Toni Eberhart was working with the U.S. Social Security Administration outside Washington, D.C., when the itch to do something more creative changed the course of her life forever.
While she was grateful to be supporting herself and living independently after graduating college during the Great Recession, she knew she needed a creative outlet. Eberhart began picking up side jobs helping startups with strategic branding and marketing, setting the foundation for her current role as executive director of Urban Engine.
In 2012, Eberhart and her then-fiancé moved to Huntsville, where she continued to work in government until a local tech startup recruited her to join its marketing team full-time. The decision to leave her stable career for a fledgling business was life-affirming.
“There was no looking back for me,” she said. “Except I was still looking forward on how that piece of my career fit into a longer picture of goals I had. At some point while I was in college, I remember telling a friend that I wanted to go as far as I could on the corporate ladder to learn everything I could so that I could one day run a nonprofit organization.
“I can remember thinking that I wanted to make the world a better place by getting behind a cause I believed in that could make a difference in people’s lives.”
Two years later, a coworker invited Eberhart to Urban Engine’s CoWorking Night, a free weekly meetup where professionals learn, connect and collaborate. At the time, Eberhart said she was simply looking for best practices she could bring back to her workplace.
During just one meeting, Eberhart connected with more like-minded, innovative and supportive people than she had her entire three years in Huntsville. She said she finally found her “tribe.”
Urban Engine, formerly known as New Leaf Digital, recruited Eberhart to help lead the nonprofit in September 2016, a month before her second child was born. A few months later, the mom of two had fundraised enough money so she come on board full-time.
“So much of what we do at Urban Engine is advocacy and events – which is the same as marketing,” she said. “I truly feel like I am on the path I am meant to be on, but would have never imagined that it would have come together in the way that it did.”
Urban Engine, which has experienced exponential growth in recent years, is expanding its programming and doing more to support the launch and growth of startups in Alabama. Eberhart said they’re partnering with new communities and organizations to provide CoWorking Night in additional locations, including Birmingham.
Huntsville is “blowing it out of the water” in terms of collaboration. Individuals, nonprofits, the city and the Chamber of Commerce are finally working in tandem to support each other and build solid relationships.”
The group is also collaborating with partners such as Mercedes-Benz U.S. International (MBUSI), HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology and NASA Space Apps.
“We’re willing to try anything that will help us reach more people to engage in our mission to propel Alabama’s economy by connecting aspiring entrepreneurs and established business to educational resources, talent and community,” Eberhart said.
Urban Engine recently agreed to launch a student entrepreneur program at Huntsville City Schools. The initiative will introduce 450 high school students in elective business classes to modern ideation practices, business planning and entrepreneurship. Students will also receive hands-on mentorship and guidance from local subject matter experts and business coaches.
Niche programming is also under development to support entrepreneurs ready to take the leap into starting a new business.
“Lots of cities have accelerator programs that leverage top mentors, provide access to capital and offer great program managers and innovative spaces dedicated to incubation,” Eberhart said. “Urban Engine is excited to help Huntsville realize more of these resources and get some started that specifically support tech startup founders.”
The organization moved from its first home in downtown Huntsville to HuntsvilleWest in 2017. Founder Brandon Kruse said Urban Engine has been instrumental in helping HuntsvilleWest grow and foster a vibrant entrepreneurial community.
Calling Eberhart a “true visionary,” Kruse said moving CoWorking Night to HuntsvilleWest is “the very definition of what I originally wanted (for HuntsvilleWest) but could not execute well.”
“(It’s a) consistent time for like-minded business owners and soon-to-be business owners to collaborate and build partnerships,” he said. “Maybe cofounders have been found through those efforts, and many new companies were launched from it. It would not be possible without Urban Engine.”
Eberhart said Huntsville is “blowing it out of the water” in terms of collaboration. Individuals, nonprofits, the city and the Chamber of Commerce are finally working in tandem to support each other and build solid relationships.
By having a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem, Eberhart said aspiring and established startups have an easier time finding the resources they need to be successful.
“This sets the foundation for really anything to happen,” Eberhart said. “You can see a lot of what this collaboration looks like in action by following along with what we are working together to achieve through Innovate Huntsville, an organization led by a committee of leaders from across the ecosystem to inform the community about entrepreneurial resources and showcase ways to get involved.”
Eberhart said the area’s biggest challenges include finding technical and non-technical teammates or cofounders, offering educational resources for technical skill building and securing access to startup capital.
Still, she wakes up each day knowing the time she spends at work is helping other people pursue and realize their dreams, as well as her own.
“So many people are wandering through a purposeless career, have an idea that could change the world or are looking for other people that they can feel a sense of belonging around,” Eberhart said. “Urban Engine addresses those things for thousands of people every year and creates jobs and fun places to work. I am grateful to have the opportunity to do the work to make it happen for them.”
For more in City Blog’s four-part series on Huntsville’s growing ecosystem of entrepreneurship, read: