From pitch to proposal: Iowa couple finds love at Startup Weekend

Shannon Thomas' pitch last March on the final night of Startup Weekend Des Moines wasn't quite enough to win over the judges — her startup, Fundle, earned best pitch didn't finish among the top three overall* — but it helped her catch the attention of the one person in the room who turned out to

Shannon Thomas and Kenny Younger at Big Omaha 2011.

Shannon Thomas‘ pitch last March on the final night of Startup Weekend Des Moines wasn’t quite enough to win over the judges — her startup, Fundle, earned best pitch but didn’t finish among the top three overall* — but it helped her catch the attention of the one person in the room who turned out to matter most of all.

“She just totally rocked the pitch,” Kenny Younger said of Thomas. “It was amazing. I was like, ‘I’m totally asking her out now.’ “

Eight months later, Younger dazzled Thomas with a pitch of his own. Before the couple sat down to dinner at a Des Moines restaurant on Nov. 23, Younger asked Thomas to marry him.

“I was blown away,” Thomas recalled of Younger’s proposal, which involved renting out the entire restaurant and bringing in both his and Thomas’ families. Thus, a romance whose seeds were planted at Startup Weekend has blossomed into an engagement: Thomas and Younger are scheduled to tie the knot on June 9.

Not a typical takeaway

Startup Weekend, for those that aren’t familiar, is a 54-hour crash course in launching a business. Participants come together on Friday and introduce ideas for startups. They spend Saturday and Sunday working in teams to bring an idea to fruition. They take Sunday night to pitch those fleshed-out ideas to a panel of judges.

The goal is for participants to walk away from the weekend with the foundation for a viable business in place or, at the very least, with some good networking and entrepreneurship experience under their belts. Thomas and Younger walked away with something entirely different and unexpected: the phone number of a new romantic interest.

The first 54 hours

Thomas, who lives in Iowa City and works for the University of Iowa Foundation, decided at the last minute to try Startup Weekend, encouraged to do so by her friend Amanda Styron. “I had no expectations,” she said. “I did not know what I was walking into and certainly did not expect to be meeting anyone I would be spending my life with.”

Younger, who resides in Des Moines and owns Sheer Focus, a software development and consulting company, stumbled upon his fiancé the same way. “I went into it with the same (mindset),” he said, “not knowing what to expect.”

On opening night, Thomas pitched an idea for a group purchasing platform. That idea formed the foundation of Fundle, which launched that weekend and remains active today.

“I had no expectations. I did not know what I was walking into and certainly did not expect to be meeting anyone I would be spending my life with.” – Shannon Thomas on her first Startup Weekend

Younger, meanwhile, didn’t join a team. But, at the urging of organizer Shane Reiser, Younger decided to stick around for the weekend and serve as an advisor. As luck wold have it, that gave him a better opportunity to get to know Thomas.

“He would come into our room and ask if we needed anything,” Thomas said, laughing. “And I’m thinking, ‘You just want to flirt. You just want to be around me.’ “

The ask

Eventually Younger stopped playing coy. After watching Thomas deliver Fundle’s closing pitch on Sunday night, he approached her and made his first ask. “I went up to her, and I was like, ‘Hey are you guys going out for drinks later? I think a bunch of us are.’ And she totally blew that off. I don’t think she picked up on what I was (asking).”

Said Thomas: “I totally missed it, I was like, ‘No, I’m going to go back to Iowa City. I have a long drive. Have fun though.’ “

But Younger persisted, and that persistence paid.

“He made sure by the time I left to ask me out,” Thomas said. “And actually the fact that he was so bold caught me completely off guard.”

Boldness is a quality that both noticed — and liked — in the other that first weekend.

“The more I talked to her, the more I was just like, ‘She’s just the most bold, confident woman I’ve met in a long time,’ ” Younger said, “and that just really attracted me.”

Thomas and Younger learned in the weeks that followed that they share plenty more in common. Both are 2007 graduates of Iowa universities (Thomas attended the University of Iowa, and Younger went to Drake). Both are the children of pastors and place major emphasis on their Christian faith. Both love late dinners at gourmet restaurants, savor quality time with family and enjoy being active in their community.

“There are a lot of those … values that we share in common, and we just enjoy doing those other things together,” Thomas said.

Plus, as Younger admitted with a chuckle, it doesn’t hurt that they’re “both stubborn as a mule.”

From SXSW to Big Omaha and beyond

Thomas and Younger’s relationship may have gained traction sooner if not for another entrepreneurship event of sorts. Their first date was put on hold while Younger attended South by Southwest Interactive in Austin, Texas. But the two texted back and forth the entire time Younger was in Austin, and when Younger returned to Des Moines, Thomas made the trip west on Interstate 80 to visit him.

“I was passing through Des Moines anyway and actually moved my trip up a day because I was so excited to meet him and see him again,” Thomas said. “So we met, and it totally clicked right away.”

By the time May rolled around, Thomas and Younger were ready to make another entrepreneurship event a prominent part of their shared story.

“We went to Big Omaha together,” Thomas said. “It was our first coming out, if you will, as a couple, and … it was definitely a fun time to be able to do that as a couple and be a part of that.”

It’s not as if the couple set out intent on entrepreneurship playing an important role in their relationship. But it’s also not particularly surprising to them that it has.

“If you’re an entrepreneur or you’re entrepreneurially minded, there is an element of willingness to take risk and say ‘Why not? There’s not much that’s going to hurt if I do this,’ ” Thomas said.

“And so for us that’s kind of carried into our relationship and just saying, ‘This sounds like fun, why wouldn’t we do that? It sounds like a great idea.’ And that’s carried us through.”

It should come as no shock, then, that Thomas helped organize Iowa City’s first Startup Weekend this fall. Or that the couple envisions entrepreneurship events in general and Startup Weekend in particular will continue playing a role in their lives.

“Depending on where we end up, I’m sure we will continue to have a hand in the entrepreneurship community,” Thomas said. “It’s meant so much to us thus far; we’ve learned so much from it. We really appreciate all of the friends and colleagues we have in that community and in the Silicon Prairie. It’s been a great experience for us, and I look forward to continuing it now as a couple.”

Image credit: Photos by Malone & Company.


*Update Jan. 5, 11:55 a.m. – Fundle won the award for best pitch at Startup Weekend Des Moines but finished outside of the top three overall. In a previous version of the story, it was incorrectly stated that Fundle finished second. 

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