Architecture major. Event planner. Nonprofit director. Marketing manager. Food cart entrepreneur.
Each title has described Heather Gregory at one point or another, but if she had to choose one role to define herself it would be community organizer.
As Stoke Denton’s inaugural director, she’s using her diverse background to shepherd a community of entrepreneurs on their business journey in the city-backed coworking space managed by The Dallas Entrepreneur Center.
“I just felt like this was the culmination of so many different skills and interests that I had.”
The hiring of the 34-year-old Denton native has sparked some concerns in the community given she’s the daughter of Denton City Council member Dalton Gregory. In response to those questioning the familial connection, Heather Gregory said due diligence has been carried out and her experience speaks for itself.
Her father told the Denton Record-Chronicle, that he had no hand in his daughter’s selection for the position and will recuse himself from any future council business affiliated with Stoke. Both The DEC and Dalton Gregory have disclosed the relationship in conflict-of-interest statements filed last month, according to the newspaper.
“Being passionate about Denton, knowing Denton, having experience starting and operating my own small businesses — I just felt like this was the culmination of so many different skills and interests that I had,” she said of her new role at Stoke.
The entrepreneurial center officially opened last August but has been without a director until Gregory took the reins in January.
Currently, about 20 companies ranging from an environmental analyst to web and app developers occupy the space.
Gregory talked with Dallas Innovates this week about the Denton startup ecosystem and her plans for Stoke going forward. These answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
What type of leader are you?
I love working with other people and having people feel empowered to do their own part and take on a role. I think I’m a natural leader, but with a little bit of a gentle touch.
I like to work as part of a team. In the leadership roles that I’ve had, I always try to, when appropriate, bring people in to help accomplish goals together.
What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs just starting out?
I think it’s important to start asking questions. [When I began,] I had an idea, but I didn’t know where to start. So, I just really started asking questions. I started looking for resources where available.
One of the first things I learned is, you don’t know what you don’t know.
There’s a wealth of information out there, you just have to start looking for it.
When you’ve never done something before, you are never quite sure what step to take first. … So, start asking questions and figure out what local resources are available. There’s a wealth of information out there, you just have to start looking for it.
How would you characterize the startup community in Denton and how does Stoke fit in?
The startup community in Denton is diverse. There’s tech, there’s data, and there are maker entrepreneurs. There are media entrepreneurs. There are service entrepreneurs. The plan is that Stoke will really be able to serve all types of entrepreneurs.
Within the confines of Stoke itself, what kind of atmosphere do you hope to cultivate?
I hope to cultivate an inclusive, energetic, and collaborative environment. Something where people can come and really get to work, but also it’s relaxed and there are natural relationships — either personally or professionally — that form out of the nature of working near each other and knowing what’s going on.
We’ve started doing member huddles where the members come together as a community once a month and are able to share successes, share needs that they have, and really start to understand what the other people in the community are doing and working on and how they could maybe work together or support each other.
I hope to cultivate an inclusive, energetic, and collaborative environment.
What are your top three priorities for Stoke in the short-term?
I really hit the ground running. We are already launching a series of educational programs.…
The Lunch and Learn series will be a series that’s more on that broad side of if you are an entrepreneur, you probably need to know this. So, branding, business planning, taxes, bookkeeping — those kinds of general subjects. We will also host, industry-specific education opportunities.
We have a group called TechMill Denton that is very involved in our program and they really focus on the tech side of things. So, they are hosting an open data day that’s happening here in early March, there’s Women Who Code that happens here on a monthly basis. They do open hacks and all sorts of tech-focused [events]. I’m also working to develop some other industry-specific opportunities.
Launching the mentorship program is another one of my top goals. We have recruited over 25 mentors with a variety of expertise and skill sets. Really, Stoke members have unlimited access to mentors. Once that program kicks off next week, they will be able to tap into a wealth of knowledge and experience. The hope is that no matter what industry that somebody is in or what stage they are in their business, that they will be able to tap into a mentor and seek advice for whatever challenge or questions they may have. We are actually having a mixer next Thursday to kick off that program.
The last component I would say that is one of my top priorities, is strengthening the community that we already have here and growing those numbers and growing that community as a whole.
Fast forward five years, what are your long-term goals for Stoke?
In five years, I would like to look back and see dozens of people and companies that we’ve helped take from ‘I have this idea, I think it could work’ and provide them the resources, the mentorship, the education, the community to be able to get from that potential to a company.
I would love to have our space be filled with that diverse population of entrepreneurs that really reflect what is happening in Denton and help inspire more people to stay here in Denton and take their idea and make it a reality.
Any plans to partner with local institutions such as UNT or TWU?
We have people from both UNT and TWU that are signed up as mentors. We will definitely pursue and strengthen those relationships. I would love for students to see Stoke as a resource for them particularly once they are done with college. There are such tremendous resources at the universities themselves, but once they‘re done and if they lose those facilities, to know that we are here and we are a resource for them.
We are working with Thin Line Fest, which is a film and music festival that happens here in Denton. We are going to be doing a panel on being a media entrepreneur — videography, photography, music — so how to really turn those passions into a functional business.
Anything else people should know about you or your plans for Stoke?
I want people to see Stoke as a community resource for entrepreneurs. I want people to get involved in one way or another whether it’s officing out of the space, coming to events that we have, becoming a mentor, or becoming a customer of some of the small businesses that are operating out of Stoke. We’ve got some fantastic people doing some great things. They are here to serve the Denton community.
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