Caroline Crowder, the new executive director of GrowCo, moved from Singapore back to Columbia to help GrowCo. (Photo courtesy of Caroline Crowder)

GrowCo, an entrepreneurial non-profit, has hired Caroline Crowder as its new executive director, who will run the organization’s tech incubator in Five Points.

The hub is known as the Boyd Foundation Community Innovation Center. 

Crowder will provide the day-to-day operations and leadership the center has been without since opening in July. The center will provide a collaborative business space, networking, resources and a community for technology start-ups in Columbia. The hub and Crowder are being paid for by a $1 million donation from the Boyd Foundation.

The center is part of a growing movement in Columbia. Modern economies prosper when technology companies bring high-profit, high-paying technology jobs to the area. Columbia officials have tried to encourage this, inspiring local investors to such an innovative take on incubators.

“Having Caroline in place allows us to activate the program, the investments from the Boyd (Foundation), having someone full time to move forward and oversee,” said Joe Queenan, a volunteer and previously GrowCo’s interim director. “Caroline is the key to activating the roadmap.”

Queenan worked with Chris Heivly, a GrowCo investor, to find Crowder. Heivly, from the Durham area, launched his investing career after selling MapQuest, the popular digital map service.

“We needed an executive director who could jump in on day one, who understood Columbia, who understood the different folks in the network, their intended role, and was well-respected by the founders.” Queenan said. “When you go down that list, there was only one person that checked all the boxes.”

Crowder has a bachelor’s and masters degree from the University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business. She most recently lived in Singapore, where she worked with similar entrepreneurial-driven companies Techstars and Global Alliances.

Before Singapore, she worked in Columbia for the USC Technology Incubator. She met Queenan during her time there. 

Crowder started less than four weeks ago, so she’s still trying to learn and connect with the Innovation Center’s community, Queenan said.

“I think I’m still very much in evaluation mode,” Crowder said. “And I think from a leadership perspective, you cannot come in on day one, or even on week three or four, and completely turn everything upside down and on its head. … I think change takes a long time. Culture takes a long time to build. And these things don’t just happen overnight.”

While she gets her bearings on local companies and commerce, she has already appeared at the Growth Summit, a educational and networking event, on Oct. 20 and 21. The event started in Columbia in 2015 and has been led by GrowCo since 2020. 

Queenan said nearly 500 people showed up during the two-day summit this year — an increase from the previous years, he said. 

“The energy and the momentum in Columbia now is just — we’ve never seen this before,” he said. “And I think Caroline is the linchpin to all of this.”

Crowder also will continue to establish a program with Benedict University to funnel a pipeline of college students into the entrepreneurial program. 

“Caroline is resourceful, experienced and someone who “has had her ear to the ground in Columbia and the ecosystem for startups for a long time,” said Laura Boccanfuso, the founder and CEO of Van Robotics, a Columbia-based, AI-enabled robot tutor company. Boccanfuso is also on the board of directors of GrowCo.

Boccanfuso has worked with Crowder before and sees her as someone who will be able to connect the dots — of commerce, founders, stakeholders, resources and institutions — to collaboratively meet GrowCo’s shared vision.

“It’s the right timing for her to bring all that together. … It’s the right person at the right time in the right place,” Boccanfuso said.