Wendy Hickey, founder of ArtPop Street Gallery, is at a pivot point in her journey of building a sustainable organization.
Kevin Giriunas, founder of Advent Coworking, wants to find the “secret sauce” that fuels his business.
Marc Mataya, founder of Leaf Burrito, is looking to build a manufacturing facility and create anywhere from 250 to 1,000 jobs.
They’re all facing different challenges, but they all came to the same conclusion: They need help to get where they want to go.
That’s why all three founders applied to take part in the new class of Innovate Charlotte’s Venture Mentoring Service. The program is modeled after the mentorship program used at MIT in Boston. Innovate Charlotte (INCLT) brought it to the Queen City last year to give local startups the opportunity to harness the power and expertise of seasoned mentors as they build thriving, sustainable and profitable businesses. NC IDEA lent its support to the program in the form of a grant in November of last year.
The Venture Mentoring Services launched in a pilot stage, pairing 10 startups at a variety of stages with teams of two to five mentors. As the year progressed, INCLT leaders began to study the program’s processes, its people and its impact.
As with any startup, the goal was iteration, right from the start, said Keith Luedeman, executive director of INCLT.
INCLT had a playbook from MIT to start with, but it quickly became clear that the implementation would require a fair amount of customization to suit the needs of Queen City startups. Expectations needed to be set among the companies receiving mentorship; this was about getting better and stronger as an entrepreneur, not just about making connections. The selection process for startups needed to be more intentional, with diversity a core factor to consider. And the program needed to work more diligently to assign startups to mentors based on their specific needs, Luedeman said.
“We tried a lot of different things during the pilot, as we should have. We learned a lot about what we’re looking for in companies and mentors, and we are continuing to refine the teams so we’re getting folks value sooner than we were during the pilot,” Luedeman said. “Now we have companies in a lot of industries, at all different stages. It’s a very exciting and passionate group.”
In addition to ArtPop, Advent and Leaf Burrito, the new class includes:
- Invoira, an invoicing software company;
- Maze Services, a platform that connects clients with mobile hair and nail specialists;
- Step In Sock, a company that manufactures a reusable shoe cover;
- Genubot, a machine-learning platform for students taking calculus;
- SPREAD, an online platform and magazine for creatives;
- Dineamic Smart Signage, which offers marketing technology solutions for restaurant and retail brands.
And while they all had different reasons for wanting to take part in the INCLT Venture Mentoring Service, they share a common understanding of the value that a team of unbiased advisors can provide.
“Mentorship is a knowledge springboard to help you grow faster and more efficiently,” said Giriunas, of Advent.
“Receiving guidance from others will contribute to our success and push us to challenge our current way of thinking,” said Samonica Ngo, of MAZE.
“The venture mentoring program at INCLT is the perfect opportunity for us to leverage the collective knowledge and experience of Charlotte’s best and brightest during this stage of our company’s growth,” said Jake Corday, of Dineamic Smarter Signage.
Diversity at Its Core
The new class of companies represent a range of industries and stages, while its founders represent different genders and ethnicities. Of the 16 founders who are part of the program, nine are either women or minority male founders. And that is by design, Luedeman said.
“We want the next generation of successful entrepreneurs to be more representative of the overall population of Charlotte, so diversity will remain a core focus,” he said.
The evolution of the mentorship program is symbolic of the evolution of INCLT as a whole. The past year has been about testing and iteration so that the organization builds a resource the city’s startup community needs now. And startups have started to take note and lend their support: Local software development firm RMCSoft, for instance, recently agreed to support INCLT’s newsletter.
“It all comes down to product/market fit,” Luedeman said. “We know there’s a need for support in Charlotte’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. The question is, what are the best ways our organization can help? We’re learning more and more every day, and the plan is to continue doing just that.”
INCLT is currently accepting applications for companies and mentors looking to take part in the Venture Mentoring Service (Interested companies should be beyond the idea stage, with some traction or validation and preferably at least one full-time employee.)
Want to learn more about how to support INCLT? Contact Igor Gorlatov at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Source: Innovate Charlotte