He wanted to host a fundraiser and he wanted to play with snow.
So Neil Bergquist ’09, MBA’10 did both, successfully raising $50,000 for charity while setting a 2013 Guinness World Record for orchestrating the world’s largest snowball fight.
“The incentives and the risks couldn’t have been any higher,” says Bergquist, who personally funded the event before getting financial buy-in from sponsors. “You work 80 to 90 hours a week, more than you ever thought you could do. You are maniacal. You can’t fail.”
Accustomed to stretching his limits, Bergquist spent his student days balancing football, Residence Life and Greek life while earning his BA and MBA from Willamette. Then he spent four years making a name for himself in Seattle, first as a commercial real estate broker, then as the managing director of SURF Incubator, a community-supported space for digital entrepreneurs.
For his accomplishments, the U.S. Small Business Administration named Bergquist the 2014 Young Entrepreneur of the Year in Washington State.
“I love the craft of building companies,” says Bergquist, who started five companies in 30 months and now works as a management consultant for Point B in Seattle. “I see entrepreneurship as a phenomenal model for solving some of the world’s most challenging problems.”
When deciding which college to attend, Bergquist analyzed schools’ football teams, locations and course offerings. Willamette soon emerged as the obvious choice.
“Although it was a small school in a small town, it gave the perception of being a big school in a big town,” Bergquist says. “I was able to play a sport as my passion and study at a really prestigious university. I fell in love with the campus right then and there.”
Bergquist majored in rhetoric and media studies, played football and enrolled in the 3 + 2 dual-degree program with the Atkinson Graduate School of Management, which allowed him to earn his BA and MBA in five years.
The workload was taxing, especially during the fall of 2008, Bergquist says. That’s when he was balancing his first year at the management school with football — which was then ranked fourth in the country.
Still, Bergquist says the experience taught him to trust in himself.
“I remember walking on to the football field completely exhausted and just saying to myself, ‘I don’t know if I can do this,” he says. “Then the whistle blows, and I was hitting the ground doing up downs, sprints, tackling.
“Afterward, I was sitting by my locker, knowing I had only four hours to do my homework before going to bed and waking up to do it all over again. Once the season and semester ended, I felt like I could do anything.”
Armed with the strong communication skills he learned at Willamette, Bergquist joined the Seattle work force in 2010, landing a prestigious job as a commercial real estate broker with Washington Partners.
“Once I was on board, it came out how old I was. My boss said if he had known, he wouldn’t have hired me,” Bergquist says. “Being able to think critically and strategically set me apart from my peers in the professional world.”
Through this experience, Bergquist and the small Washington Partners team negotiated office leases and managed real estate portfolios for some of the biggest technology companies in the region, including Concur Technologies, Amazon, Zulily and Tableau Software.
These connections opened doors for Bergquist two years later, when he helped launch SURF Incubator and opened its 15,400-square-foot facility in downtown Seattle. Its mission was to provide entrepreneurs with a community-supported space, where they’d receive the mentorship, education, funding, talent and resources necessary to build a successful technology company.
“At the time, there was aptitude but no activity,” Bergquist says. “So I went back to Washington Partners and started calling investors to raise money.”
Bergquist’s efforts didn’t stop there. He talked with the media, recruited developers to build a website, and spurred the development of a company brand and logo. He also coordinated a launch party and negotiated a lease on a downtown location — all before he had the funds to finalize the deal.
“It’s kind of the chicken and egg concept,” Bergquist says. “Investors don’t want to give you money until you have the space, and landlords don’t want to give you the space until you have the money. Luckily, our sublandlord was so in love with the idea that he didn’t ask for any upfront money. But we had 10 days to write a check or we’d lose the space.”
The money came through in the nick of time, and two years later, SURF has become the largest tech incubator in the Pacific Northwest. To date, it’s helped more than 220 startup companies, collaborated with 30 corporate partners, and has orchestrated more than 500 social and educational events.
“Work, to me, wasn’t what I was doing. SURF was a passion project,” Bergquist says. “That’s what really propelled me into the other projects I’ve taken on since then.”
One of these projects was Snow Day, a fundraiser for the Boys & Girls Club of King County.
“We wanted to create an awesome experience while supporting a great cause,” Bergquist says. “We were raising money for kids by remembering what it was like to be one — that was really the vision for it.”
Bergquist began recruiting his friends — including Ryan Bourke ’12 and Brady Ryan ’12 — to help four months prior to the event. He secured a venue, sponsors and a Guinness World Record judge, promoted ticket sales and organized a laser show and snow-castle-building competition.
The biggest challenge, Bergquist says, was finding a way to cover a space the size of a football field with 12 inches of snow in downtown Seattle. So Bergquist and his friends drove through the Cascade Mountains to search for a harvesting site — ultimately finding a few integral locals and highway contractors to help them transport in 34 semi-truck loads of snow.
“We walked into bars, got directions and were told who to talk to,” Bergquist says. “You have to be kind of crazy to drive to the middle of nowhere after your day job — in the dead of night — to have these conversations.”
But Bergquist’s work paid off. Snow Day brought together 6,000 participants and 36 sponsors. Global media outlets — such as CNN, BBC, ESPN and the Today Show covered the event — and Bergquist walked away having learned one important lesson.
“I will never, ever, try to do this again,” he says.
Bergquist’s successes earned him the title of 2014 Young Entrepreneur of the Year for Washington State. The honor is bestowed to entrepreneurs younger than 30 who contribute to job growth and take part in innovative and creative business methods.
“I felt awkward being singled out, but it was important to my parents,” Bergquist says, noting that his family has invested in his pursuits. “My mom jokes that I’m her retirement plan. I say, ‘Thanks Mom, but I hope you’re still investing in your 401K.’”
Equally impressed by Bergquist’s achievements are his former Willamette mentors, Jim Booth ’64 and Rob Wiltbank. Booth, who helped out at Sigma Chi, says Bergquist is a natural leader, known for his friendliness and outgoing personality.
While Wiltbank, who taught Bergquist at Atkinson, says he’s impressed by his former student’s relentless pursuit of new ideas.
“Once he was off to Seattle and running SURF Incubator, I visited him with my venture hat on, expecting to see a couple companies and a lot of empty space,” Wiltbank says.
“He already had a couple dozen startup companies and had really jump started their whole operation. The one thing that’s always jumped out about Neil is his hustle, his fearless hustle.”
Since September, Bergquist has transitioned into management consulting at Point B in Seattle, where he’s helping managers of large corporations employ entrepreneurial business practices.
“Imagine if the innovators of our time were taken out of the garage and supported with the resources of the enterprise?” Bergquist says.
“Starting a company doesn’t need to be so painstakingly hard, but by fueling entrepreneurial pursuits with the strength of the enterprise we could rapidly accelerate innovation, economic progress and help connect companies with the values of the market. That’s the idea, but we’ll see how it goes.”