A newcomer and a deep-rooted German join the startup party
Observing Chattanooga’s technology and startup scene through column-tinted glasses definitely has its moments. Freed from the unnatural journalistic compulsion to write only when “newsworthy” facts are in hand, I can respond when I run across fun synchronicities like this one.
Uli Becker, the former CEO of Reebok, not only became an investor in Feetz, the 3-D printed shoe company that began at last year’s Gig Tank, but actually has Chattanooga connections that go back 35 years. I spoke with Becker recently when he was in Chattanooga for meetings with Feetz and another startup he’s involved in here.
“I was in the first group of exchange students from Hamm, Germany, the sister city of Chattanooga,” Becker says. “That’s where the relationship started, and while I have relatives in Chicago, my family’s true venture to America started with a relationship to Chattanooga.”
His brother was already a student at Covenant College when Becker spent the summer of 1979 in Chattanooga through a sister city exchange program. Becker came back in 1981 and stayed with the family of Roger and Joy Gulick on Lookout Mountain. The Gulicks, who are part of the Brock clan, became his American parents, eventually marrying him and his wife and baptizing their son.
We’re sitting in George Brown’s living room in a downtown condo. He and Becker are both entwined in the same spaghetti bowl of relationships with Chattanooga. They met years ago when they worked for Adidas, the parent company of Reebok.
Eventually, their paths diverged and they lost touch. Brown wound up working for a Northeast company with offices in Chattanooga, then moving here in 2012. When Becker left Adidas, and both were working with startups, they reconnected.
“When Uli said he was coming to visit last year, Krue Brock set up an agenda to meet some of the community,” Brown says. “Part of Krue’s quest is to get Uli to move here because he wants better minds, more people to add to the growth of Chattanooga.”
Last summer Brown tagged along on Becker’s tour of entrepreneurial Chattanooga and met Krue Brock, who walked him into Co.Lab and convinced him to volunteer for Gig Tank. It was Brown who introduced Becker to Feetz.
“That’s how the city works,” Becker says. “It’s so incredibly networked, and they’re all working toward making the city a better place.”
“At Co.Lab you see things like this every day,” adds Brown. “A lot of it is simply listening to people’s needs and asking ‘Who in my network can help them?’ You just make some phone calls.”
“I’ve lived for nine years in Boston,” Becker says. “There are all sorts of things happening, but it’s too big. For me, here the size is big enough, and there are enough good people that are somehow connected that a current can be created.”
This current he’s talking about includes things that make Chattanooga cool, like bakeries and coffee shops. But it also includes entrepreneurial development and things to do and helping people and communities who need support.
Brown adds rock climbing to the current: “Rock climbers are problem solvers. They call a climb a problem, and they try to solve it. Chattanooga has become a mecca for bouldering. We’re bringing these intellectual people who come for rock climbing.”
“People work hand in hand to make things move, and the people that got help before now help others,” says Becker. “If you have a startup company and you get support, you know you will give that back. It’s all part of the bigger scenario to make the city a better place. It’s kind of a mutual agreement. That creates current, because nobody is moving this way while everybody else goes that way.”
Despite some initial nervousness about being a Yankee coming to town and trying to break into the good old boy network, Brown says he has found Chattanooga to be welcoming. “I think if you come in with an honest agenda and with a willingness to help, Chattanooga is a really open community for outside ideas.”
“It’s maybe cliché thinking, but if you don’t live here, you don’t expect people to be progressive,” says Becker. “You think progressive is the Bay Area, Seattle, and maybe also the Northeast when it comes to biotech—where the new ideas come to life and big things happen. You wouldn’t associate that with here, but that’s what is reality.”
The current even includes soccer, whose advent in Chattanooga Becker actually assisted. When the Chattanooga Football Club was being created, he connected Krue Brock with someone at Adidas who equipped the team for the first three years.
“It’s all moving, it’s the current,” Becker says. “It’s all part of the same current that creates great DNA for growth, a ground for everything else that will come in the next 20 years.”
Rich Bailey is a professional writer, editor and (sometimes) PR consultant. He led a project to create Chattanooga’s first civic web site in 1995 before even owning a modem. Now he covers Chattanooga technology for The Pulse and blogs about it at CircleChattanooga.com. He splits his time between Chattanooga and Brooklyn.