It didn’t take Taralinda Willis long to figure out the difference between following and leading.
As a University of Wisconsin-Madison student, Willis majored in kinesiology, with a focus on athletic training. But working with UW-Madison teams, Willis realized she didn’t want her job to depend on a head coach.
“On my team, I’m the head coach,” says Willis, the CEO and co-founder of Curate Solutions in Madison.
Her team notched an early win in July 2017. Just six months after launching a product that analyzes data from public meeting agendas, Willis predicted Foxconn Technology Group would build its planned Wisconsin flat-screen plant in Racine County. In October, she was proved right when Foxconn announced a site in Mount Pleasant.
Gener8tor co-founder Joe Kirgues calls Curate “one of the most successful startups in Wisconsin.”
But before Willis could coach her own team, she had to build a career. And building is just what she did.
“I had a job out of college that was life-changing,” said Willis, a New Jersey native who grew up in Hudson in northwest Wisconsin.
Not long after earning her bachelor’s degree in 2010, Willis was named project manager for the reconstruction of UW-Madison’s Union South, a $94 million job that replaced the aging student activity hub with the modern South Campus Union.
“I loved it,” Willis said of the fast-paced construction management position. “It was crazy, but I thrived on it. I knew I wanted to stay in that environment.”
Willis moved on to another action-packed job as a senior event coordinator for Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts, working full time while studying for her MBA from UW-Whitewater, with a focus on project and operations management.
At the same time, her husband, Dale, was studying for his doctorate in computer science. He had an idea for a development tool for building smartphone apps, and he used that “napkin idea” to get into gener8tor’s startup accelerator program. Planning to be involved in the business, Taralinda joined Dale in the interviews.
But when the program kicked off, she said, Kirgues was surprised to learn she was still working full time at the Overture Center.
“He convinced me to go in and quit my full-time job and jump off the cliff of entrepreneurship,” Willis said of Kirgues. She now considers that the best decision she ever made — even though the app tool didn’t work out.
“She was in a pretty good position to be a founder because of her executive experience,” while Dale had technical knowledge and ability, Kirgues said.
The couple drew on Taralinda’s construction background for their next idea. She understood that advance knowledge of major construction projects would be valuable to contractors. And because such projects typically require various forms of government approval — from zoning and building permits to infrastructure and financial aid — hints often show up on public meeting agendas before a project is formally announced.
Curate’s first product, Curate Build that launched in January 2017, picks up on those hints by analyzing a huge database of 4.2 million public documents, using artificial intelligence and natural language processing to spot keywords associated with construction projects. The software pulls meeting agendas and minutes from the websites of municipalities, counties, school districts and other local governments in 16 mostly Midwestern states, from Minnesota to Texas.
Realizing its database could be useful outside the construction industry, Curate last year launched a second product, Curate Local, aimed at lobbyists. For that product, customers ask the company to search for actions on specific issues that affect their clients. While this product is useful to professional associations, Willis said, large technology companies could find it helpful as well.
Curate was incorporated in May 2016, with Taralinda as CEO and Dale as chief technology officer. It now has 11 employees and about 75 customers. She hopes to expand nationwide and possibly offer searches of the company’s database as a stand-alone service.
“She’s done a remarkable job of building that company from scratch,” Kirgues said.
Despite her progress, Willis still faces traditional obstacles.
“One of my biggest challenges is just as a female entrepreneur in a high-tech business,” Willis said. “There aren’t many women in technology. …I very rarely speak with people of my gender” when seeking venture capital funding, she added.
“It’s sometimes difficult for women to believe in themselves,” Willis said. “I try not to let that hold me back.”
- Title: CEO and co-founder
- Company: Curate Solutions, Madison
- Education: Bachelor’s degree in kinesiology, University of Wisconsin-Madison; master’s degree in business administration, UW-Whitewater
- Family: Husband, Dale
- Hometown: Hackensack, N.J.; (grew up in Hudson, Wis.)
- Resides: Madison
- Age: 32
- Best advice ever received: (1) “Being an entrepreneur is like jumping off the side of a cliff with an airplane and trying to build it on the way down.” (From Madison entrepreneur Mark McGuire, co-founder of Jellyfish.com and Gravy Live) (2) “Learn from your failures and don’t be afraid to fail.” (Origin unknown)
- Pastimes: Sailing, listening to music, remodeling her 100-year-old home
- Last book read: “The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers” by Ben Horowitz
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