Launch NY, the first and only venture development organization to provide pro bono mentoring and capital access to high-growth startups across New York’s 27 westernmost counties, has created the Founders Go Big program.
“We noticed a huge demand among founders—especially women and minorities—to create a program that offers more support, including role models with whom they can identify,” says Marnie LaVigne, president and CEO of Launch NY.
This demand, along with the realization that, organically, the largest percentage of businesses Launch NY has invested in were started by underrepresented founders, inspired LaVigne to come up with a new program specifically to encourage, engage, and fund those founders. The result is its recently established Founders Go Big initiative. In February, Launch announced that it would receive $300,000 from JPMorgan Chase to support Founders Go Big.
“Launch doesn’t have typical venture capital leadership for Upstate NY—or anywhere. So we are in a position to be more welcoming for these entrepreneurs; it’s a comfortable place to talk about their dreams and visions,” she says. “Founders Go Big creates a dedicated pathway for women and minority founders to help them have a successful experience in, 1. designing their business, 2. getting funding to prove the idea, and 3. having a shot at further funding to move to the next level.”
“Unless you have someone in your life who’s shown you how to grow a company into one with state, nationwide or global impact, you might think about opening a corner store, hair salon or restaurant—those are great, but what about a business that can impact the world?” continues LaVigne. “We wanted to create this program specifically focused on taking a startup idea to large scale. That’s how I came up with the name, ‘Founders Go Big.’”
The program expands the access that Launch provides, including mentorship and equity capital, specifically to underserved, underrepresented entrepreneurs, supporting them to build high-growth potential businesses, create more jobs, and strengthen the local economy.
An important part of the equation for LaVigne was providing mentors who come from the same populations she wants to give more assistance to. (See the recent announcement of UB alum Anthony Jones, as Founders Go Big co-lead and one of its Entrepreneurs-in-Residence.)
Crystal Callahan has signed on as a mentor and Entrepreneur-in-Residence for Launch NY and the Founders Go Big program. Crystal Callahan, founder, mentor, Entrepreneur-in-Residence for Launch NY and the Founders Go Big programCallahan, who now runs Makeur, a startup studio in New York City, has walked in their shoes. She founded a mobile app startup in the early 2010s, and, as one of the first women of color to do that, has a very specific experience with what it’s like to be an entrepreneur and a Black woman.
She is impressed with Founders Go Big, and has already begun to inspire and teach others how they too can think differently. “It starts with the name of the program; it’s bold and ballsy—diverse founders are usually seen as small. When you come from a background where you don’t see people talk about million- or billion-dollar opportunities, you need someone to tell you that you can think big,” she says. “With this program, we’re starting to create a vocabulary for those who haven’t had this exposure.”
Chad Williams is a recent Buffalo State graduate from the New York City area, and founder of a mission-oriented apparel company called DooProcess; he donates 15% of his sales to organizations working for racial equity. He says that he is gaining the exposure and vocabulary he needs through the program—after encouragement from his professors, and sourcing YouTube to gain additional knowledge, he entered and won the New York Business Plan Competition. That led to him meeting LaVigne, who convinced him to move back to Buffalo after graduation, Chad Williams, founder of mission-oriented apparel company, DooProcess, and participant in Founders Go Bigwith a job at Launch NY, and a place in the Founders Go Big program.
“It’s a great program, with professionals helping and guiding us,” says Williams. “I think I’ve been an entrepreneur all my life, but I’m learning new terms, and new ideas.”
One of the initiatives that LaVigne and her staff came up with is a Customer Discovery Workshop for participants.
“Customer discovery is very important for these entrepreneurs,” she attests. “They may have a great idea or product, but not a good handle on who their customer is or will be and how many they could serve. During the Founders Go Big weekly virtual customer discovery sessions, it’s amazing to see participants share what they’ve heard from potential customers. Each one is truly defining what kind of company they will be, and how they will use the information to go forward.”
The spectrum of companies and products in the Founders Go Big hopper includes an app to help with someone’s golf swing, a platform for matching up parents with child care and education services, and a new wind turbine design.
Williams agrees that the process of customer discovery is helping him frame where his business could go. “We interview people to find our target audience,” he says. “You don’t just say what the business is, but ask questions to find out if they might be a customer. So I will ask them, do you support Black Lives Matter? Do you donate money to causes? What do you think about BLM T-shirts?”
“These entrepreneurs are soaking this all up. Speaking about success opens their minds and their eyes,” confirms Callahan. “Launch NY defines a ‘high-growth business’ as one that makes $10 million a year. So with a participant like Chad, we can help him define the ambition, the hunger to deliver enough apparel to drive a $10 million business.”
Gwendolyn Eldridge, another participant in the program, agrees that representation matters. In 2007, she invented a device that allows a user to page quickly through a stack of papers, and in the intervening years, has patented it, and gotten more serious about marketing it.
“When I initially came up with my product, I decided to see if something could become of it,” says Eldridge. “A couple of people I spoke with did not take me seriously. I didn’t want to label it—if it was because of my skin color, or because I was a woman—but I knew that it was not working the way it should work.
“I learned that Founders Go Big had a lot of support for women and minority startups and entrepreneurs; even if your idea doesn’t advance to the next level, the program gives you the opportunity to learn more about business,” she adds. “And, when you walk into a place and you see either a balance or a mixture, you can say OK, this may be easier—I won’t have to fight as hard. It’s good to see someone who looks similar to you, who has a role and is part of the process.”
LaVigne is excited about the future both for Launch NY, its programs, and for regional founders. “In tough economic times, there’s often an uptick in entrepreneurship activity,” she says. “I want to make sure that our community continues to build itself; we are looking to make sure Western New York truly is a home for inclusive economic prosperity, driven by innovative entrepreneurs. We hope to inspire the next generation of underrepresented founders to ‘go big.’”