Speaking Easy With Danielle McDowell
Writer / Kara Kavensky Reibel
Photographer / Stephanie Duncan
Danielle McDowell, entrepreneur and Executive Director of The Speak Easy, opens up about family, her entrepreneurial success and running Indiana’s first co-working space.
After graduating from Notre Dame with a degree in business administration and marketing, McDowell moved to Indianapolis where she met her husband, Jonathan McDowell, Park Tudor Summer School Director and golf coach. The couple has two young children.
McDowell was the 11th employee to join Scott Jones’ company, ChaCha, where she worked for three years on the marketing team during the early inception phase. After leaving ChaCha, McDowell worked with BitWise Solutions where she met Janell Shaffer. This relationship would prove pivotal for both women.
Shaffer was noodling on an idea for a company based upon the Angie’s List model but for hair stylists. Shaffer wished to ease the frustration experienced when attempting to track down a stylist after the stylist changed salons as it was nearly impossible to find out where they moved to without hiring a private detective. Shaffer wished to create a database for reviews and contact information for hair stylists that would remedy this problem. During this time, McDowell had her first child, and she and Shaffer would close the door and discuss the details of this plan while McDowell pumped.
Coincidentally, both McDowell and Shaffer were leaving BitWise, each with job offers, but decided to build upon the stylist idea and founded My Best Friend’s Hair, a find-a-stylist and beauty blog. With a free listing service and premium memberships available by subscription, the site caught on in popularity with stylists and their clientele.
In addition to My Best Friend’s Hair, Shaffer and McDowell came up with a solution to aid beauty suppliers from the “grey” market of non-licensed beauty supply retailers selling product that they are not allowed to carry. The result was loxabeauty.com. Their idea was timely, and after six months, they were acquired by a subsidiary of Sally Beauty Holdings.
The journey of My Best Friend’s Hair and loxabeauty.com was a wild five years of high energy which is required by a startup. After the liquidity event, McDowell wished to spend more time with her children, taking some time off. She lasted a week and a half.
“The opportunity to apply for the position of Executive Director of The Speak Easy was well-timed,” shared McDowell. “It was competitive to get the job, and it allows me the ideal environment in which to work as well as the convenience of being close to home with regular hours.”
To date, The Speak Easy has launched 170 companies out of their doors, many of whom are still members in order to utilize space for board meetings and events. Coincidentally, McDowell and Shaffer had been members while they launched My Best Friend’s Hair.
“There’s a lot of serendipity with being Executive Director of The Speak Easy,” shares McDowell. “Gravity Ventures (now High Alpha), which was an investor in My Best Friend’s Hair, hosted a launch party here at The Speak Easy. And we held our board meetings here. We (My Best Friend’s Hair) all worked from home, so whenever we needed to meet with anyone, we would utilize The Speak Easy.”
“Originally, the idea for The Speak Easy was to create a clubhouse to get people from the tech community together to share, learn and co-work locally versus traveling to events such as South by Southwest to interact with the greater tech community,” shares co-founder Jeb Banner.
The other co-founders are Kristian Andersen, Eric Tobias, Andy Clark and Dave Castor. Along with Chris Baggot, Jim Jay and Mark Hill, they formed an ad hoc board to accomplish fundraising and pushed forward where the space is located today. At the time of origin, the City of Indianapolis stepped up with a $100,000 grant to supersize the project, and DeveloperTown had space in their new building. These factors, along with the community support, merged to create the first co-working space in Indiana.
“Danielle has been fantastic,” says Banner. “She’s brought energy and vitality to her position, grown the board, put together plans for renovating the current space and increased fundraising. She’s engaging, outgoing and inviting. She has proven to be a dynamic leader for the organization.”
The importance of investing in the startup community is something that McDowell intimately understands. For the future of The Speak Easy, she and their Board of Directors have big goals for the co-working space.
The Speak Easy Expansion Initiative seeks to continue to help those companies flourish who have grown out of The Speak Easy and have launched into other office space but are still in critical growth phases. With 170 companies who’ve already left the nest, the mentoring and assistance will continue. This is great news for the over 350 existing members.
The Board of Directors for The Speak Easy is diverse and represents a supportive entrepreneurial community for which it serves. Included on the board are founders Jeb Banner and Andy Clark, as well as VisionTech Angel Managing Partner Oscar Moralez.
“Supporting our local startup companies is critical for economic development,” states Moralez. “Serving on the board for The Speak Easy is an honor and aligns with the mission of investing in our state’s future growth by facilitating the jobs of tomorrow.”
For more information on membership, please visit speakeasyindy.com.