiatives based on talent so really if in 12 months Softbank is able provide the best founders access to talent and access to capital to build and scale global businesses out of Miami that will be a huge success.
It must have been hard to leave 500 Startups when you built the operation here from scratch. What from that experience prepared you for this job?
It was a bittersweet moment to say goodbye to 500 for sure, but you know 500 really taught me how to dream big. Being the global platform it is with founders all around the world, it is not afraid to enter any new geography – I think that was really important. And then, also, with 500 I got to learn and witness first-hand the impact that capital mobilized in the right way, alongside mentorship and other resources, can have on the trajectory of founders and can help founders build global businesses. Those two things are very valuable that I will take with me.
What do you think about the current tech boom?
As you know, I moved here almost 5 years ago and ever since I moved here I felt in Miami that something was just about to happen, but it never actually happened. I feel that inflexion point is happening right now.
Sure, there is still some noise but there is also a lot of substance happening. Real investors and very high-caliber founders are moving to the city. They are moving their teams, they are signing leases, and they are creating a high-quality density of people and that starts creating waves of development that I think will have a huge impact on the trajectory of the city. There is no longer a penalty to be based in Miami and that’s making it easy to attract talent to a place we all know was already a great place to live in, with its taxes and quality of life. There are a lot of great efforts, the Knight Foundation catalyzing a lot of these, to create more local sources for the development of talent.
The capital is moving here too and the investors are very excited to look at founders building stuff out of Miami. I think there is substance in the midst of the wave and some noise. Even if only 3o or 50 percent of the high-caliber people that came to Miami stay in Miami , it will be a huge step up for the city. Miami is finding its own true voice. Miami will not be another San Francisco or another New York, it is going to be different in its own right, and truly connected with Latin America and with Europe and other parts of the world.
I’m very bullish on Miami, evidently, and am excited to be a part of it.
I know you wrote that great article in 2018 about Miami in that moment in time (read it here), and I really loved the what’s next part of that article. So I want to ask: where do we go from here? What does the region need to do to sustain and continue the momentum?
I don’t think the pillars have really shifted. At any given time, founders need access to talent, to capital, and to consumers and market. The city being able to increase the quality and density of those pillars will be very important. Raul [Moas] at Knight and this endowment to FIU, UM and Baptist and Softbank’s talent initiative are very important initiatives because founders knowing that they can be here and find the great engineers and product managers that they need will be very important.
I think the mindset shift that I was talking about then in the article has started to shift a little with investors and founders willing and able to take more risks – I think that is starting to change and I am happy to see that. Capital will always pursue great opportunities. There are more local investors doing quality investments here and abroad and there is more foreign capital willing to invest here, so that is good.
I am starting to see corporates waking up and saying ‘oh there’s a startup movement, I need to be a part of it.’ Miami has very important industries in transportation/logistics and healthcare, for example, where there are a lot of resources, knowledge and talent and there are great healthcare and logistics startups building. Being able to continue to mine [the corporate involvement] will be very interesting.
We have to keep celebrating the work that is being done locally. The more people see people with great companies of substance doing great things and scaling out of Miami to the world, that will continue to push the momentum forward.
The challenge today is how do we make sure the new integrates with the people already here. That mix of the locals who have been building this city for over 10 years mixing and learning from the newcomers, and vice versa, the newcomers learning about what’s being done here, and being able to amplify both sides of the table in one big mix will be key.
I’m very excited to dive fully back into the Miami ecosystem again and see how from the SoftBank perspective I can support founders and amplify other people’s work. I’m very excited to take on this new challenge.
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This story has been updated. Follow @ndahlberg on Twitter and email her at email@example.com
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