“Five Questions For … ” Tech Wildcatters CEO Gabriella Draney Zielke

Dallas—A lot of founders I meet say they always knew they wanted to start their own companies. Tech Wildcatters co-founder Gabriella Draney Zielke says her journey into entrepreneurship was an accidental one.

Working at a fractional jet company at age 19, she tells me, she joined an aviation software startup company with her then-husband. A few years later, they divorced and Zielke used her share of the company to start a specialty foods store that provided planned meals for specific diets. Along the way, Zielke says, she earned her undergraduate degree in finance and an MBA and worked in wealth management and private equity.

She says she liked working with numbers, “but I was in an office all day long doing research, not building anything.”

During that time she had started working with tech entrepreneurs helping build business plans and raising capital. “I found that’s where my passion lies, in tech entrepreneurship,” she says.

In 2009, she co-founded the Tech Wildcatters accelerator in Dallas, one of the first in North Texas and a notable part of that city’s ecosystem. In the last year, however, Zielke has made major changes.

First, Tech Wildcatters shifted away from a conventional accelerator into a program called “the Gauntlet,” which would require startups to achieve certain milestones before receiving any investment. In June, Zielke dismissed two top executives in an effort, she said, to create a management structure more suited to the new effort.

And, last month, Zielke cut the two staffers who replaced them, citing a need to improve the accelerator’s finances and performance, according to The Dallas Morning News. The newspaper reported that Tech Wildcatters was delaying raising a new fund and not adding new startups until the accelerator could provide a return to investors. “One of my big goals was to see three exits this year, and I’ve seen zero,” she was quoted as saying. “I am not going to raise a fund on that.”

As Tech Wildcatters enters 2017, it seems clear the accelerator will face some challenges, perhaps providing another pivot in Zielke’s journey through entrepreneurship.

Here is a slightly edited version of our conversation:

Xconomy: What’s the hardest lesson you’ve learned about managing people?

Gabriella Draney Zielke: I have a very hard time holding people accountable. This pays everyone a disservice as people don’t know where they stand. Where I used to see it as being mean or not giving grace, I now approach it as a positive indicator of forward movement. No one likes to be told that they aren’t meeting expectations, but if you wait until it becomes a big problem, then you’re dealing with a big problem and not just a quick course correction. Employees need a good feedback loop and managers need to provide both the positive and negative feedback.

X: Tell me about your early influences.

G.D.Z.: I grew up living in my head a bit (still do), so my biggest influences were writers and characters in books. On finance, I became a Warren Buffett fan very early, along with his early influence Benjamin Graham. Regarding the universe, Stephen Hawking still influences my beliefs. His ability to explain complex concepts in a simple way reminds me daily that regardless of how intelligent you are, it doesn’t matter until you master communicating your ideas and beliefs. your ideas and beliefs don’t matter until you master communicating.

X: Where do you think your drive comes from?

G.D.Z.: I still don’t know where my drive comes from. I’ve had an insatiable thirst for life since I was very young. I want to experience as much as possible and help others do the same. I love figuring things out.

X: What did you want to be when you were a kid?

G.D.Z.: When I was really young I wanted to be a teacher, then it switched to astrophysics. I’m very excited about the private space industry.

X: If you got stranded on a desert island, what’s the one thing you would have to have with you?

G.D.Z.: My husband!

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