As a longtime film and TV producer, Cheryl Miller Houser has become used to the fact that each production becomes its own business enterprise, so it was only natural that her interest would be piqued by the idea of following young entrepreneurs trying to find their footing, but this time it wasn’t going to be enough to be a silent partner in the storytelling.
“A large reason why I was drawn to telling this story was because I had worked my whole career as second-in-command, helping people build their companies for independent production companies and finally I got to an age where I felt I want to be in control of my destiny,” said Miller Houser of “Generation Startup,” her directorial debut with Cynthia Wade. “I realized it’s now or never. If I didn’t take that leap soon, I would just be too old to do it, so I really drew inspiration from these young kids who were taking these risks at a time in life – 22, 23, 24 – that is already so unstable where you’re figuring out who you are.”
That insight proved crucial to telling the story of six recent college grads who set up shop in Detroit as part of Venture for America, an incubation program for burgeoning entrepreneurs intended to give a platform for young men and women to launch their businesses in communities in need of economic revitalization. In the Motor City, Miller Houser and Wade find a motley group of aspiring small business barons, focusing on two startups in the midst of taking their businesses to the public – Banza, a pasta company founded by brothers Brian and Scott Rudolph whose garbanzo bean recipe aims to make it a hit with the gluten-free crowd, and Castle, a property management company launched by Max Nussenbaum, Tim Dingman and Scott Lowe.
The film also expands the spotlight to include three others – Dextina Booker, who works on confidential projects for Rock Ventures by day and spends her free time putting the engineering acumen she picked up at MIT to use in the community, Labib Rahman, whose desire to pioneer apps that help physicians and patients with better access to medical records and procedures in third world countries puts him in conflict with his strict religious parents, and Kate Caitlin, whose gig at a tech training startup threatens to be overshadowed by her personal project, Women Rising, which brings young professional women together to network.
Through a year of ups and downs, “Generation Startup” shows the mental and physical fortitude it takes to start a business, as well as the fact that there’s no one proper path, with detours leading to the promised land for some, and others constantly having to refine their ideas to get potential investors or distributors to take them seriously. As the film makes its way through theaters throughout the country, Miller Houser and Caitlin, one of the film’s subjects, spoke about striking out on their own, the vulnerable time that the film captures, and how the film took its shape.
How did this come about?
Cheryl Miller Houser: I have three kids and my eldest just graduated from college with an English degree. He was working at a startup [where] they gave him a ton of responsibility in marketing and he had no clue what he was doing, but he was figuring it out as part of a fellowship program called Venture for America that places recent college graduates in startups in 17 cities around the country. Ideally, they can work at startups for two years so they can see what it’s all about and VFA encourages them to launch their own startups ideally in the cities where they’ve been placed.
I met Andrew Yang, the founder of Venture for America, and said, I see the experience my son is having, and I would love to follow fellows in one of your cities because I had just started my own company and I identified so strongly with this idea of taking risk and going out on your own. If you look at the innovation going on in society today, it’s often times spurred by technology companies and by startups. And Andrew was game. He gave me full editorial control and full access. I brought on Cynthia Wade as a co-director and once I had raised the money, Cynthia and I chose to film in Detroit.
We wanted to follow a mix of kids just coming out of college and joining startups and also a few people who had worked at a startup for a few years and who were launching their own companies. Banza and Castle were [comprised of] VFA fellows who had all worked at other companies in Detroit for two years and Brian Rudolph was just launching Banza at the time and Max [Nussenbaum], Tim [Dingman] and Scott [Lowe] were just launching Castle. But when the college grads come out, VFA has a training camp for five weeks, so we went and met everyone going to Detroit and put them on tape. From there, we found Kate, who had been in Detroit for a year already, [and] a few others.
Kate, were you immediately receptive to having this anxiety-ridden time in your life captured on camera?
Kate Caitlin: [laughs] There was some trepidation around that, for sure. But I had a cause that I wanted to promote with Women Rising and that made me much more receptive to the idea of having things on camera. [This film is] encouraging other women to take more risks, and that’s a big theme of the entire movie is to encourage people watching it to take more risks. With this nonprofit, Women Rising, our whole goal is to encourage women to step up into tech, to step up into leadership, to step up into growth, and that takes risk, so I think it’s a tremendous message to see so many people being so vulnerable in the midst of these huge risks they’re taking for everyone. Of course, there’s tremendous fear with what [the filmmakers] are going to do with what they’re shooting and how am I going to be portrayed. Will I still like and respect the way I’m portrayed 40 years from now? But they filmed a couple scenes with a few of us and I got more comfortable with the idea as time went along.
For the testimonial scenes, were all of the fellows given cameras?
Cheryl Miller Houser: We gave everyone GoPros. Almost everyone used them and some of the very best moments in the movie are the Go Pro footage because that’s when they were really, really alone with their thoughts. Now we’re doing short videos [from that footage] that we’re pushing out on Instagram and we’re also cutting featurettes around different themes. We had over 200 hours of footage that we had to cut down to 93 minutes, so we have some extraordinary footage that didn’t make it into the movie.
Was there a moment where this changed direction in terms of what you thought it might be?
Cheryl Miller Houser: When you’re following people in their real lives, you just have to be at peace with the fact you don’t know where stories are going to go, and the film was so ambitious and so difficult that we went through the exact same crucible that Banza, Castle, all these companies do. We worked around the clock for two-and-a-half years and I wasn’t sure at any moment did we have a film? Would these stories tie together and could we make a cohesive whole out of six stories? Banza almost folded because they couldn’t figure out their product in the beginning — the pasta kept turning the mush. Castle didn’t know what their business plan was for a long time. Every time we came in the beginning, they pivoted and had a new business plan. But even if one of the companies had failed along the way, I think the film still would’ve [worked out]…I mean, look at Labib. Things don’t work out for him in a conventional way – he didn’t get the promotion or the big title at his job, but he grew so much as a person, you feel his story is so uplifting for that reason.
How’d you end up following him home? He’s the only one whose family you make part of the film.
Cheryl Miller Houser: We felt it was important to go home with Labib because one of the big themes of the movie is be true to yourself. Society tells you take a conventional path, take the safe road and here are six people bucking that convention. I think Labib’s story is so much more courageous because he’s not only bucking convention of what society expects of someone who graduates with a degree in engineering, but he’s also bucking his parents’ wishes. His parents were so against his joining a startup, and not taking the lucrative pharma job, but that was part of his story of being a young entrepreneur. Then when he was living so far from them in Detroit, and financially independent for the first time in his life, that is when he began to live life on his own terms and this is very common.
It’s also interesting to see Dextina’s journey, especially when she mentions upfront she’s working at a company where the projects are kept confidential. Did you actually know you’d be able to continue filming with her?
Cheryl Miller Houser: Right, we were worried about that, and again, I was never sure would any of these stories come together. In terms of Dextina, we were a little worried if we were following everyone else through their jobs and not Dextina, was she going to stand out in some way? We also don’t follow Kate at her job as much as we follow her building her Women Rising side project, so it was really finding the inner core of every story. For Dextina, so much of what was driving her was getting to know Detroit and wanting to get involved in the community so that’s what we followed her doing. And with Banza and Castle, they were working so hard, they got involved in the community through their work, and Kate as well through Women Rising, so it was different, each according to his or her own circumstances.
Kate, was it interesting to see Women Rising become a central focus when it started out, as you say in the film as a “side project”?
Kate Caitlin: When I first launched Women Rising, I had a very strong debate about whether this was going to be a for-profit company that I would leave Detroit Labs to go and launch or whether it would be a nonprofit and it was something that we would manage on the side on nights and weekends. We ended up going for the latter, but I’m actually leaving my company in January of 2017 to launch the for-profit spinoff, so while it is my greatest passion, it’s still not paying any bills. But that’s something that a lot of VFA Fellows struggle with – is this a startup or is this a side project? Because so many of us want to get to that point of entrepreneurship, and we test things out along the way – you know, Banza tested out several other ideas before coming to Banza, Castle tested out several other ideas before becoming Castle, and a lot of us fellows are trying things out on nights and weekends to figure out what is it I’m actually going to pour 90 hours a week into when I leave my job.
What’s it been like to travel with the film?
Cheryl Miller Houser: It’s been amazing. We were invited by the White House to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit where we screened the film, and we were invited by Michael Moore to the Traverse City Film Festival. What’s been most rewarding is to see how moving and how powerful it is for people, and also to see the range [of our audience] – it touches people of all generations, across nationalities, race, gender. I was so worried would we be able to make a cohesive movie with six characters and what I thought potentially was one of the film’s weaknesses was proven to be one of its strengths. People have identified really strongly with one person or often identify with all six in different ways. I hope that it inspires everyone to move a little bit outside their comfort zone and be a little less fearful of failing.
“Generation Startup” opens on September 30th in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Monica Film Center. A full list of theaters and dates is here.