As a young aspiring politician, Jess Knox had his sights set firmly on law school and a life devoted to public service. In high school, he went so far as to write a letter to then-president Bill Clinton expressing his desire to someday occupy the Oval Office.
Although he hasn’t made it to the Oval Office quite yet, Knox’s dedication to public service and innovation has made a noteworthy impact across the state and the country. His journey has led him to roles in seventeen states spanning a dozen jobs in political work and public service. As a law school graduate, he had the opportunity to work for two presidential candidates and numerous public policy campaigns.
And since returning to his home state, the York native has set his sights on moving Maine forward. Knox is an individual whose contributions have been so crucial to Maine’s startup community, it’s hard to imagine what it would look like without him.
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Knox’s family had roots in public service, spurring his interest in public service early in life. He believed that heading to Washington, D.C. was the best course of action.
“Working in Washington allowed me to carve out a niche and reputation as a really good grassroots organizer,” says Knox. He found his passion in learning about the issues people cared about and advancing those issues.
Those experiences led to his appointment to help manage the Small Business Administration. The day Knox started, the SBA was voted the second worst place to work in government. Part of his role was to improve the agency and build on its mission. Knox put his grassroots organizing skills to use to achieve these goals. His oversight included 119 offices throughout the country with nearly 1,000 staff members.
It was his job at the SBA that made Knox realize he had a passion for entrepreneurship. He wanted to bring together all of the skills he had honed over the years to make a difference for entrepreneurs. His political work provided him with the grassroots knowledge he needed, and Knox says his work at the SBA provided a “paid executive MBA” giving him an inside understanding of entrepreneurs and business.
However, it was a suggestion from a colleague that ultimately provided the push Knox needed to take the leap into the world of startups and economic development.
He had become intrigued by high growth, high impact businesses that focused on innovation. In the fall of 2011, the Blackstone Charitable Foundation provided a $3 million grant to create Innovation Hubs throughout Maine. The grant would bring together programs and resources to support Maine’s entrepreneurs and encourage economic development. A colleague urged him to apply for the job of overseeing the effort and to Knox’s delight, he was hired.
Knox moved permanently back to Maine and has since used that position to build and promote Maine’s startup community. The centerpiece of Knox’s achievements is Maine Startup and Create Week, which he founded in 2014. With three events now completed, the program is undoubtedly a success. This annual week-long event provides new and current entrepreneurs from across the state a chance to network, explore and learn.
He hopes that people walk away from these events with the experiences that make them more inclined to take risks. He believes that we need to encourage risk-taking among would-be entrepreneurs. “Because risks,” says Knox, “are an absolutely vital part of any success.”
While risks can end in failure, Knox has learned from his own experience that failure leads to learning and ultimately to success. Passing the bar exam proved to be elusive for Knox. It was the lesson he took from that failure that became invaluable. As Knox points out, if he had passed the bar exam he would probably be working in a law firm. He would have missed out on 12 years of cross-country experiences that led him to help his home state grow a startup economy. “Failures are painful, but we don’t die from them,” says Knox.
Knox believes Maine needs to work on attracting people from out of state and stop discouraging people from taking risks. He likes to describe Maine as a garden with rocky soil. “It’s hard for any seeds to grow in rocky soil,” he explains, “but if you cultivate and nurture the soil, any seed will grow. We need to develop awesome soil.”
Fundamentally, each part of the state presents different influences and challenges. He believes the economy has not given people an equal opportunity to step out. “We need to stop telling people their ideas are Boston ideas and can’t happen in Portland or Maine,” he says.
“Improving Maine’s overall reputation as a place for people to come and start businesses will take work,” Knox says. And he is heading up several initiatives to do just that. In addition to Startup and Create Week, he is also the associate producer of Greenlight Maine. Fashioned after the television show Shark Tank, the program helps Maine entrepreneurs get their businesses off the ground.
Knox is also the engine behind Maine Accelerates Growth, an initiative that harnesses the power of networking to accelerate the growth of companies, communities and talent. And his latest effort, called Venture Hall, provides year-round training and events designed specifically for entrepreneurs and corporate teams that want to innovate and create high-growth, high-impact companies.
Knox is a driving force behind the growth in Maine’s entrepreneurial community. And he has his sights set on even greater growth for the entire state. He embodies boundless energy, tireless work ethic and a creative mind for implementing new programs. He cares about Maine; about the entrepreneurs and the economy. And he will be a champion for startups for years to come.
That is why Jess Knox is a Maine Icon.