‘Chief Evangelist’ Prepares to Hang Up His Robes

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – When Jim Cossler leaves the campus of Youngstown Business Incubator early next year – possibly for the last time – the man who has spent his entire adult life working to improve the city of Youngstown will have good reason to think his goal is accomplished.

Cossler, who was CEO of YBI for 19 years and today is the Huntington Bank Entrepreneur in Residence there, will retire from professional life Jan. 15.

When asked if he thinks he’s made an impact on the community, Cossler says, “I hope so.”

Staying modest, he offers a bit of anecdotal evidence.

He recently posted on social media the picture of a little girl who wore a Superman outfit while she attended the public viewing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Cossler’s caption read, “I don’t have my own special person to honor on Daughter’s Day. But, if I did, I hope this would be her.”

“So many people messaged me,” Cossler says.

“They said things like, ‘I know you don’t have a daughter of your own. But I don’t know if you remember my daughter. She interned with you 15 years ago.’ Or ‘You helped her out in college.’ It was neat that so many people reached out to me. That was a good feeling.”

Although no less meaningful, more concrete evidence of Cossler’s impact can be seen all over the community, and not just from his work with YBI.

Cossler has spent his entire career working within a five-block radius in downtown Youngstown, slowly moving his way down West Federal Street.

It’s only fitting because the man who has become known as the “chief evangelist” of the YBI started out as a kid from the west side of Youngstown.

Cossler grew up near Mill Creek Park and was a regular at the Central Branch of the YMCA, where he took swimming lessons.

After graduating from Chaney High School, he spent one year at Miami University before returning and enrolling at Youngstown State University, although he didn’t stay there long either.

Instead of graduating, Cossler took a job as the youth director of his beloved YMCA, a position that put him in charge of the organization’s membership drives.

Cossler is proud to say he never once missed a goal.

His prowess at driving membership caught the attention of the Better Business Bureau in Youngstown where he was offered the presidency.

It was there, he says, that he began to cultivate his strengths.

“Hire people who are way smarter than I am,” he says. “Here are the goals. I don’t care how you get there. That’s always been my management style.”

One of his first hires was a liberal arts major with, “no true work background that was useful and meaningful,” says Barb Ewing. “Jim took a chance on me.”

Ewing, today the CEO of the YBI, quickly noticed that Cossler had a different way of looking at problems.

“When we were at the BBB, he started to look at a different model for growing the membership base because he knew there was a lot of competition for nonprofit dollars,” she says.

Cossler’s idea to differentiate the BBB from other nonprofits was to build a corporate services division that would provide “information-based solutions to members’ questions. To take ourselves beyond what a traditional BBB did,” he says.

As a result, they were able to improve their retention rate and recruit several business-to-business companies. “Traditionally, you almost never get those businesses to join,” Cossler says.

Ewing was named director of membership services during that time. It was then that she learned another valuable lesson from Cossler. “I took over the job from someone that Jim had immense confidence in,” she says.

One day Cossler asked her a question to which she gave him an off-the-cuff, “I think.”

When it turned out her answer was wrong, Cossler pulled her aside.

“He said to me, very seriously, that one of the things he appreciated about [the previous director] was that she never guessed about an answer,” Ewing says. “If she didn’t know the answer, she would tell him that she didn’t know and she would find out what the answer was. And he would be grateful if I would do the same.

“That lesson has served me so well through the years.”

Cossler’s success again caught the attention of an organization looking to increase its membership, this time Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber, where he was hired as senior vice president for corporate services.

“I told the chamber it was a package deal. If I’m coming, then Barb is coming,“ Cossler says.

“We took the membership model to the chamber,” Ewing says.

While most chambers don’t deal with startups very often, the few occasions it did happen were highlights for Cossler. So in 1998, when he was offered the position of CEO of the Youngstown Business Incubator, he jumped.

“When I walked into this building, it was just this building. It was just this floor,” Cossler says, gesturing to his surroundings.

Indeed, one measurement of the success Cossler found at YBI is the growth of the campus.

What was one mostly-empty floor in 1998, is today a campus that comprises five buildings: YBI headquarters, the Taft Technology Center, the Semple Building, America Makes and Tech Block Building 5.

Another measure of success is the number of jobs the incubator has helped to create. “We should be held to account for measurable metrics,” Cossler says.

One lesser-known success story of YBI is Vantage Solutions, a software firm headquartered in Poland.

“It’s like a Forrest Gump story,” says CEO Paul Burgoyne.

Several years ago, Burgoyne was doing some consulting work for a large trucking company in Wisconsin.

“It became very clear that there was an identifiable pain point surrounding their ability to quickly find service providers to keep their equipment running on the road,” he says.

Burgoyne and some partners built software to solve the problem and began to think about taking it to market.

As Burgoyne recalls, he met someone in the industry who knew a venture capitalist, who knew Jim Cossler, and arranged an introduction.

“What sticks with me is how energetic and optimistic he is,” Burgoyne says.

“He is the rare combination of super-intelligent visionary who is also on planet earth with the things entrepreneurs need to think about, like ‘don’t run out of cash.’ I just love the guy for that.”

Vantage Solutions began to work with Cossler in early 2016 to bring its software to market.

The company graduated from the YBI a few months ago and today has 35 full-time equivalent employees.

Several big-name customers, including Amazon, Bridgestone and Travel Centers of America, use its software, called Reach.

“I don’t want to jinx anything but we’re definitely out of startup phase,” Burgoyne says.

How Cossler came up with the idea to begin to focus on software companies was a matter of pragmatism.

Software companies don’t require much infrastructure, just a room and an internet connection.

Even though many people liked his idea, most were less than optimistic it would work, he says. “They said, ‘yeah, good luck with that.’ ”

And that gets to the heart of what Cossler says could be his biggest accomplishment: changing the perception of Youngstown and getting Youngstown to change how it thinks about itself.

“What held our community back for so long was our disbelief in ourselves, that you can’t do that in Youngstown,” he says.

Ewing takes it a step further. “I believe that Jim was single-handedly responsible for starting to dispel Youngstown’s disbelief in itself,” she says.

To prove that you could do it in Youngstown, in 2012 the city -– with assistance from YBI – became the site of the Obama administration’s first center for advanced manufacturing, today called America Makes.

Then, in 2014, YBI was named the No. 1 university-affiliated business incubator in the world by the University Business Incubator Index.

As he changed the perception of Youngstown, these accomplishments also gave Cossler the clout to contact business professionals with ties to the city, professionals who, more often than not, wouldn’t take his calls.

“His network is utterly massive. So he has a lot of tools at his disposal,” Burgoyne says.

Finding the best and brightest who have left Youngstown – the “Youngstown Diaspora” as Cossler calls it – has been one of his biggest undertakings. Over the years, it’s paid dividends, especially since many of these people still harbor such affection for their hometown.

When he finally got in touch with someone “high up at Microsoft,” Cossler says, the man told him that he had no intention of ever moving back to Youngstown, but that he would give him his cell phone number and help any way he could.

Cossler says he will leave a similar invitation when he walks off the YBI campus in January.

“I’ve told every one of my portfolio companies, ‘You’ve got my phone number,’ “ he says.

As for the entrepreneurs who will start a company after he’s left, he has two pieces of advice.

First: “If you’re going to do a startup, do it now.”

And two: Embrace digital. “Digital has become so powerful that there are no barriers to a startup business today, if it is a digitally-based business. You just need an idea.”

Pictured: Although Jim Cossler plans to retire, “I’ve told every one of my portfolio companies, ‘You’ve got my phone number,’ ” he says.

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.