Sorting tomatoes, teaching social studies and coaching soccer: John Antonucci has done those jobs and many more on his way to becoming the managing partner at the Dudley Fund, Vermont’s newest equity investment firm.
Antonucci, 40, manages the day-to-day operations at the fund, which he, private equity investor Jim Crook and three others launched in January with the goal of injecting $12.5 million into fledgling Vermont companies. The fund has invested $1 million collectively in eight companies so far this year and will probably invest in another two by 2023, Antonucci said.
Investment activity has soared globally over the past few years, and people with business ideas — and money to invest — have been moving to Vermont from other states. During the pandemic, the Burlington area quickly started to catch up with other innovation hubs in terms of venture capital and new companies, putting the Dudley Fund in a prime position to help new and small businesses that need capital to grow.
“There are tons of organizations that are specifically trying to help entrepreneurs, and each year it seems like there are more,” Antonucci said. “You’re starting to see exciting companies get funded, and the story is starting to be, ‘You can do this here.'”
Apart from running the operations of the fund, Antonucci’s primary role is to link entrepreneurs with people who can help them expand their companies.
“We connect them with people who have successfully started, grown and, in some cases, sold their businesses, with accountants and lawyers and marketers, talented people looking for jobs, other founders, other investors,” he said. “Bringing people together is the difference-maker for a small ecosystem like ours.”
Antonucci grew up in Gloversville, N.Y., a small city about 50 miles northwest of Albany, that was once the center of the country’s glove-making industry. His father runs a food distribution business there, and Antonucci and his three brothers worked for him from an early age.
The work — sorting tomatoes or driving a forklift — didn’t inspire Antonucci. “The sooner I got through the boxes of tomatoes, the sooner I could go play soccer; that’s what I thought about,” he said.
But working for the family business — and watching his dad help employees when they were struggling with debt and other problems — convinced him that employers play a critical role in the community.
“I believe in the private sector and its ability to solve problems,” Antonucci said.
The business world wasn’t an obvious fit for Antonucci when he was a student-athlete at the University of Vermont. He played four years of soccer and majored in accounting and business because he wasn’t really sure what else to do. (“My family was in business, and I thought it would be helpful,” he reasoned).
But he hated accounting and business. He eventually found economics a little more palatable, and, while studying the economics of international development, he started traveling to the Dominican Republic to provide aid for Haitians who work in the rice-growing industry.
Antonucci ultimately made several trips with other UVM students to a region called Batey Libertad. The Americans took health and first aid supplies to Haitians who had been brought to the Dominican Republic to work in the sugarcane fields and were citizens of neither country.
Many of the people Antonucci met had no running water or electricity, and they lived in tin shacks. Antonucci, a soccer fanatic from an early age, noticed he had something in common with these hardscrabble workers.
“They crowded all their living quarters around a big giant clearing; that’s how important soccer was to them,” Antonucci said. Over the seven years he spent visiting the Dominican Republic, he and his fellow students brought uniforms and cleats, built goalposts, and helped pay for transportation to games. He coached, played, and sought to defend and encourage a deeply marginalized group that faced widespread discrimination in its adopted country.
At first, he said, the Dominicans refused to play against the Haitians.
“There is so much deep-seated racism against Haitians,” Antonucci said. But after the Haitians started winning games, the Dominican teams recruited them.
“Some of our players were playing in the top professional leagues in the country,” he said. “We even created women’s teams, and that was unheard of.”
Antonucci came away impressed with how well the Haitian community worked together. He recalled massive gatherings where teams and their families would throw together “the most elaborate potluck.” It showed him that when people worked together, they could achieve more than when they worked alone.
“In the U.S., we’d create a spreadsheet to manage that; there, it just happened,” he said. “The social capital was very different from anything I had experienced.”
Antonucci completed a bachelor’s degree in economics and sociology, then went straight into a UVM master’s program in education. He also worked as a patient attendant at UVM Medical Center, then called Fletcher Allen Health Care. His job was to make sure patients who were in bed didn’t get out and hurt themselves.
“I got to talk to people from every single walk of life,” he said. “The really educated, the uneducated, the people who have traveled the world, the people who have never really left Vermont, people who are Republican, Progressive … When your loved one is really sick, that stuff doesn’t matter.”
The experiences at that job led him to his next: teaching social studies at U-32 Middle & High School in Montpelier. “I wanted to give young people the opportunity to see the world from multiple viewpoints,” Antonucci said.
He liked the position, partly because he had a lot of leeway to design individualized projects for his students. He started U-32’s media lab, which purchased video cameras, boom microphones, green screens, computers, editing software and lighting so students could produce original films about local issues and organizations.
One of his students, he said, had a multimedia story about gay marriage published in the Miami Herald. Antonucci liked encouraging students to aim high.
“People are capable of doing incredible things,” he said. “You just need to give them the opportunity to do it.”
Antonucci left U-32 in 2015 and started his own business, a consulting practice where he helped many of his family’s restaurant and food service clients modernize their businesses. In 2016, Antonucci helped create a curriculum on entrepreneurialism for the Governor’s Institutes of Vermont, a residential learning program for high school students.
That work “shows a commitment to Vermont in the long term,” said Matt Dunne, who runs the Center on Rural Innovation, or CORI, a national group that seeks to connect entrepreneurs with money, mentorship and technical assistance.
Though Dunne works in Springfield, he is in close contact with Antonucci as part of a growing equity funding ecosystem in Vermont.
“That’s not doing something in the short term for a quick win; it’s about building a system that is committed to innovation from our young people,” Dunne said of Antonucci.
In 2017, Antonucci landed a job as director of entrepreneurship and head of the LaunchVT business accelerator program at the Lake Champlain Chamber. The position ensconced Antonucci in Vermont’s nascent startup funding scene. LaunchVT supports early stage, Vermont-based businesses by recruiting cohorts of entrepreneurs into a two-month educational program.
The startups chosen get advice and coaching and take part in a contest where winners receive cash prizes and professional services. Well-known businesses such as Vermont Tortilla, Burlington Code Academy, Benchmark Space Systems and Packetized Energy have taken part in recent years.
“John’s background managing LaunchVT was perfect for his new role,” the Dudley Fund’s Crook told Seven Days in an email. “He had spent years helping entrepreneurs get ready to find funding. He does the same thing now with the big difference being the availability of capital to fund entrepreneurs through the Dudley Fund.”
In the past decade, Vermont has begun to gather more of the assets that are critical to a thriving startup ecosystem, such as the state’s first business bank, the Bank of Burlington, which opened this year. By Antonucci’s count, there are also 10 equity investment funds in the state, including the Dudley Fund, CORI, the Fund at Hula, FreshTracks Capital and the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies.
Software company Dealer.com sold for $1 billion in 2014, and some of its founders stayed around to invest and start other companies. And there are dozens of other success stories: Aviation startup Beta Technologies has raised more than $743 million since May 2021, while DealerPolicy, now known as Polly, raised $110 million last year.
The Dudley Fund’s portfolio includes the whiskey blender Lost Lantern, the aerospace company Benchmark Space Systems, two robotics companies and Accessible Web, a company that makes tools to increase online access. The group looks for companies with a strong plan for rapid growth and a successful sale.
“Those new companies are going to be the next IDXs and Dealer.coms and IBMs and OnLogics,” Antonucci said, ticking off several successful companies with a Vermont presence. “If you ask any of the people who founded those companies if it would it have been nice to have some better support early on, I’m sure they would all tell you yes.”
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