New Zeal leader brings global tech innovation experience to startup community
Article from Jodi Schwan of SiouxFalls.Business
Michelle Gjerde was just starting her career after graduating from Augustana College when the opportunity of a lifetime appeared.
In March 1991, she was among the first hires in the marketing department at Gateway, working directly with founder Ted Waitt as the company’s first internal public relations manager.
“It wasn’t a household name at that time, and it was the best career move I ever made,” she said. “We went from 10 people in marketing to 250 and 400 employees to 20,000 in just five years after setting up new facilities around the globe. It was an unreal, crazy ride, and that’s really how I became fascinated with business opportunities and what can grow out of an idea.”
The experience at Gateway launched a decades-long career working with technology companies and startups that now leads Gjerde back to her native South Dakota, where she starts today as the new executive director at the Zeal Center for Entrepreneurship.
“There’s so much opportunity here it’s staggering,” she said. “I see Zeal becoming a modern-day go-to for startups that understands everything from crowdfunding to angel investing to marketing plans. We can be the next-generation support system that will be more and more in demand.”
Gjerde, who grew up in Vienna and graduated from Willow Lake High School, earned her degree in business and communications/journalism from Augustana University.
Her career has taken her across the country and into organizations ranging from startups to Fortune 500 companies to global agencies and organizations with a larger presence in Asia, Europe and other parts of the world.
An entrepreneur herself, Gjerde founded Propel, a sales and marketing consulting firm she ran out of Minneapolis and, most recently, Chicago. With a team of subcontractors, Gjerde designed and implemented launch plans and growth strategies for emerging-technology companies.
“Startups are my passion,” Gjerde said. “I especially enjoy helping entrepreneurs align their vision with market opportunity and real-world customer need. I am fascinated with the entire product innovation process, from conception to launch to profitability, and I see a growing need for entrepreneurial resources and support. I am grateful for the opportunity to position Zeal as the go-to hub for startups and growing businesses in my home state of South Dakota.”
After Gateway, Gjerde joined Mankato-based software pioneer Firepond, a job that took her to Silicon Valley where she joined high-tech PR firm Copithorne & Bellows, representing Hewlett-Packard and Iomega, as well as several high-tech startups.
She then moved to the Twin Cities to be closer to home and worked for global PR agency FleishmanHillard before joining Digital River, a fast-growing e-commerce infrastructure company. In 2000, Gjerde founding her consulting firm and focused on startups and IT companies.
Gjerde has been following Zeal and its growth for a few years and thought the opportunity to lead it came at just the right time, she said.
“I’m impressed with how far Zeal has come. The brand is amazing, and I believe in what they stand for,” she said. “I remember thinking I wanted to become involved in some way, so I’ve kept an eye on them, and the opportunity arose just as I made the decision to move back to Sioux Falls. I am thrilled that the stars have aligned!”
Gjerde was chosen following a comprehensive search. She takes over many duties from Rich Naser, who will transition to a strategic advisory role at Zeal while focusing on leading development of the USD Discovery District.
“We’ve been very intentional with this executive director search for Zeal, as we believe Sioux Falls is on the cusp of big things in our entrepreneurial community,” said Paul TenHaken, Zeal board chairman.
“We could not be happier to have found someone of Michelle’s caliber and passion for entrepreneurship to lead us into this next chapter.”
Zeal, which is located at 2329 N. Career Ave., offers flexible workspace for small businesses and access to a variety of programs and resources, including an annual accelerator program.
“We’re so pleased to welcome Michelle and can’t wait to introduce her to our Zeal community and the broader Sioux Falls area,” Naser said. “Michelle’s unique skill set makes her such an exciting fit for Zeal, and we know she will build on the momentum we are experiencing here.”
Gjerde plans to increase outreach to the business community as she pursues new sponsorships and partnerships, and said she sees herself “being the eyes and ears and a facilitator of conversations for the entrepreneurial community and putting Zeal in context, not just within the community but with other similar organizations in neighboring states or around the country.”
She also plans to continue to educate the community about the resources offered at Zeal and to promote the entrepreneurs who are succeeding there. She will work directly with small businesses at Zeal, leveraging her relationships and experience to help them grow.
The goal is to make Zeal a hub for entrepreneurial activity and to make Sioux Falls and South Dakota known as places where entrepreneurs can thrive, Gjerde said.
“I’m proud of our state, impressed with how Sioux Falls has evolved over the last 25 years, and I’ve seen what an entrepreneur can do with the right idea and the right resources,” she said. “I am a fan of the business model, and I am optimistic about the potential for growth in this region. I’m ready and eager to channel my energy into Zeal by supporting entrepreneurs at all stages of growth.”