John Modica (left), winner of 757Pitch event at Hamilton Perkins’ popup store in the MacArthur Center mall in Norfolk with Tim Ryan and Chris Shelton (right). (Courtesy photo)

When Tim Ryan was named the director of Startwheel in September 2019, he decided to get to know the organization and “try to understand the landscape.”

“I spent most of my time going to different events, networking events, ribbon cuttings, etc.,” Ryan said. He wanted to understand through engagement and interaction what entrepreneurs in Tidewater needed to succeed. And then COVID hit. And Ryan, himself a small businessman and a long-time entrepreneurship champion, was faced with a new challenge as the leader of a 501c3 organization.

“We had to figure out, how do we stay relevant,” Ryan said. “We had to figure out how to engage existing supporters and sponsors, grow our newsletter, generate website traffic and grow our social media presence.”

Part of the strategy involved broadening the organization’s focus beyond startups and reaching out to the small business community. But there is a difference between those two types of ventures that Ryan had to keep in mind.

Part of Startwheel’s mission since its inception has been to connect nascent businesses with resources across the region in an organized and holistic way. During the pandemic, Ryan realized the small business community also needed resources to survive and succeed.

The difference is that startups are generally in need of investors and resources to grow and scale up quickly, while small businesses tend to grow “more organically,” Ryan explained. But whether a startup or not, there is no such thing as an overnight success, he said.

“You have to have a long-term vision,” he said. His job is to help entrepreneurs realize, engage with and leverage all the resources available to them locally. Ryan said COVID helped bring down barriers to connecting startups with investors and changed the way businesses and investors interacted, Ryan said.

“So many people think they have to leave the area to grow their business, but that landscape is really changing,” he said.

Essentially, Ryan hopes to build a network and community where both startups and small businesses can “stay plugged in to all the resources available and ensure that they all stay strong.”

Chris Shelton — owner of Cure Coffee in Norfolk, a self-described serial entrepreneur, and the founder of Startwheel — was running the Old Dominion University Innovation Center when he met Ryan in 2015. In Ryan, Shelton recognized a kindred spirit.

The two got to know each other better when Ryan joined the board of Startwheel and it was Ryan’s “interest and devotion to the mission of Startwheel,” Shelton said, that drove him to recommend Ryan as his replacement when he stepped down to focus on his own business.

Shelton said Ryan’s longevity in entrepreneurial organizations around the region is a sign of his ability to lead Startwheel. Shelton notes that Ryan started a business and headed Launchpad, a business incubator in Williamsburg, for five years before joining Startwheel.

“In addition to knowing all the resources available, being able to talk to a fellow entrepreneur and thinking through how to quickly and efficiently connect them to what they need and who the next point of contact should be, Tim just understands the community,” Shelton said.

About the honoree

Name: Tim Ryan

Business: Startwheel


Philosophy: Startwheel’s mission is to centralize and mobilize efforts that foster the growth of entrepreneurism in Hampton Roads’ regional innovation economy. The organization aims to guide and cultivate an entrepreneurial network where talent, resources information and leadership come together.