As the tech industry reckons with the legacies of institutional racism and looks to support underrepresented entrepreneurs, companies & funds are developing more Immerse-like programs that are new-to-world. My goal with this piece is to offer a little guidance to help lessen the learning curve and improve outcomes for everyone involved. Before building, make sure to:
- Manage your stakeholders with founders as the priority
- Start and end with an inclusive lens
- Keep it 100
For those of you I haven’t met yet, my name is Yaw and I currently direct the Immerse pre-accelerator for BIPOC founders at Bubble. Before this, I co-founded LMNS, an equitable hiring platform, within the Antler accelerator program after working at Bain & Company as an associate consultant. Since starting at Bubble, I’ve put together 2 cohorts of the Immerse pre-accelerator, built a team of instructors to support the program, and read through over 1000 founder applications to select the 26 Immerse founders in residence.
3 Key Lessons from building an inclusive accelerator
Accelerator defined: a short intensive program designed to help prepare entrepreneurs to build, grow, and scale their products leveraging venture capital. A product accelerator has a focus on getting a minimum viable product built and brought to market.
1. Manage your stakeholders with founders as the priority
Accelerators are more like a business than a sub-unit, and you determine who your clients are.
One of the strangest parts of putting together an accelerator is the number of different stakeholders that each have completely different incentives. A few of them are listed below:
(VC or corporate firm)
|The VC fund or corporation that provides the capital to support the program||Return on investment in the form of increased deal flow and success stories|
|Founders||The entrepreneurs who apply, participate in, and graduate from the program||Elevate their profile in order to secure funding Build a scalable product|
|Advisors||The folks experienced in business strategy, marketing, product, and / or fundraising, who volunteer their time to mentor founders||Increase their network of foundersPay it forward|
|Instructors||The tech and / or business strategy experts who teach founders||Build a brand as an expert in their subject area|
|Team||The coordinators, marketing, partnership, and social media folks in your organization||Support company initiatives to elevate their internal profile|
Each of these stakeholders is invested in the program for a slightly different reason. Running a successful accelerator depends on being able to isolate this reason for each stakeholder, and put on the appropriate hat for each conversation. Importantly though, sometimes these incentives overlap and you’re forced to make a decision that could disappoint one or more parties. Most commonly, this happens in the conflict between funder & founder. However, what I’ve seen is that choosing your founders almost always turns out to benefit the funder in the end.
In our first run up to demo day, we realized that while founders had managed to figure out the complex functionality behind their applications, their aesthetics weren’t quite up to the level consumers would be expecting. I knew that founders would benefit from design help, but wasn’t sure whether it justified the expense of hiring another person late in the game. In the end, I chose to follow through and convince Bubble (“funder”) to invest in these resources for our founders. This resulted in our demo day founders having clean, marketable platforms to showcase, which in turn made for even better success stories for the company. If you’ve set up your accelerator correctly, investing in founders always yields a bigger ROI for the company.
2. Start with an inclusive lens
By the time you’ve started your first session it’s already too late to start thinking about it.
There’s currently no playbook on how to build an inclusive accelerator program (yet!), so it can be challenging to figure out how to integrate inclusion into an already difficult to manage institution. I personally felt overwhelmed by “What if?s”
- What if the program unintentionally reinforces institutional racism?
- What if the instructors, founders, or staff commit a microaggression?
The first thing I’ve learned from thinking constantly about this issue is that you’re never going to be perfect. But this shouldn’t discourage you – it should empower you to be better because no one expects you to be perfect. People expect you to be trying.
Trying looks like being intentional and integrating inclusion into programming through two concurrent processes: questioning & research. In every decision I made, I asked myself some form of one central question – how might [insert group here] feel about [insert decision here]? And I would use that framework to inform the research I would conduct to back my decision. Research can be as legitimate as reading an academic paper on the topic or as simple as asking a friend or googling a stupid question, but doing so helped me put things into perspective and avoid easy pitfalls.
When I was typing out the first Immerse cohort announcement, I realized I hadn’t asked folks how they identify. I asked myself, how would a non-binary person feel about this article? This drove me to ask the cohort how they identified, allowing us to feel more confident in their representation. Founders also appreciated being asked, as many hadn’t been asked before and it built early trust that helped us provide a better experience to them.
3. Keep it 100
Be very up front with what you can and cannot offer.
Startups with the mantra of “move fast and break things” often forget that there are real people on the other side of their product or service. Real people with families, ambitions, and expectations based on what you put out into the world. It’s nearly impossible to meet everyone’s expectations, but it is possible to meet your own by only promising what you are 80% sure you can deliver and being up front about the 20% chance it doesn’t happen.
When I put together the first cohort, I had every intention of making sure all 10 founders presented their products to the community at demo day. I was 80% sure that this was possible, given the following conditions:
- Founders complete their products (including design) ahead of demo day
- Founders engage with the program in the duration
- The Immerse team (me) is able to find judges to evaluate all 10 companies
However, I made the mistake of not communicating these conditions from the very beginning, instead figuring this out about halfway through the program. In the end, we were able to find judges to evaluate 4 companies, and used the first two conditions to choose the 4 who would present. And although these are perfectly reasonable evaluation metrics, timing is everything.
I am immensely proud of Maryssa, Nichole, Christina, and D’azhane for their demo day presentations. I’m also proud of the rest of our inaugural cohort for the hard work they put in over 10 weeks to build their products. Our second cohort is aware of these pre-conditions and fully on board with competing to be in the demo day crew. I’m excited to see what they accomplish and grateful to have played a small part in each of their entrepreneurial journeys.
If you’re interested in learning more about what it was like putting this together for the first time, check out my interview with Avthar on his podcast. You can check out more of my talks on my personal website or reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about the Immerse program itself, check out the website, Bubble’s Immerse demo day from 2020, and the sign up for the latest 2021 Immerse demo day.