Sheryl Waddell is the new face behind UNC’s Innovation Hub, which plans to open a space on East Rosemary Street in early 2023. As Innovate Carolina’s newly anointed Director of Economic Development and Innovation Hubs, Waddell hopes to foster an even greater spirit of innovation and economic prosperity in Chapel Hill, which in recent years has sometimes been a bit in the shadow of the entrepreneurial growth in Durham and Raleigh.
“I welcome the opportunity to talk to anyone who is looking to engage with UNC-Chapel Hill,” Waddell said. “The door’s wide open, and that hasn’t necessarily always been the case. I’m hoping there’s a sea of change within that, and I’m hoping to be a part of that.”
Growing up in Pennsylvania, Sheryl Waddell got her first taste of entrepreneurship when she joined her father’s third company as a co-founder of wireless data communications developer Padcom. She grew up in a serial entrepreneur family, but becoming a co-founder with her father was essentially her being “thrown into the fire,” she said.
After the company merged with another, she spent some time working for a systems integrator for state and local governments. But when Waddell’s family moved to North Carolina in 2009, she started investigating ways to bridge herself with the Triangle’s robust entrepreneurial community.
Ten years ago, she found a perfect opportunity to kickstart UNC’s Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network, which was a partnership between UNC, NC State, NCCU, Duke and CED to connect serial entrepreneurs with new startup founders to help them get investment-ready.
But this is by no means the only impact Waddell has made on the Triangle tech ecosystem. She also founded e51, a women’s entrepreneurial initiative, in 2014. The name builds on the fact that women comprise 51 percent of the working population in the U.S., yet they are underrepresented at the top levels of entrepreneurship and industry.
The inspiration for e51 came in part from meeting Heather McDougall, who now works for the City of Raleigh as the Strategy and Innovation Manager. They realized they shared similar ideas around the lack of female entrepreneurship in the region.
The pair got 26 women together and brainstormed on what was needed in the Triangle. Most women wanted ways to network that were based around learning opportunities, so e51 spun out as a way to create workshops and promote a larger women’s network.
It’s difficult to take a step back and offer up your time to mentor others, Waddell said, but that is exactly what a new woman entrepreneur needs. The e51 model allowed seasoned entrepreneurs to work with new ones, who would in turn work with college undergraduates in the area.
“We created these opportunities where they could feel like they were paying it forward and supporting that next generation of female entrepreneurs,” Waddell said.
This work is what Waddell said she is most proud of thus far, but it’s difficult when so much inequity still exists for women on the entrepreneurial and executive level.
“There’s so much more work to do,” Waddell said. “That’s why it’s like that double-edged sword. I’d like to say I’m proud of it, but I see that there’s so much more to do.”
A Career of Learning
Throughout her career journey so far, Waddell said being curious has always been critical, especially as an entrepreneur.
“Being curious is a trait that is extremely valuable regardless of what you’re doing,” Waddle said. “It’s valuable just to live a fruitful life outside of business—being curious about people, being curious about the world and what’s going on in it.”
She’s learned a lot since her early days where she was worried about asking questions when she didn’t know something.
“Early on in my career, being a woman, I was afraid to step in and say, ‘Wait a second, I don’t understand that. I need to ask this question,’” Waddell said. “Now it’s how I learn, and I’m not afraid to say, ‘I don’t know. I need to learn this.’”
Her other advice to entrepreneurs is to remain aware of the larger picture, even when your instinct is to intensely focus on the product or problem in front of you.
“A lot of entrepreneurs spend too much time heads-down, doing what they are passionate about or doing what they see in front of them,” Waddell said. “Being able to step back and see a broader vision of what things could be and the strategy behind that is something that I’m finding is really valuable and critical in this new role that I’ve taken on.”
In its entirety, Waddell said, the Triangle tech ecosystem is truly something unique for its connectivity and close-knit nature. That’s why larger companies and new talent are continually coming to the Triangle.
In her new role at UNC, Waddell is looking forward to incentivizing more businesses to come to Chapel Hill. She also notes the importance of developing a more diverse community of entrepreneurs. Diversity has always been key to innovation, Waddell said, but businesses are just beginning to reckon with what that means their teams should look like.
“Something that’s critical to an innovation environment is to think differently,” Waddell said. “Now we’re realizing that in order to think differently you also have to have people that don’t look like you at the table.”