Ecosystem Builders don’t graduate college with ecosystem building degrees. They don’t work their way up through the corporate ladder to earn the title of ecosystem builder or take a 5 hour course and emerge with a certificate. Ecosystem Building is a title that you arrive at through multiple paths - each one unique to the person who found themselves there. For Chandra Miller Fienen, ecosystem building was in her blood. She calls herself a “second generation ecosystem builder” because growing up, she saw the work first hand through her mother and other members of her family who were doing it (without that title) in their communities. 


“Becoming an ecosystem builder was a natural progression. I was aiming for this but it didn’t exist until we built it.”

- Chandra Miller Fienen, Executive Director, StartingBlock Madison

“My mother ran a program in the 80s called ‘It’s My Business.’ She worked to foster small business owners and had a micro loan program. I come from a family of community builders. I have peace activists, politicians, and other ecosystem builders in my very large, extended family. I grew up doing it.” 

Being exposed to community builders in a variety of ways growing up definitely made Chandra a natural ecosystem builder, but there isn’t exactly a direct path or job title to becoming what we now know is an ecosystem builder. You just kind of find yourself there. Chandra is a lawyer by training who started off at a law firm and then went to work for the Wisconsin Department of Commerce, followed by the Office of the Governor where she worked on economic development policies for entrepreneurs and startups. From there, she became an entrepreneur, founding the biotechnology company Bioarray Therapeutics with two scientists. All of these experiences tee’d her up to help found and become the Executive Director of an organization that supports innovative entrepreneurial activity. 

“Becoming an ecosystem builder was a natural progression. I was aiming for this but it didn’t exist until we built it.”

That organization she helped “build” is StartingBlock Madison. Chandra says opening StartingBlock is the best thing that has ever happened in her ecosystem building career. 

“The StartingBlock project was an extremely ambitious mission for a city the size of Madison. It required a lot of players. There was a significant amount of risk in it, and even yesterday I had someone who was in StartingBlock say, ‘I didn’t think you were going to pull it off and you have.’

It’s nice that we’re bringing some of the naysayers who didn’t think we were going to succeed onboard and turning them into supporters who understand the impact we are having collectively to the ecosystem.” 

Chandra was part of what she calls “The Pipe Dream Team,” a group of entrepreneurs who wanted something big for Madison.

“We thought that Madison had all the ingredients to become a leader in entrepreneurship,” she told the Rotary Club of Madison in a presentation in 2018. Despite the fact that Madison is situated in a “flyover” state, and is small in size in terms of tech cities, Madisonians are “highly educated dreamers.” The Pipe Dream team believed that Madison was entrepreneurial and could get on the national entrepreneur map if it had a home - a collective garage where entrepreneurs could undertake in collective community and not in isolation. 

“We wanted to teach each other and learn from each other. We wanted to pay it forward and share lessons and we wanted to be a place where entrepreneurs would be listened to but also a place where our local entrepreneurs could shine.” 

In 2016, The Pipe Dream team was converted to the “Dream Team” and they got it done. They closed their financing round in Fall 2016, broke ground in 2017, and opened in June of 2018.

When Chandra says many players, she’s not exaggerating. For one, the eight story building that StartingBlock is housed in, is on a public piece of land owned by the City of Madison. Part of the city’s strategic plan was to have this parcel of land support economic development. It could not go to a residential development. 

“When they put the RFP out, there was very clearly a portion of the RFP that was focused on economic development particularly in entrepreneurial and startup aspects. That was purposefully designed for us to be able to play a role in it because we were ready to go,” explains Chandra. “We already knew about it and had already lined up American Family Insurance for submitting to the RFP.” 

Another big, early supporter was Madison Gas and Electric. They provided funds and arranged with the city to sell their piece of land across the street so they could have a public parking ramp nearby.

So within this partnership, there were entrepreneurs and ecosystem builders who had dreamed of having an entrepreneurial epicenter, there was a government who wanted to help spur more entrepreneurial activity, there was American Family insurance (AmFam for short), who offered support in multiple ways, and the University of Wisconsin as well. That’s a lot of players!  

“American Family Insurance in Madison is a huge partner with a lot of entities. They care about helping people realize their dreams. Entrepreneurship fits right within that. They saw this opportunity to consolidate some of the things they are already doing in partnership with StartingBlock,” explains Chandra.

Within the building itself, which was built by AmFam, there are lots of programs/initiatives that are run by AmFam but are complementary to what StartingBlock does. The Dream Bank, on the first floor is a community space run by AmFam. They have fitness classes, small business classes, trainings, workshops, etc. The space is available for community groups to use. Above StartingBlock, there are components of AmFam like their venture fund and digital transformation office - “the parts of an insurance company that are interested in, and making investments in innovation and startup,” says Chandra. At the very top on the 8th floor is a new project, announced in October, called the Institute for Corporate and Social Impact. A venture fund focused on social entrepreneurship on a national level. 

And then, in the heart of that building, is StartingBlock Madison. You can see why Chandra cites the opening of such an amazing, collaborative center as the best thing that has ever happened. 

About StartingBlock and Chandra’s Role

StartingBlock is a large, entrepreneurial hub that occupies 50,000 square feet and three floors of “The Spark Center”. The mission of StartingBlock is to create the intersection that builds a connective, collaborative startup community. The organization focuses on four areas:

  1. Cultivating entrepreneurs - including entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds and diverse sectors.

  2. Accelerating startup growth.

  3. Executing innovative ideas to get them into the marketplace.

  4. Building a collaborative startup ecosystem that is not only financially successful, but good to their employees and gives back to the community.

StartingBlock runs a number of programs designed to cultivate early stage companies, help mid-stage startups grow, and encourage entrepreneurs to help the next generation by giving back. They offer affordable and flexible workspace, access to investors, a centralized network of existing and emerging industry players, professional advisors and mentors, accelerator programs, and education and community programming.

StartingBlock also houses different organizations and businesses within its three floors. They have startup companies, partner organizations, and other ecosystem builders that are co-located there. 

“Many of the ecosystem builders in Madison are here at StartingBlock, serving the same companies, aligning our missions and individual areas of focus with each other, avoiding competition, and favoring collaboration because we’re physically all in the same space,” says Chandra.

StartingBlock is a very collaborative organization. We have founding organizations that are partners and they sit on our board and provide leadership as well. That includes the Doyenne Group (our other Summit host), Gener8tor (nationally ranked accelerator), and Capital Entrepreneurs (a community group for entrepreneurs). I am more of the custodian of the StartingBlock project rather than the Director of it.”

Chandra has big plans for driving StartingBlock to become gender balanced. Her goal is to have a third to half of its businesses led or owned by women - making it the first in the country. She plans to continue collaborating with American Family Insurance, the Doyenne Group, UW-Madison, Madison College, and others to create a robust startup community.

What Does Ecosystem Building Mean to Chandra?

Being an entity that is heads up and understands where you fit within an ecosystem, and actively working to strengthen connections between other organizations with similar missions to close gaps that are missing in the ecosystem. To be listening to entrepreneurs as to what they need, and finding synergies with a city’s existing partners, allies, and organizations.”

You can meet Chandra and see her work firsthand at the Madison Summit September 17-19! Details here. In case you missed it, you can read the ecosystem building stories of our other summit hosts here: