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Friday, February 23, 2024

Deliver Us, Lord, From the Startup Life

In 2012, Chad Reynolds found himself on a South Carolina beach at midnight. He was there for a destination wedding, sitting on the sand with friends, when he decided to wade into the ocean alone. As he floated in the dark water, he had what he describes as his first real conversation with God. What was he doing with his life? he asked. Why wasn't he with someone? Why did he feel so empty?

Reynolds, a 36-year-old designer and startup founder from Cincinnati, Ohio, had been fending off burnout, in fits and starts, for years. He'd started a company designing websites for movies and other products right out of college, and managed to land big clients like Warner Bros. But he worked relentlessly, rarely taking vacations, ignoring his health, and neglecting his family and friends.


In 2008, as he was contemplating leaving his first company, Reynolds set aside a few months “to sit still.” During his hiatus, he went with a friend to a Sunday service at Cincinnati's Crossroads Church—which was, at the time, a megachurch of about 9,000 members. Sitting in the back row of the cavernous auditorium, Reynolds felt something igniting inside him. “You could tell there was something extremely creative and entrepreneurial happening in that church,” he remembers. It occurred to him that if he could somehow incorporate his budding faith into his next venture, “it could be different.”

But after starting a second company, in 2009, he found himself slipping back into a familiar pattern: maintaining a frenetic pace, traveling to multiple cities per week, constantly doing more. By the time he ended up on the beach at night in South Carolina, he was feeling lost, unable to enjoy the quiet of the barrier island, fretting about Wi-Fi signals and missed work appointments, and wondering what was wrong with him.

As he bobbed in the dark Atlantic, Reynolds says, he heard a message in reply: that God had given him talents and gifts so they could be put to use helping other people, and that he needed to be more aggressive about doing so—that, in effect, he had to take a leap of faith. God's side of that midnight conversation was half encouragement, half dare: “Even though you can't see the bottom, I've got you; I'm going to protect you; I'm going to help you.”

When he got back to work, Reynolds recommitted himself to his company. His second startup was called Batterii, a consumer research firm that recruits civilians to provide personalized feedback to brands via smartphone videos. Reynolds, who describes his midnight conversion as “getting an upgrade to [his] operating system,” came to see the mission of his own company as a way of fulfilling the charge God had given him. If he'd been burned out before by trying to do too much on his own, his work now was to facilitate other people's creativity by building a technology that brings a whole community into the design process.

If that sort of talk sounds a little elevated for a product that is, as Reynolds also acknowledges, basically “a focus group on your phone,” or if you're not used to metaphors that compare salvation to a software update, welcome to the worlds of both Christian and startup evangelism—worlds that, as recent trends in the American Midwest demonstrate, are increasingly intertwined.

Over the past decade or so, the amount of venture capital flowing into the Midwest has expanded from a trickle into a fairly substantial, multibillion-dollar tributary—enough for thousands of tech startups to sprout up in the old-line cities of the Rust Belt.

The story of this transformation, as told from the coasts, tends to be one of down-and-out heartland cities hustling to remake themselves in the image of Silicon Valley, often with the help of missionary venture capitalists like AOL cofounder Steve Case and Hillbilly Elegy author J. D. Vance, who unveiled a $150 million investment fund called Rise of the Rest in 2017. And there's some truth to that account. But as the demographics of tech have become incrementally more Midwestern, those regional outposts have also set about remaking the industry in their own likeness—particularly where matters of faith are concerned.

The Bay Area, which devours about 45 percent of all US venture funding, is one of the least religious parts of the country. Although this March will mark the 26th annual Silicon Valley Prayer Breakfast (recently renamed Silicon Valley Connect), Big Tech is still considered, almost axiomatically, allergic to expressions of faith. At a recent conference in Nashville, one software developer said, “I'm afraid that when people hear I'm a Christian, they're going to start questioning my competency as a developer.” A 2018 episode of the comedy series Silicon Valley spoofed the travails of an LGBTQ dating app founder who was terrified of being outed—as a believer.

For some Christians, accordingly, the industry's shift toward the heartland has been liberating. Jason Henrichs, the founder of several Midwestern finance and tech organizations, has worked in tech on both coasts, including a stint in Boston. “When my wife and I moved back to the Midwest, it was so much easier to be a Christian than in all those other places,” he says. In Chicago, he goes on, “if you were to casually mention you're going to church, there's no set of assumptions that you're a Trump supporter, a gun toter, out protesting on weekends.” (Though in fact, he corrected himself, he and his wife would be out protesting that weekend—against gun violence, at the March for Our Lives.)

The heartland's tech boom has sparked the emergence of a loose faith-and-tech movement, one that has grown in pockets around the world but is based indisputably in the American Midwest. The region has hosted an explosion of conferences and meetups, yoking together a host of different goals: evangelical techies devising projects intended to spread the faith (Bible “chat bots” and savvy Google ad campaigns to connect desperate searchers with local pastors); Christians driven by the social gospel discussing how to create technological solutions to problems like suicide and sex trafficking; religious thinkers pondering the ethical implications of rapid technological change.

But perhaps the most interesting part of the Midwestern convergence of faith and technology, the most salient for believers and nonbelievers alike, is the way people there have begun to question the culture of tech entrepreneurship—and try to make it more humane. “Being an entrepreneur, you go through some very dark moments,” says Kristi Zuhlke, the 37-year-old cofounder of KnowledgeHound, a Chicago-based data visualization startup. “Raising funding is very lonely. You're basically convincing everyone that your idea is amazing while they constantly shoot you down.” It's the sort of thing that can make people question their faith, she continued, “or, if you don't have a faith, you start to clamor for hope that there's light at the end of the tunnel.”

Cincinnati, which has become one of the Midwest's leading tech cities, has also become a hub for people trying to find some relief from the loneliness at the heart of an industry that prizes unending drive and competition. That they had a place to connect was thanks in part to Chad Reynolds. Not long after returning from South Carolina, Reynolds banded together with a group of entrepreneur friends—including Tim Brunk, cofounder of a personal style app called Cladwell, and Tim Metzner, cofounder of a software startup called Differential—to start an organization that would eventually be called Ocean, named after Reynolds' dark night of the soul. They were, in large part, responding to a hunger among their fellow entrepreneurs to redefine what it means to be successful in tech. But in an area of the country that increasingly sees tech as its salvation, that can be easier said than done.

Crossroads, the congregation that helped usher Reynolds toward his conversation with God, has in recent years become a major emblem of the fusion in sensibilities between tech and evangelical Christianity. Today it is a 52,000-member megachurch, with 13 campuses, a presence in six prisons, a streaming app called Crossroads Anywhere, and ambitions to expand nationally. Its lead pastor, Brian Tome, likes to say that Crossroads is “more like a startup than a church.” In 2017 it was named the fastest-growing congregation in the country, and also the nation's fourth largest.

The story of Crossroads' rise runs pretty neatly in tandem with that of Cincinnati, which 20 years ago was an urban cautionary tale. Although the city is home to the headquarters of eight Fortune 500 companies, including Procter & Gamble, Macy's, and Kroger, by the 1990s it had also become synonymous with stereotypes of urban blight. Decades of white flight left central city neighborhoods like Over-the-Rhine—named for the long-departed Germans who first settled there—roughly 75 percent black and overwhelmingly poor. Businesses were boarded up, and crime reached the point that one author compared Over-the-Rhine to The Wire's fictional Hamsterdam, a designated area where police agreed not to interfere with nonviolent lawbreakers. A late-'90s attempt at gentrification and renewal that rebranded the neighborhood as the Digital Rhine fizzled with the dotcom bust, and after a 2001 police shooting of an unarmed black teenager sparked days of civil unrest, one conservative magazine declared the neighborhood “ground zero in inner-city decline.” Landlords abandoned the downtown's Italianate housing stock, fleeing one of the largest historic districts in the country.

Crossroads was founded in the mid-'90s by a group of Cincinnati executives, including several from Procter & Gamble. They conducted surveys and market research and decided to build a church that would appeal to non-churchgoers, young business professionals, and men, who would then bring their families along. They hired Tome—a tan, boisterous minister who rides motorcycles and would go on to tape a regular video message called “Brian Brings a Beer”—as their lead pastor. The church hosted events like adventure “man camps” and an annual “Super Bowl of Preaching.” (A tenet of the church's manifesto holds that “beer = authenticity” and that the church should “do anything short of sin” to bring people to God.)

Then, in the mid-2000s, came what the city's current mayor describes as “the Cincinnati Miracle.” A nonprofit development corporation created by some of the city's anchor businesses, including Procter & Gamble, invested more than half a billion dollars in Over-the-Rhine, buying hundreds of properties and presiding over an intensely micromanaged revitalization plan. Tech companies began to trickle in, buttressed by the Fortune 500 old guard, and they in turn gave birth to startup accelerators, seed-investment firms, and venture capital funds. By the mid-teens, when Cincinnati was declared one of the fastest-growing startup economies in the country, the media was more likely to compare it to Greenwich Village than down-and-out Baltimore.

With the transformation came a predictable list of collateral consequences: the displacement of roughly 65 percent of the neighborhood's black population, the loss of 73 percent of its affordable housing, and some of the highest income inequality in the nation. Some neighborhood advocates spoke about the development corporation as if it were an occupying colonial force. But to the outside world it became a shining example of a general Midwest flourishing of the tech-and-startup industry, or at least the promise of it.

Around 2013, says Tome, a young entrepreneur who was planning his child's baptism at Crossroads came up to him and asked if he realized what was happening right under his nose. “I don't know if you know,” the visitor said, “but there's startup CEOs all over this place.” For many months, the atrium of Tome's industrial-chic church had been used as an informal workspace by a couple dozen young congregants, including Reynolds, Brunk, and Metzner—most of them twenty- or thirtysomething tech or startup workers drawn to the church's free Wi-Fi, free coffee and soda bar, and seven-day-a-week access.

Tome invited a group of the young founders working in his church lobby to a group entrepreneurs' breakfast. “I just started getting a real education on angel funding, seed funding, series A, series B, series C, scalability, pivoting, and on and on and on,” he says.

At the time, recalls Brunk, there was little in the way of a support system for the young tech entrepreneurs who were starting to proliferate in Cincinnati. Tome encouraged the folks at the breakfast gathering to continue meeting on a weekly basis and become one of Crossroads' numerous interest-oriented small groups.

Right away, Brunk says, the meetings took on an intimate tone. “All of us were a few years into our ventures,” he says—long enough to have seen “vision and optimism turn to disappointment and betrayal.” Brunk himself was haunted by the fictional depiction of Mark Zuckerberg at the end of The Social Network—a lonely tycoon who'd ruthlessly alienated everyone—and other stereotypes about the worst excesses of tech. “You really hit that trough of sorrow and ask yourself, why keep doing this? Asking existential questions: What's a satisfying life?”

The things people shared in those early meetings were a refreshing break from the usual ways entrepreneurs talked about their ventures. They were “very vulnerable stories of failure,” Reynolds says. Tales of people struggling to find funding, or scaling their company, or breaking up with their cofounders; anxieties about making payroll and taking out family loans.

“Everyone's guard was down; nobody was pitching,” agrees Brunk. The group seemed to converge on the same general question: “How do you get to this healthy, sustainable place” in an industry where many people eventually burn out? And they all seemed hungry for a definition of success that went beyond raising large rounds of capital and netting more users for their products.

In time, the organizers decided to expand. They launched a public “story-sharing” event series where, every six to eight weeks, local entrepreneurs could come in and talk openly about their struggles and aspirations. They called the series Unpolished, for the real talk they wanted to encourage, “warts and all, no pitching,” Brunk says. The three organizers assumed a few dozen people would come, but at their first event close to 400 showed up; they ran out of both chairs and beer.

They realized they had tapped into something, so they kept going. They called upon business owners from outside the tech realm, like Chris Sutton, cofounder of Noble Denim, a jeans business that used US-made, organic materials. Sutton was a former missionary kid who'd come to believe he could live out his faith just as well by integrating his values into his business. In a video promo for his company that screened at an Unpolished event, Sutton speaks to the kind of consciousness Unpolished hoped to raise: “If we die with empty pockets but a full life, I think we'll have succeeded, or come damn close.”

Unpolished started holding what it called office hours at Crossroads, advising would-be entrepreneurs on “starting lean” and then expanding those lessons into workshops. A team at Metzner's company developed an online message board called Supporter where members of the Unpolished community could recruit for jobs or services. And Unpolished's founders watched as people came together to form businesses.

By mid-2014, Brunk, Reynolds, and Metzner decided to transform the community into something more formal: a nonprofit business accelerator that could help launch companies and build into their DNA a healthier sense of balance. The sort of accelerator they say they wished they'd found when they were setting out. Officially, the organization's goal was to cement Cincinnati's status as a startup-friendly city and “to increase God's presence in the marketplace” by cultivating founders “who will be good stewards of their success.” The group decided to call their accelerator Ocean.

Housed in a former car dealership building owned by Crossroads, Ocean received its first operations budget through a sizable grant from the church—the bounty of Crossroads' annual Beans and Rice Week, when members eat frugally and pool their savings into several major church donations. The support enabled Ocean to start working with its first class of 10 startups. By 2015 Brunk and Metzner had recruited a friend of theirs to launch a for-profit venture called Ocean Capital, which would pool money for seed investments in each startup going forward. If the companies do well, Ocean Capital and its investors receive a return in the form of either cash or discounted stock.

Under the Ocean Accelerator program—which is open to entrepreneurs of any or no faith—founders are given seed investments of $50,000 each, along with access to a network of business mentors affiliated with Crossroads or the broader Cincinnati community, plus personal and spiritual mentoring. The curriculum builds up to a public Demo Day, where participants present their products to an audience of potential investors from the stage of one of Crossroads' churches.

Unlike more typical sources of early startup capital, Ocean seeks to instill the notion of “Christ leadership” in its participants, and its dual business and spiritual mentorship program straddles a somewhat sinuous line between product planning, life coaching, and evangelism. Scott Weiss, a retired Fortune 500 veteran who was tapped to become Ocean's founding CEO, is eager to ward off the impression that Ocean's counseling is just for believers, or that it preaches an old-fashioned prosperity gospel. “We in no way teach that because you came here, God ordains your business for success,” he says. What's more important, he says, is that “we don't want you to be one of those high tech founders who have gotten a divorce, suffered depression, or tried to commit suicide.”

Ocean's is not the first spiritual mentorship program that's sprung up in Midwest tech. In Indianapolis in 2009, senior staff at the marketing software firm ExactTarget—which was later acquired by Salesforce for $2.5 billion, in one of the Midwest's most fabled success stories—helped spawn Edge Mentoring, which pairs young entrepreneurs with more experienced mentors who guide them in business and spirituality. What that can look like in practice, one Indianapolis tech worker told me, is going to pitch meetings looking for investment and being offered spiritual mentorship instead. And indeed, Weiss' discussion of the broader potential impact of Ocean's work carries a certain missionary edge. “A new business, on average, will hire three people in its first 12 months, 10 people by the end of year two,” he says. “That's 13 souls. Thirteen souls a business owner can influence.”

But the program is also intent on changing the culture of the tech industry in ways that are not exclusively Christian. Ocean says it selects business mentors who can not only help draw up a marketing plan but also model decent work-life balance. And according to Brunk, the accelerator's idea of “stewardship”—an evangelical watchword for responsible management—includes notions about being a good boss, giving employees decent benefits, and reinvesting profits locally. In part, Brunk says, that's just holding up Midwestern norms of community-mindedness against the perceived ruthlessness of tech's origins. While Silicon Valley's leaders have sometimes reinforced a culture of fear and greed, Brunk says, “there's more consideration for things other than power and success here.”

While Ocean was trying to convert startup values into something more recognizably Christian—and, perhaps, human—Crossroads was going through a conversion experience of its own. The church was leaning hard into the idea that entrepreneurs were the key to remaking Cincinnati, as Tome would explain to Christianity Today. While Crossroads had long been active in ministering to Cincinnati's poor—including its support for a controversial social services center that sparked substantial NIMBYish protest in the mid-2000s—Tome had come to believe that “downstream problems in the kingdom of God” occurred because of things that happened “upstream.” As Christianity Today summarized it, “Tome wanted to shift tactics to also encourage the people making money” while still keeping up support for the working-class poor. Ocean and Unpolished, as the church leadership saw them, were a big part of that shift.

In a sleek promotional video for Unpolished, produced in 2014 by the church's creative team, a child's voice narrates a vision of Cincinnati's rebirth. “A long time ago, pioneers went west into the wilderness. They saw a river and imagined a great city,” the child says, as the video cycles through a montage of shots of Cincinnati at dawn. “Somewhere along the way, people settled, and dreams vanished. Things got broken. We forgot who we were,” the narration continues, as the images shift to buildings with boarded-up windows, empty strip malls, and plastic bags snagged in barbed-wire fences. “Maybe God lets things break just so he can make everything new,” the child says. “Maybe he's calling for new pioneers, brave enough to start rebuilding.” The promo resolves onto a background shot of blond wood, superimposed with the logo for Unpolished.

It's an affecting spot. It also spoke to a certain dissonance that arose as Crossroads put its stamp on the young faith-and-tech community: When filtered through the church's production machine—which, as a 2017 Bloomberg Businessweek profile of Ocean noted, includes a 75-person “experience team” that serves as “the equivalent of an in-house advertising agency”—Unpolished became something significantly glossier. What had started out as a trust exercise in enabling raw honesty about the travails of startup life seemed to have morphed into a platform for glorifying entrepreneurs as the new heroes of the church. And in this context, the message at the movement's core, that money doesn't equal success, sometimes seemed to waver.

Tome, who was on his way to leading one of the nation's largest churches, had acquired a wide range of influential contacts, and he began calling in big names to support his latest venture. In early 2014, Unpolished hosted reality TV maven Mark Burnett, executive producer of Survivor, The Voice, and, of course, The Apprentice, to discuss how America was built on the Bible and free enterprise. (In his talk, Burnett regaled a crowd of 2,500 with the story of how he'd convinced Donald Trump to join The Apprentice after a campaign of carefully applied public flattery.)

By mid-2015, Crossroads' support had helped transform Unpolished's lecture series into a full-blown multiday conference with high-profile speakers. In his introductory remarks, Tome, wearing an untucked flannel shirt and cargo pants, set the tone, declaring that while entrepreneurs were not God, they were like Him. “You have creative capacities that no one else has except for God,” he told the audience. “Improving current processes never changes the world; doing something more methodically never changes the world; growing something incrementally never brings life. It only slows down death.”

“You're here today because God wants to grow your business!” Tome continued. He recounted the Parable of the Talents, a story Jesus tells in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25. It describes a master who gives his servants various quantities of money to watch over and, upon returning, rewards the two servants who invested and increased that gold but punishes the third, who hid his in the ground for safe keeping. Tome called it “the most ancient reference we have to investment banking.” The moral: “Jesus says if something of a spiritual nature is not growing, there's something wrong with it.”

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Photograph: Michelle GroskopfA band kicks off Crossroads Church's Sunday service on its Oakley campus in Cincinnati, Ohio.

More than a dozen speakers took the main stage over the course of the conference, and their messages weren't uniform. One, a former Procter & Gamble executive who'd become a bigwig at Google, recalled how much he'd once been like Gordon Gekko, the “greed is good” antihero of 1987's Wall Street, until the sudden illness of his daughter snapped his priorities straight. Sutton, the cofounder of Noble Denim, described a new venture he'd begun: a clothing line housed in the shell of a failing Tennessee garment factory that had been forced to lay off most of its workers. After fundraising on Kickstarter, Sutton's team had helped the factory owner rehire those workers, at living wages, to manufacture sweatshirts and other high-end basics—proof, he said, that believers could build the Kingdom not just on the mission field but in whatever field they chose.

A number of speakers, though, reinforced Tome's capitalist apologetics, declaring that God had created entrepreneurs “for creation and conquest”; that the Apostle Paul was an entrepreneur; that when Jesus wanted to spread the gospel, he eschewed “the religious elite and the academicians” for brass-tacks businessmen. John Gray, an associate pastor at Joel Osteen's 40,000-member Lakewood Church—long associated with prosperity gospel teachings—declared that the US was “not simply a capitalistic society” but also a “theocratic” one. And Wendy Lea, then the CEO of Cintrifuse, a nonprofit network trying to make Cincinnati the startup capital of the Midwest, admonished aspiring entrepreneurs that victims were not welcome in her world. “I don't want to talk to you if you feel sad, you're not sure, someone took that away from you. I'm not into that,” she said. “What I'm into is an abundance of resources.”

Perhaps most jarringly, Calev Myers, an Israeli lawyer, delivered a long presentation on a new sort of Christian maxim: “Gold Is Good.” Amid a smattering of line-treading Jewish jokes (“This is something Jews have known for centuries,” he riffed) and a revisionist reading of Matthew 19:24—the verse that says it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get to heaven—Myers told the audience that gold was good because it represented “the value you've brought to humanity.” Gold was a record of services rendered to other people, he continued, asking audience members to hold aloft money from their own wallets and then give themselves a hand. “This is a certificate of appreciation for your service!” he said. Following this logic, he continued, Bill Gates was arguably a better servant than Mother Teresa—a fact deducible from their bank accounts. “The reason Bill made billions,” Myers concluded, “was because he helped billions.”

The conference seemed to embody a tension in the movement, a choice between two dueling trajectories the faith-and-tech world could take: a frenetic, always-be-crushing-it emulation of Silicon Valley, armored with biblical justification; or the humbler embrace of more modest goals and the necessary trade-offs between business and life success.

“Both of those messages are important,” Tome says. “Everybody in that audience is going to be in a different season, and we need to speak to all of those seasons in somebody's life, or in somebody's business.”

Looking back on the evolution of Unpolished and Ocean in a recent phone call, Brunk says, “There have definitely been speakers in the past where we looked at each other and thought, ‘Whoa, this isn't what we want to promote.’ ” Messages about revering profits and disowning vulnerability didn't just feel wrong, they felt stale. “There's a million forums where you can talk about the hustle,” he continues. “We wanted our emphasis to be on the softer side.” But as Unpolished grew, he says, “it was harder to control that message.”

“I know that what we were standing for is that money doesn't define success,” Reynolds says. During the conference, he allows, there was a divide between the main stage keynotes—with “the big names that get people in the seats”—and the side stages where local entrepreneurs were continuing to share moments of struggle.

But there's reason to believe that, as the movement spread beyond Cincinnati, the message on those side stages had a more enduring resonance. Kristi Zuhlke, the cofounder of Chicago's KnowledgeHound, went to Unpolished's 2015 conference and appreciated how the speakers addressed both practical questions of getting funding and also “how to have a heart” as an entrepreneur. She returned to Chicago and, together with Jason Henrichs, started a small group for entrepreneurs at a downtown Chicago WeWork. Occassionally, they also met at their church, Soul City—a progressive, diverse community where the husband-and-wife pastor team reference Tinder in sermons and staff wear “Black Girl Magic” T-shirts. As happened in that first small group at Crossroads, the group quickly gravitated toward discussing immediate, intimate concerns: What is the Christian way to fire someone? How should you grapple with investors who want you to scale up too quickly, even if that means misleading your customers? Should Christian entrepreneurs build businesses with an evangelizing or social justice mission, or is it enough to live out your faith by being an honorable boss?

“That's helpful because, as an entrepreneur, you struggle with what success looks like,” Zuhlke says. “You have to remember that success might not be the big exit. It might just be impacting people's lives because they have a job they love and you're paying them money and they get to feed their family with that money.”

Zuhlke also reached out to Victor Gutwein, the founder of an early-stage micro-venture-capital fund called M25 that targets Midwestern companies, who had invested in her startup. Only after getting funding from Gutwein did she realize that he was Christian too. (M25 is a reference to Matthew 25 and the Parable of the Talents.) Now she was getting in touch with Gutwein to suggest that there might be enough folks like them in Chicago to support a speaking series like Cincinnati's Unpolished—because she felt that there was “a groundswell of people talking about what a crazy faith journey it is to be an entrepreneur.”

They held their first event, called InnoFaith, in 2017. They didn't publicize the event widely, but, like that first public gathering of Unpolished, they maxed out the room. (Since their first event, the group has come under the umbrella of a Canadian group, FaithTech, and adopted the name FaithTech Chicago, which now meets monthly.)


To Gutwein, all of these developments reflect how the “democratization of tech,” as the industry spills past its enclaves on the coasts, may change some of the industry's character as well. Slower and less cutthroat than New York or San Francisco; perhaps more collaborative too. In Chicago, Zuhlke says, those differences have been draws for some coastal expats who have moved to the region: Sure, there are fewer corporate perks like foosball tables and beer taps, but there's better work-life balance and fewer struggles to find housing on a six-figure income. To Brunk, the culture of the Midwest—and the fact that the region is relatively underfunded—both lead to a different sort of workforce. “People here are loyal,” he says. “Most of my team has at one point or another taken a pay cut.”

This winter, Ocean welcomed its sixth class of startup entrepreneurs and has begun working on a curriculum it can put online. But Unpolished is no more. The founders decided to subsume all of their efforts under the banner of Ocean on the occasion of the accelerator's fourth Demo Day, on April 24, 2018.

That afternoon several hundred tech startup employees, venture capital investors, and Crossroads parishioners gathered in the dark, cavernous auditorium of Crossroads Florence, one of the church's several campuses in Kentucky. On three jumbo screens flanking the main stage, a roiling seascape moved in stormy waves under the logo for Ocean. Waiting in the wings were eight nervous entrepreneurs, about to take the stage for individual 10-minute pitch sessions, where they shared the products they'd been developing for the past five months. After the presentations there would be local craft beer and artisanal ice cream served in the church atrium—as airy and bustling as a midsize corporate headquarters—as well as a side room where the Ocean entrepreneurs could meet privately with investors. But first came the primary pitch, for Ocean itself.

Even with the Unpolished brand now defunct, plenty of the original spirit seemed to survive. Metzner, the group's chair at the time, took the stage and told the audience how, when he quit a job to start his own business, he realized he was unwilling to follow the common tech entrepreneur narrative of putting his life on hold for five to 10 years, ruining his marriage and friendships, and having kids who didn't like him, for the sake of business success. The event's featured motivational speaker, the entrepreneurial podcast guru Dane Sanders, continued on the same theme, saying that while the investors in the room were bound to be on the lookout for gaps in people's business plans, those entrepreneurs should also be on the lookout for the gaps in their personal lives—the places “where people blow their life up.”

There were other messages too, more in line with stereotypes about both tech optimism and franchise churches: that they served a creative God, that entrepreneurship was a leap of faith, that through small-scale mentorship and support groups God would unveil his plan for their businesses. But the more enduring message, and the one the organizers and founders of the event repeated, was that, in an industry that seems by nature to demand imbalance in the lives of those who work in it, they hoped to find a different way.

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Kathryn Joyce (@kathrynajoyce) is a journalist and the author of The Child Catchers and Quiverfull.

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