Startup South Bend – Elkhart with Jessica Lee

Startup South Bend - Elkhart (Startup SBE) recently spoke with INVANTI participant and founder of Increment, Jessica Lee. Her startup Increment works with manufacturers in the South Bend and Elkhart area to measure the ROI of shop floor retraining on production error rates.

Startup SBE:  Hi, Jessica. Thanks for meeting with me. I know you're super busy, so I appreciate it. Can you share your elevator speech or business pitch that you give to people?

Jessica Lee: Essentially, we work with manufacturers and have our roots in South Bend and Elkhart to work with them, to measure the ROI of their shop floor training. So what does it mean to train and upskill a worker? And how do you tie that to reduce production costs and reduce production errors?

I spent the past two years talking to many manufacturers and stakeholders in the region and Michigan, peeling back the layers of complexity and learning a very nuanced perspective around manufacturing and the workforce skills gap.

We're trying to take a very product development driven approach to develop software infrastructure for manufacturers to help track the ROI of shop floor training.

Startup SBE: That's significant work, particularly in our heavy manufacturing region. We know 2020 has been a tough year for startups. And so looking back, what has been your highest of highs and your lowest of lows?

Jessica Lee: The highest of highs? I feel like there were several big highs.

I think one was getting into Techstars' inaugural workforce development program. It's been a huge resource as we ramp up operations with the help of many great mentors and funding as well. It's an accelerator for companies doing innovative work in workforce development, and Increment, in particular, is focused on the manufacturing workforce.

Another high is just the breadth of the types and sizes of manufacturers that we're talking to and working with and seeing all the diversity of parts and objects being made on shop floors. There are many misconceptions around American manufacturing, and I want to show the world how strong American manufacturing is and how much is being made in regions such as South Bend and Elkhart.

So, it is a really cool nexus and junction of what you come up with that's creative and impactful and builds resilience for manufacturers (while) also strengthening the industrial workforce.

Startup SBE: So what have been some lows that you've experienced?

Jessica Lee: You know, there's always the times where you kind of get punched in the gut metaphorically.

Sometimes a particular direction doesn't work out. And then you kind of have to regroup and reset and go in a slightly different direction, not in a dramatically different way even, but just keep on learning and testing and iterating. It's hard sometimes, but if you're dedicated to the problem, then you will continue to uncover valuable insights that you can act upon.

I think what is driving me is that I grew up the daughter of immigrants working in my parents' car dealerships and repair shops, changing oil filters, and doing very industrial hands-on work.

So I personally resonate with the style of work, and I wanted to reconnect with that increasingly as I moved into software. (It's my) intrinsic motivation. I took a lot of time to introspect and align (my past) with my long-term work, and I think that's incredibly important to do if you're starting a company with ambitious goals since you're going to be dedicating a large chunk of your life to it. It's an interesting mindset to be in. Even when there are those lows; you are super intrinsically motivated, so you just figure it out, you know?

Startup SBE: Sure, definitely. So, where are you currently in the development of your startup?

Jessica Lee: We're going to be launching a few pilots early next year. So we're in a product development intensive phase.

We're still a pretty small team. There are two other people on the team and several Techstars associates helping out. So the total number of people working on it's probably eight or nine right now, but most are part-time. We're at this really interesting juncture where we're going to ramp up and hire for the right resources, so the team will definitely be growing next year.

It's interesting, what COVID has brought into those conversations and the importance of American manufacturing. How do you strengthen that for the entire nation?  As those shortages and gaps have been highlighted as a core part of Biden's economic recovery plan, it feels very aligned with what we're doing, at a macro level, which is super interesting to follow.

I've talked to various stakeholders and researchers, and organizations across the nation now who have work that is being done in this area either from the community level or private sector level, or government level. So, yes, we're in a pretty product development intensive phase going through Techstars, and we are going to be ramping up.

Startup SBE: Great. Okay. So entrepreneurship can be very lonely. You're out there out on your own. But at the same time, you have to rely on advisors and resources to help launch and move forward. What resources have you leveraged, and who do you now consider on your team? You kind of talked about this a little bit, but there may be others that you haven't mentioned yet.

Jessica Lee: Yeah. So the first point about loneliness, I feel like the actual dominant feeling I have is more related to being contrarian. I really enjoy feeling as if I'm being different; I like being the only one in some sense. It doesn't necessarily feel lonely to me. It feels more just, you know, there's not going to be a lot of things going on in this space, so I can apply my background in a unique and creative way. I really enjoy that. I hate when I feel like I'm in a bubble or echo chamber or groupthink situation.

I think in terms of the advisors and mentors, it takes a village. I feel very supported, especially with Techstars now. And also, importantly, Dustin and Maria at INVANTI because they believed in me before I even had an idea. They just saw my background and liked (what they saw) and brought me to South Bend. That's the reason Increment exists. Increment would not exist without Dustin and Maria. So I want to give them a huge shout out. They essentially were my "co-founders" when I started this journey, and they're still my close advisors.

Other resources have been all the mentors. I've met over a hundred mentors in the past four weeks separately, so I've had a lot of Zoom calls!

And my own friends you know, I worked in technology before, so there's (support from) a lot of engineering, design, product resources from very generous and kind friends.

I feel like I've done a good job of corralling a lot of (resources).

I also want to just say how important it was to gain this knowledge in South Bend and in Elkhart. People introduced me to their (networks) in a way that isn't possible to do quickly in other places. People are so open and friendly. I mean, it's a Midwest thing, but I think that (it's) the South Bend community in general, I've learned so much from, and I feel grounded by that. In a way, it makes me feel like I returned to my roots even though I had never lived in the Midwest prior to moving to South Bend, but in terms of returning to my kind of skilled trades roots.

It really takes a village. It's a lot of resources and people who have to believe in you (for) it to come together.

Startup SBE: Great. So having to start up and the sole person, in the beginning, can eat your life. How do you balance your startup and your personal life? Have you found ways to find balance?

Jessica Lee: Yeah. I almost view… maybe this isn't a personally healthy mindset, but I just view this as an extension of my interests. This is just what I naturally think about even before I moved to South Bend. I was naturally thinking about how automation manifests in manufacturing. All these reports that think tanks and other organizations published, I was reading already. So that's why (it's my) intrinsic motivation.

I naturally think about this, but I think it's really important now, especially during COVID when we're more forced to stay at home or not travel as much to take time to not stare at our screens as much.

In terms of personal life, just making sure that I take that break for myself, even though (I think) I don't need to 'cause I need to do these things. And there's a million things going on that I need to keep track of (so) just making sure I take Saturdays off. I don't feel burned out, but I realize I need to put those guard rails in place.

So taking holidays off and taking at least a day a week fully off screens helps (me) reset and recharge. And you know, I try to journal every day. I try to read every day. I love reading in general, not just business books or manufacturing books, but books in general on a wide range of topics. So that helps me ground myself as well. And spending quality time with friends and family, even if it's over zoom, is really important. And, just prioritizing that.

Startup SBE: Self-care is definitely very important. It sounds like you have some good strategies and habits. With so much going on, how will you know that you've made it?

Jessica Lee: It depends on how you define made it. I mean, I think I'm a very impact driven person, and I care a lot about growing a successful and unique business, but in a way that resonates with my own values and my own thought process in my own kind of interests and building a team around that.

And so if we can impact the most number of manufacturers and workers in a meaningful and thoughtful way, I think that's a huge measure of success for us. You know, for me, it's not about the money or the fame, whatever flashy things that might come with that. I'm actually quite turned off by hype, which tends to be common in the technology industry. I think I tend to understate in some ways.

I think it's important to kind of push out the narrative of, you know, automation isn't displacing manufacturing workers; it's the opposite. I aim to push out ideas that are much more nuanced and redo that narrative at a national level.

So I think once we see a lot of strong data and stories around (this narrative), I think that would be great and feel amazing 'cause that's what I set out to do, and this is the practical vehicle to do that. Yeah, I think that's how I mainly think about success; it's not really for myself. It's just really for the ecosystem at large that I feel like I've come to care a lot about and all of the manufacturing stakeholders that I've gotten the pleasure to know.

Jessica Lee

Jessica is the founder of Increment, a software-based company based on research in South Bend and Elkhart around how manufacturing workforce needs are evolving. She splits her time between South Bend and northern California. Previously, she worked at various technology companies, and her background is in software product development.