A Conversation with: Amanda Leightner, Founder of Rochester Rising

“My last two years have been absolute organized and disorganized chaos” remarks Amanda Leightner.

From studying biological sciences in Pittsburgh to founding a platform to share the stories of entrepreneurs in Rochester, Minnesota, Amanda’s life has taken some unexpected turns in the last five years. But she wouldn’t have it any other way. She prefers the chaotic and dynamic to being comfortable. This disposition makes her an intuitive entrepreneur, and an ideal voice for the Rochester startup community.

Amanda studied biological sciences at Carnegie Melon University in Pittsburgh with the aspiration of becoming a veterinarian. After taking an internship at Mayo Clinic Jacksonville, she decided to pursue her PhD in translational research at Mayo. She moved from Jacksonville to Rochester, and has been there for the past eleven years.

Early on while studying translational research at Mayo Clinic Rochester, she realized research was not the right field for her. Amanda found herself in the difficult predicament of being unhappy in her current position, unsure of what other jobs existed for her passions and skill set, and faced with a nation in the midst of the 2008 economic collapse. Considering all of these factors, she stayed the course with her PhD, but began exploring what more fulfilling routes she could pursue in the future.

One of the professions she discovered was medical writing. Seeking to build her knowledge of the field, she took a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Through gaining experience in medical writing, Amanda also engaged with the startup community in the area, and developed a partnership with Jamie Sundsbak. Jamie had recently started a life sciences support group for entrepreneurs in Rochester, and he was looking to scale his work in Rochester with the entrepreneurial work in the cities. They collaborated to form LifeScience Nexus, a platform to share stories of Minnesota-based entrepreneurship.

Amanda worked fervently on her postdoctoral studies and Life Science Nexus, using her train rides as office sessions. She describes how she sustained motivation during this wearing schedule:

“I just really loved it. At the time I was searching for something I wanted to do. Something that would drive me to want to do it every day. And then I started to talk to all these people who created these really cool technologies. And it sounds cliche, but it was just really inspiring.”

In addition to being personally invigorated by these inspiring stories, Amanda recognized the positive community impact of bringing exposure to innovators in the Rochester and Minneapolis communities.

“We were talking to people whose stories wouldn’t have been told otherwise.”

By sharing these businesses and ideas, the entrepreneurs were empowered, the communities became more educated, and she helped cultivate and grow the startup climate. It was fitting work for Amanda, who says she has appreciated the importance of community for her entire life.

With all intent of showing the community she and Jamie were serious about starting a business and not a recreational blog, the two were focused on consistently delivering quality content, creating a schedule of features to release every week. Their strategy worked, and their readership steadily grew.

With these promising numbers, and after months of slogging through a difficult schedule with her post-doctoral work and Life Science Nexus, Amanda took the risk of pursuing the latter full time.

“That was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. You leave your job, all the benefits, all the security…you have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen. I had no idea when I was going to get paid again.”

Amanda knew she would have to refocus Life Science Nexus in order to reach a wider audience. She rebranded as Rochester Rising, a platform dedicated to sharing stories of all entrepreneurs in Rochester, not just those related to the life sciences.  

Amanda and Jamie hit an unexpected roadblock when, after taking a two week break with the platform during the rebranding process, they lost almost all their user engagement. This was extremely difficult, especially after they put so much effort into being consistent so they could build their audience.

This trying period was one of many that made Amanda question if the job was worth it.  But she was no stranger to this feeling of being stretched thin. In fact, she welcomed it.

“This might sound weird, but I feel like if you don’t make it to that point in your job, you are not invested enough.”

Not one to shy away from hard work, Amanda maintained five jobs at once so she could continue to pursue Rochester Rising.  It was essential that she be completely self-sufficient during this uncertain time, emphasizing how she promised herself she would not take a loan from her parents or husband.

Even for someone as tenacious as she, it is easy to to start questioning the worth of such a wearing venture.

“There were multiple instances where I was completely overworked, trying to piece multiple things together to be able to pay my bills, and thinking ‘What am I doing and does anyone even care?’”

What would be the breaking point for many people was just another catalyst for Amanda, who continued to work tirelessly to grow her business.

“When you start doing something, nobody knows what you’re doing, and nobody takes you seriously. You have to convince them that you’re serious and this is what you’re doing.”

It took Amanda nine months to build momentum with Rochester Rising. That was nine months of minimal income, a rigid schedule of releasing and creating content, and little feedback from readers. Part of the difficulty of gaining traction was due to the climate of being an entrepreneur in a small city. Although Rochester is a diverse and vibrant community, members of the startup community, especially outside of the life sciences, run into major issues with raising funding for their venture.

“Once you get going there’s not much access to money. Our startup communities are pretty new in comparison to other places. Especially in Rochester, we are still understanding how to deal with risk and uncertainty.”

After months of working diligently at Rochester Rising, Amanda heard of an opportunity in the newly created Office of Entrepreneurship at Mayo Clinic. Recognizing a chance to make an even larger impact in the startup community with the strength of the Mayo backbone, Amanda accepted a position as the Program Manager of the office. Currently, she runs Rochester Rising while working full-time at the Office of Entrepreneurship.

Clearly, Amanda has no intent of slowing down.

Through her years of working several jobs, Amanda has learned that she would rather work five jobs at once to do the thing she loves than work a single job she does not find satisfying.

“Before, I would get a job just to get money. Now, it has to be fulfilling for me. I have to know that I’m doing something of value and creating things of value.”

Creating Rochester Rising is certainly an unexpected venture for the woman who once intended to be a veterinarian and earned a PhD in translational science. Yet, Amanda is convinced that by embarking on this journey she has created a more fulfilling career and life.

“I would have never seen myself doing this – now I am convinced I found what I want to do.”

Explore Amanda’s work here.

Thanks for reading. Speak to you soon…

-Nora

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