As Program Director at the University of South Carolina — Columbia Technology Incubator, Caroline Crowder spends her days connecting startup companies with mentor businesses, along with facilitating a hands-on immersion program to help them get up to speed. An an avid traveler and a three-year EXPLO alum, Caroline credits her experiences at the program with encouraging her to reach beyond her horizons while staying connected to her roots.
I grew up in South Carolina, and my dad always pushed for my brother and me to get out of the house in the summer — and out of our comfort zones, too. I always advocated for EXPLO because you could go to your classes that you selected in the mornings, but then in the afternoon you could explore two new things every single day for 21 days. I thought that was the most fascinating concept in middle school — that you could get your hands dirty with so many different things. That's what really attracted me to the program.
New Experiences, New Perspectives
EXPLO provided me with a new horizon, a new culture, a new environment — ways of thinking that I had never experienced before. I think I grew up very differently than the majority of people who were attending EXPLO. I remember one time I actually had a rebel flag on a belt buckle. A staff member pulled me aside one day and said, "Hey, you understand that people can get offended by that." I said, "Well, it's not meant to offend anybody. But where I'm from in South Carolina, this is a really common thing to do."
So we had an enlightening conversation about it, and I walked away from that conversation with a completely new perspective on the confederate flag that I had never considered before. It was something like that every single day for me at EXPLO — something new that I just never experienced being from a small town in the South.
[No matter where you’re from], EXPLO is going to grow you. It's going to stretch you in ways that you may not expect, and you're going to have conversations that you probably didn’t anticipate and could possibly be uncomfortable. But that's how you grow and develop and learn as a person.
Low Risk, High Reward: Internship to Career Path
Today, I work with startups that come out of the University of South Carolina and surrounding areas. Right now we've got a portfolio of 46 startups in Columbia. Everybody thinks our city could never be a Silicon Valley or it could never be an Atlanta or a New York City. Most people here will tell you we're not trying to be. But we do have a really big startup and entrepreneurship scene. It's kinda like one of those little hidey-holes that no one really knows about. But it's definitely here.
I studied business in college — I didn't study entrepreneurship specifically. I thought I was going to move free and clear of South Carolina after graduation, and then I heard about this internship with our local incubator. I got on board here and spent six weeks in an internship, and then six months as a coordinator, before they made me the director of the place.
Exploring the World
I love to travel! Any chance that I can I am on a plane, out of the country, going somewhere. I went to study abroad in Australia for six months; it was supposed to be the standard four month semester, but I ended up canceling my flight home and stayed over Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the new year. Flew back five days before my last semester at USC started. That's when I realized I was just hooked on traveling. I've hiked Machu Picchu in Peru and recently visited the Camino de Santiago in Spain.
EXPLO probably planted that seed in me, but it was studying abroad that really made it bloom and grow. I've been going places ever since.