146. Hero – Aidan Benkowski, Assistant Director of Business Development at gener8tor Transcript

00:00 Aidan:

I think it’s just my overall curiosity. I love building relationships. I love learning about what other people are doing, figuring out ways that I can work with them and help with them. I just want to keep doing that. I want to keep fostering relationships. I think that there’s a lot that we can collaborate on and we can do it together as a community. So that’s what I love doing.

00:21 Chris:

Welcome to EECO Asks Why a podcast that dives into industrial manufacturing topics, spotlights the heroes that keep America running. I’m your host, Chris Grainger. And on this podcast, we do not cover the latest features and benefits on products that come to market, instead, we focus on advice and insight from the top minds of industry because people and ideas will be how America remains number one in manufacturing in the world. 

Welcome to EECO Asks Why. Today we have a hero conversation. I’m very excited to have with me, Mr. Aidan Benkowski, who is the assistant director of business development at gener8tor. So how are you doing, Aidan?

01:04 Aidan:

Hey Chris. I’m doing well. Thank you.

01:05 Chris:

Now. Where are you located at?

01:07 Aidan:

I’m in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

01:08 Chris:

In Milwaukee. Okay. So are you from Milwaukee originally?

01:12 Aidan:

Yup. Yup. I grew up on a small farm in the suburbs of Milwaukee.

01:16 Chris:

All right. So we’re watching this in the middle of basketball season or the playoffs. So I guess you got a lot riding here this year, huh?

01:22 Aidan:

Yeah. That’s for sure.

01:24 Chris:

Well, you guys look good. He definitely looked good, but it’s a tough opponent out there, but anyway, I digress, but then get us started a little bit. We love these conversations, Aidan, just to hear about everybody’s personal journey. So what can you tell us about yours?

01:40 Aidan:

Yeah. I guess I’ll start in college. I feel like that’s kind of where I got a lot of my base from. I studied supply chain operations management at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. And along with that did a certificate in entrepreneurship. So I think they kind of sparked a lot of interest as I started to get into the startup ecosystem in Milwaukee. And that’s actually where I first got introduced to gener8tor when I had entered into some different business plan competitions while in college.

And then right after actually I started up a food cart and I ran a food cart out of Milwaukee for about a year and a half. And I was just kind of serving tables, work in the restaurant industry alongside that. And that was right before I had an opportunity come up in manufacturing, which is when I started to get into that industry.

So shortly after I started at an environmental manufacturing company based out of Brown Deer, Wisconsin. And that’s just where we made massive air pollution quality control solutions for other manufacturers. So I took all the engineer’s drawings, got everything built at the different subcontractors around the state and managed our different relationships that way. And then I shipped all the units around the US to the different manufacturers. It’s kind of a quick background. And then once I saw an opportunity to come up with gener8tor, I hopped on that and now I’m back in the startup ecosystem and kind of utilizing all the different skills that I’ve been able to build over the years and connecting a lot of different manufacturers with startups now.

02:54 Chris:

So, I mean, what does gener8tor do?

02:57 Aidan:

So gener8tor is a startup accelerator program and there’s a lot of different facets to the business side. So we have a pre-accelerator program. The pre accelerator doesn’t invest any dollars or take any equity. It’s really just helping founders to develop out their ideas, their executive summaries, their pitch plans, and just getting ready for that first round of funding to, to build out their business models.

And then we have an accelerator which we invest a hundred thousand dollars into five companies. And that’s like our main flagship program. And then we have more of a corporate side. So we have a peer-to-peer network program that’s called Project North. And that’s really just a membership program where we work with a lot of different innovations, open innovation, R and D, CVC, arms of co corporations in different orgs. And they’re just really trying to see what new technology is out there. They’re networking, meeting other folks in the industry and trying to figure out how they can use startups to solve some of the solutions that they’re trying to implement internally.

And then along with that, we also have an on-ramp conference series. So we also have six different vertical, specific conferences that we run and then I’m organizing and managing the on-ramp manufacturing conference and work with all of our Project North members that are manufacturing specific as well.

04:08 Chris:

Oh man. You’re having this sounds like you’re having all sorts of fun.

04:12 Aidan:

Yeah. A lot is going on, that’s for sure.

04:14 Chris:

So when you’re talking about startups and manufacturing and trying to connect those two worlds, what do you see as the greatest challenges there?

04:21 Aidan:

It’s interesting. I think that there’s a lot of manufacturers that aren’t too sure how to start some of the conversations or where to start, and it’s really dependent on what stage they’re in. So, I mean, I think the orgs that we’re working with might already have a whole venture capital team. And all they’re just trying to do is just invest in startups that are related to their core business and what they’re doing. And then there’s the other side where it’s like, there’s a lot of open innovation teams or R and D and there have so many complex solutions that they’re trying to solve versus so many complex problems that they’re trying to solve. And now they’re starting to figure out, well, how can we start to build these external partnerships to bring in different startups or different techs or whatever the case may be. So I think it’s just a lot of different corporations trying to figure out the right way to start engaging and how to do it, how to start facilitating conversations. It doesn’t seem very traditional, especially in manufacturing I would say.

05:13 Chris:

And are you seeing them more from a manufacturing standpoint, we know the resources are pretty tight for those manufacturers. And is that creating a blue ocean, if you will, of opportunity for these startups to come in and really start plugging in and finding opportunities to support and serve?

05:34 Aidan:

Yeah, definitely. I mean, they’re the startup ecosystem right now has really taken off. Especially with a lot of the workforce and attrition and things like that. We’re seeing a lot of different robotics and automation and different technologies, how we can start to solve some of those problems. And I think they’re just trying to connect with as many different resources as possible and have those conversations. So I think it’s growing a lot right now.

05:57 Chris:

Yeah. Now you mentioned two words that we hear a lot and unfortunately, workforce attrition and skills gap. We hear that. So from your standpoint, connecting those startups, is that a result of that workforce attrition and skills gap? And what do you see there?

06:12 Aidan:

Yeah, I would say, I think so some of the startups that are spiraling out are starting to try to address this concern because if there’s so many open jobs and we can’t fill them, how can we start to, keep producing the same output? And I think that’s where we’re starting to see a lot more automation coming in a lot more robotics. Additive, just starting to look elsewhere on how we can start to solve this problem. If we’re not going to be able to fill these jobs, how can we upscale our current workforce? So there’s a lot of different HR needs and there are startups that are coming up out of that. So while it could be a little bit of a hindrance I think is there’s also a lot of opportunities there that we can really capitalize on.

06:52 Chris:

Well, that’s really cool. I mean, I hadn’t even thought about the HR standpoint. So you’re saying you’re finding opportunities there for startups?

06:59 Aidan:

Yeah. Yeah, for sure. I mean, it’s really crazy to just being in this ecosystem. Gener8tor as a whole we’re really industry agnostic as we start to get a little bit more specific and I work specifically in manufacturing I do get to meet with a lot of other startups that are in different industries. I have seen some different HR solutions that can still be applicable in any industry as well. So just helping to find talent, helping to upskill employees. And I mean, that’s even one of the initiatives that gener8tor too. We run an upskilling program along with Microsoft that we partnered with. And it’s really just to help underemployed and unemployed people build those skills so that they can go out and actually find those new opportunities and build skills to get those new jobs as well. So just trying to find the right corporations and partnering with them so that they can fill those open positions too.

07:44 Chris:

Right. Now I know we connected because of the OnRamp Conference that you’re putting together. What can you share about that? Cause that was a new, definitely a new conference for me, I hadn’t heard about it. So there may be a lot of listeners out there, it’s new to them as well. So what can you share here?

08:00 Aidan:

So the On-Ramp Manufacturing Conference, is the fourth annual time that it’s happening and we are virtual again this year. Last year we pivoted virtual of course. So navigating that has been interesting, but also presented a lot of opportunities to cast a broad net, which has been really fun because we’ve been able to connect with a very broad range of startups and organizations, but specifically the main, I would say kind of crux and bread and butter of what we do at the conferences, ultimately trying to connect startups to resources.

So we’re doing this by setting up curated one-on-one pitch sessions. So as an organization, if you have a team and you’re trying to solve some of those problems externally and meet with different startups or even venture capital groups that are just trying to invest dollars and seek out those opportunities.

It’s that a group of people that can come and take meetings with startups, and then we just set up a full day of pitch meetings for them. So they’re meeting with up to 10, 15 startups throughout the day and it’s 20-minute pitch sessions. So that’s really what brings in over a hundred different participating organizations and over 400 startups to come and apply and take meetings with organizations. And they’re really in any phase. But along with that, we also have our main keynote speakers. We have fireside chats and panel discussions, and it’s really just having conversations on the industry about what we’re seeing going on new and upcoming technology. Just trying to have meaningful conversations so that we can help other organizations and small mid-size large manufacturers, just trying to get everybody involved in the conversation of what’s going on in our industry.

09:30 Chris:

Yeah. So, I mean, I guess what’s your goal at, the On-Ramp? Are you truly trying to be the connector?

09:37 Aidan:

Yeah. Yeah, definitely. It’s, really trying to connect startups to resources, whether it be, partnerships, if they’re trying to sell their company, if they’re trying to raise a round of venture capital funding to grow products, or even it could be just early phase, as far as trying to develop their very first product and they might have that opportunity to meet with the first manufacturer that says, “I got this 3D printing equipment. I think we could prototype your first product as well.” So it’s just building and fostering these relationships so that we can continue to grow that startup ecosystem, but also to fuel and help out these organizations that are trying to solve some internal problems too.

10:12 Chris:

Yeah, well, it sounds like it’s a great conference and we’ll make sure that we put the links in our show notes for listeners that want to check it out. Go directly there. I encourage you to register for what sounds like a fun event.

10:25 Aidan:

Yeah, it’s going to be a blast. I’m really looking forward to it. It’s been really fun starting to have these conversations and getting everybody involved to start building up these fireside chats right now. It’s a blast.

10:34 Chris:

I bet. I bet. Hopefully, with next year you’ll be able to get to go back to in-person potentially.

10:41 Aidan:

Yeah. Yeah. That’s the hope. And we normally do this in person. It’s really fun. We do it at a sports stadium, usually down in Indiana and Indianapolis as the Indiana Economic Development Corp is our biggest partner and sponsor. And so we do it at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the Pacers stadium and the organizations that come and take meetings, they rent out the suite. So you get the whole stadium view and then you just funnel in startups for their pitch meetings and the suites throughout the day. It’s pretty sweet.

11:06 Chris:

Oh, man, that sounds like a fun day for sure. I bet it just tells like this a day full of energy.

11:12 Aidan:

Oh, yeah, absolutely.

11:13 Chris:

That’s awesome. That’s awesome. Now, one thing I’m curious about you work with a lot of startups. Sometimes people have perceptions of startups and they may not always be accurate. So any myths out there about startups that you just like to knock out the park here?

11:27 Aidan:

I feel like one of the biggest ones is age. It doesn’t matter how old you are. It doesn’t matter how young you are. If you find something that you’re passionate about and you’re curious, and it’s something that just drives you, just go out and start having conversations. I don’t think that there’s any age group that should be a startup or shouldn’t be. I think that’s just something that we need to demystify.

11:46 Chris:

I love it. I love it. Now you’re pretty early in your career. I’m curious to know what are your goals? What’s on your horizon? What do you hope to accomplish one day?

11:57 Aidan:

That’s a tough one. And I’ve been thinking about that a lot because I am young in my career. And I’ve kind of gotten a few different experiences since college, with my own startup too. But I’m really loving working with gener8tor and I think it’s really fun, kind of consulting some of these organizations. So I’m really looking forward to continuing to build a lot of these different partnerships that we have with gener8tor. And it’s hard to say down the line. I mean, I think it’s really fun consulting groups. There are so many complex problems and they’re trying to put in complex solutions that might not be working. You can’t fit the square peg in a round hole, but the more times, if you have 20 different pegs you’re going to find the right one eventually.

So I think it’s just, you know, shots on goal is really a big thing. And I just have a lot of fun having conversations. I’m curious to learn about what manufacturer’s biggest hurdles are and how I can help to solve them and just building relationships. I don’t know where that’s going to lead me to, but I’m excited to find out. And I just look forward to continuing to build more relationships because that’s really what I love doing.

12:55 Chris:

That’s it. I mean, I’m definitely picking up that entrepreneurial spirit. I mean, you’re going to do great things.

13:01 Aidan:

That’s something that I can’t seem to kick. I just got that itch still.

13:05 Chris:

Hey, that’s great. I am curious you mentioned about your earlier career for speaking on the entrepreneurial standpoint you had that, was it a food truck he said you had? Or so give us a little bit of that because I looked at LinkedIn and you had some really awesome-looking pictures there. Like you had a really good setup. So what about that stood out?

13:24 Aidan:

Yeah. So we started, me and a couple of friends that I actually had met in the collegian entrepreneurship organization on campus. And we were all just like, let’s start something like, and of course, being in college, we just had huge eyes. We were like, oh, let’s, just set some insane goals that are probably not realistic. So once you’ve kind of started to get a little bit more realistic about things, we broke it down and we just said, what’s our minimum viable product that we could actually just start making money. A lot of the other things that we would have started would have been so capital intensive and it’s a lot of work to raise venture capital funding or money externally.

And so we ended up just saying, “Hey, let’s start a food cart.” We can buy something for way cheaper than anything else. And we ended up finding an investor that’s in the cheese industry pretty early on that allowed us to buy our food cart and our initial inventory. We developed out our different menu items. When we had first launched, it was like freezing. I think there’s still snow on the ground in March or February when we had first started serving. And it was like, well, that’s not going to work. We’ve got to wait until it gets warmer. Then we figured out what wasn’t selling and we figured out what wasn’t working.

And we just started eliminating and kind of pivoting that and partner with some different breweries around Milwaukee and started doing some different catering. And it was a blast. We learned so much so quick, and it’s just like the quicker you can start to just make that money and start to get that feedback loop from your customers of what are people enjoying? What are they not enjoying? What’s working? What’s not. We were able to pivot quickly and have fun with it.

14:50 Chris:

So what was your feedback on that peanut butter sandwich you had?

14:53 Aidan:

People loved it. We had a couple of staple items. Everybody was always like gung ho for the Gouda cheese. That was our biggest seller for sure.

15:02 Chris:

Nice. Nice. I’d say what you had me hungry. I must’ve been looking at that profile picture during lunchtime because you hit the spot just right, man. So very cool. Very cool. How about hobbies, man? What do you enjoy doing for fun Aidan?

15:16 Aidan:

I spend pretty much all my free time rock climbing. I go indoors and outdoors, do it all over Wisconsin. I’ve traveled the country for it a little bit too. That’s really what I love doing in my free time and skiing in the winter, of course.

15:29 Chris:

Well you’re around all that snow, right?

15:31 Aidan:

Yeah, exactly. Plus I’m an adrenaline junkie, so anything that can get me going.

15:37 Chris:

So how long have you been rock climbing?

15:40 Aidan:

I think about eight or nine, eight years now.

15:43 Chris:

Okay. Very fun. Very fun. on ESPN sometimes they had that rock climbing and it looks intense.

15:50 Aidan:

Yeah. Yeah. It’s pretty intense. And the competition climate is really interesting. The scene is actually kind of it’s growing a lot.

15:57 Chris:

Well, that’s great. How about family? We love talking about family here. So what would you like to share? You mentioned you’re from Milwaukee. Is your family still there?

16:05 Aidan:

We’re kind of scattered about at this point. I think something to mention is that I probably get the entrepreneurial itch from just about every single person in my family. Pretty much just come from a line of entrepreneurs. And my grandpa actually came over from Germany when he was a teenager. So I think it just instilled a lot of different characteristics that I think are relevant to my entrepreneurial itch. And that I think has made me very curious and persistent and passionate about the things that I’m doing. I think seeing how he kind of built his empire in the United States was pretty inspiring story.

16:42 Chris:

That’s awesome. That’s great. Thank you. Thank you for sharing what you did. Now we also like to talk to our heroes, Aidan and hear what they enjoy from a podcast standpoint or YouTube, just things they enjoy consuming, books. What do you find value out there? And it could be professional or just fun stuff that you enjoy maybe on rock climbing, but anything you’d like to share?

17:04 Aidan:

Oh yeah. There’s such a variety. I’m always trying to consume so much content and sometimes I’ll get halfway through an episode and switch over to another one. I love getting, industry-specific. I listened to your podcast, Manufacturing Happy Hour with Chris Luecke, and MFG Out Loud with Ray Ziganto. But also, sometimes I like dipping into Tim Ferriss’ podcast or one of my other friends started the 7-Figure Millennial podcast as well and I love listening to that. He’s always interviewing really interesting people too. So just trying to spread it out, across all the boards and learn as much as I can from so many people are getting interviewed and they’re all really smart about everything that they’re doing. And there’s a lot to learn.

17:42 Chris:

There is and there’s so many different platforms, a way to learn and follow people and just so much value out there, depending on what topic you’re interested in. So thank you for sharing with that. And we’ll link those podcasts in our show notes too, for the listeners go straight to them and check those out. We definitely encourage that as well. Pretty big Chris Luecke fan. So a good call-out on Manufacturing Happy Hour there. And Ray at MFG Out Loud. Both are wonderful shows.

18:08 Aidan:

Oh yeah. I love them.

18:09 Chris:

How about a lightning round? This is what I really enjoy doing with our heroes. Just get me a little bit of insight to what they are outside of work and things that drive them. So if you’re ready to play, we’ll jump right in.

18:21 Aidan:

Let’s do it.

18:22 Chris:

All right. All right. So being from Milwaukee, favorite food.

18:26 Aidan:

Oh man pizza.

18:31 Chris:

All right. All right. Got to have a, an adult beverage go with that pizza. So what’s your favorite adult beverage?

18:37 Aidan:

So many good IPA beers in Milwaukee. Any of the breweries I could pick up.

18:42 Chris:

I got you. Yeah. Yeah, you definitely, you have a lot of selection where you live. What’s your favorite app on your phone? One you couldn’t live without it.

18:52 Aidan:

Oh, man. Honestly, I actually try to put my phone down as much as possible. So I turn all my notifications off and everything, but I mean, obviously, email and Slack for work is always firing off.

19:03 Chris:

Right. Yeah, that’s right. What would we do, if we couldn’t check our email they refiled minutes? Right? How about what’s on your nightstand?

19:11 Aidan:

I have right now I’m reading the I’m blanking on the name of it. The Lean Startup is what I’m reading right now.

19:20 Chris:

I got you. So you kind of work through a book at a time?

19:23 Aidan:

Yup. Yup. Actually, I listened to him too sometimes because I can’t sit still for too long. I’m about halfway through like three books that I’m listening to so which it probably isn’t the best habit to have.

19:35 Chris:

Well it’s okay. It’s so everybody has their own style. How about a guilty pleasure?

19:40 Aidan:

Guilty pleasure. I love binging out on some junk food, nachos, pizza, and drinking some beer for sure.

19:46 Chris:

Nice. Nice. How about the all-time favorite movie?

19:51 Aidan:

I think I’d probably have to go with Bruce Almighty. Jim Carrey is one of my favorite actors. I love his persona. It’s funny.

20:00 Chris:

How backed up. What’s your favorite music?

20:04 Aidan:

I like alternative rock, indie, rock, anything, rock and roll.

20:08 Chris:

Favorite band of all time?

20:10 Aidan:

I’m really into The Strokes, but I’m also a big fan of Wilco and they’re coming to Summerfest. So I’m hoping I can catch them live this year.

20:17 Chris:

Okay. Very cool. How about somewhere you got to go one day that you haven’t been yet?

20:22 Aidan:

Oh man. Too many to choose from. Germany is always up on the list. I’d love to visit Germany, but this Swiss Alps it’s probably up there too.

20:30 Chris:

That’s up there too. Well, Germany for your grandfather, right? You go see that. Okay. How about the favorite place you have been?

20:37 Aidan:

I love visiting Mexico. I’ve been there a number of times actually, because grandpa lives down there, which is a whole other podcast in itself that story, but yeah. I grew up visiting there. I love going to Mexico. It’s been a blast, but the Rocky Mountains to you. Love going to Utah and Colorado.

20:51 Chris:

Nice. Nice. All right. Last one in the lighting round dogs, your cats.

20:55 Aidan:

Oh boy. I have two cats and a dog. I’m an animal lover.

20:59 Chris:

Okay, we’ll let you pass there. We’ll let you pass you. Usually, I just say there’s only one right answer, but we’ll let you pass so well, thanks for the lightning round Aidan. That was a lot of fun, I really enjoyed it.

Now we call it EECO Asks Why. This is really what I’m about. Just talking about everyone’s personal passion, what drives them. So if somebody wants to know what your personal passion is, what would that be?

21:22 Aidan:

I think it’s just my overall curiosity. I love building relationships. I love learning about what other people are doing, figuring out ways that I can work with them and help with them. I just want to keep doing that. I want to keep fostering relationships. I think that there’s a lot that we can collaborate on and we can do it together as a community. So that’s what I love doing.

21:40 Chris:

Well, you’re doing a phenomenal job and for our listeners that want to connect directly with Aidan, check out the show notes.

We’ll have the links in there as we mentioned about the conference, as well as different ways that you can connect with Aidan directly. And thank you so much. This was a lot of fun, just really getting to know you. And I know you’re going to do wonderful things in your career, so you’re definitely a hero.

22:01 Aidan:

Thanks, Chris. It’s been a pleasure and I appreciate it.

22:04 Chris:

Have a great day

22:05 Aidan:

You too.

22:09 Chris:

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