The newest addition to the Hamilton County Development Center leadership took a winding road to his current position. Antony Seppi started his career in marketing, worked for several private companies and thought he wanted to be a city manager. But his curious nature and love of innovation and the startup mindset drew him back to working with entrepreneurs, and he was named director of the HCDC’s business center in December. We sat down with Seppi to talk about his career, the Cincinnati community and his passion for working with founders.
You started your career working for private companies — how did you make your way to the HCDC?
It started with a career change. Coming out of college, I spent 10 or 15 years in the private sector working for startups, software firms and software development firms. I came to a point in my career where I wanted to make a pivot. I had always wanted to go back to school and get my master’s, so when I was between jobs I made the move and got my master’s in urban planning with a specialization in economic development at the University of Cincinnati. My first job was with the City of Hamilton. At the time, they had a new city manager who was all about disrupting things and making a change in a city that needed it. I learned a lot there.
What accomplishments are you most proud of?
I’m really proud of the Pipeline H2O program that we started back in 2017. It brought together a lot of different organizations and partners to accelerate innovation in the water tech space. There are a lot of challenges here in Cincinnati, as it pertains to water. Infrastructure is aging, and it’s time to figure out how we pay for the sewers and water lines that are hundreds of years old. That was one component of the program. But the breweries also came to us and told us they were being fined on a regular basis by the EPA because of the waste and byproducts they were putting into the streams. And so they wanted some solutions and innovations to address that.
We brought in companies from around the world, as far away as Australia, and I’m proud of that fact. One entrepreneur from Australia actually lives here now and is growing his business here in Cincinnati. He saw enough value here in Cincinnati in the water innovation space to build his business here and then grow it from here. That’s what economic development is all about.
What attracted you to this new role?
When this opportunity arose, I jumped on it. I mean, it’s a top 10 incubator in the world, according to UBI Global, and we’re proud of that. I had the opportunity to kind of jump in and be a coach, advisor and mentor to 60 or 70 companies that are part of this program and that was my role the first two years here. I love that work, and it evolved into the role I have today. And our goal is to make startups, assist startups, help them be successful and help them through their entrepreneurial journey.
What draws you to this kind of work?
By nature, I’m a very curious person. I’m always asking questions. Being around this type of environment is ideal to learn about new technologies, new solutions and jump in where I can. I think I work well with founders. At times, they have so much on their minds that they can be kind of unfocused. I would categorize myself in the same vein. But sometimes there’s a logical progression for an entrepreneur in their journey and we try and keep them aligned toward that destination as much as we can.
How do you see the HCDC’s role in the Cincinnati startup scene?
We see ourselves as catalysts. We help them through the community that we’ve got here working with dozens of other startups, and it’s a pretty robust, innovative community. That’s a pretty neat component. Obviously that took a hit with COVID, but we went to a more virtual program and still had that community as a strong piece of our program. There’s also the coaching piece, which I talked about. We’re one of the few programs that provides that dedicated coaching and advice to our startups and helps them with the challenges or needs they have. Whether it’s looking to fill their pipeline with customers or looking for investment, we jump in from a coaching perspective and help them along the way.
Is this where you thought you’d end up?
Honestly, no, It was kind of a roundabout, up-and-down journey to get here, but now that I am in this role, it’s something I really enjoy because I get to work with startups and innovative individuals that are changing the world in some respects. That wasn’t on my radar 10 years ago.
I thought I’d be in urban planning or city planning. I still get to dabble in that a little bit, and that was my ultimate goal when I went back to school and made that pivot. But this is actually a lot cooler. In terms of my own personal growth, this is ideal.
Big-picture, what motivates you?
What motivates me is being able to provide expertise and assistance and add value to the startups that are part our program. I see it almost like a servant leader. I want to be able to help these startups get to their milestones and achieve their development. So that’s really what motivates me, providing that little nugget on a daily or weekly basis that moves the ball for them. That really drives me. I want a startup to say, “Hey, that Antony Seppi; he steered me in that direction,” and be remembered for that.
What’s exciting at the HCDC right now?
I think there is a drive to make sustainability a real focus here in Cincinnati and that’s exciting. I think Cincinnati definitely has a right to play in that space. Some of the larger companies that have a presence here are moving in that direction as well, and I think there are some innovations and startups out there that can help them achieve those goals. We partnered with an accelerator last fall called SustainableCincy so that’s kind of the start of that. And I think there’s a lot more to come, being able to grow companies and solve real challenges in that space. We have partnerships with the Green Umbrella, District 2030, SustainableCincy, Cintrifuse. I think all those organizations working together towards sustainability is pretty exciting.
What makes you passionate about the startup scene in Cincinnati?
I think it’s the willingness of the different organizations in the startup scene to work together and help startups along. I would like to think that we’re pretty selfless in that sense. Between HCDC, Cintrifuse and others, there’s no lack of resources here. There are a ton of programs and organizations to jump in and help that startup in whatever way they need. It’s just a matter of pointing them in the right direction. Our focus is on innovative, tech-enabled, often engineering solutions, so even if a company comes to us who isn’t really a fit, we’re happy to make a partner referral or send them to an organization that would be more of a fit for them. We have that willingness to work together and that selfless attitude amongst the different organizations.
How do you spend your free time, if you have any?
I do have a pretty good work-life balance. I had three kids at home and, over the past few years, sent two of them onto college. So I’m not as busy with their activities as they used to be, but I still have a 14-year-old at home who has a lot of activities and things that she’s involved with. So I’m still playing taxi driver for her. But I’m also a huge fan of soccer — my son played and that sparked my interest. I’m a huge fan of the Premier League and FC Cincinnati. I’ve been a season ticket holder since day one and hopefully that’ll be back playing soon.
Do you have any overarching advice to young entrepreneurs?
Be prepared for that startup journey, especially if you’re coming right out of school and your dream is to be an entrepreneur. Be prepared for that to be all-consuming, because it can really feel like it’s just you. It can be a long, lonely journey at times and I’ve had founders that have just kind of broken down from that. A lot of students that come out of school and they have this idealistic Silicon Valley perspective of startup life. But it’s up and down. So be prepared for that and take advantage of the resources that are out there, whether it’s on the business side of things or the mental health side of things. There are a lot more resources out there to help founders now.
For instance, one thing that we ramped up during the pandemic last summer was peer-to-peer discussion. It was on Zoom and wasn’t face-to-face, but it gave our founders the opportunity to talk to each other about business or family or life or whatever. Those are probably the best conversations that we’ve seen, and it was just giving them that platform to talk through things.