You can’t be what you can’t see: breaking down barriers in entrepreneurship

August 12, 2016  • Jennifer Bradley & Center for Urban Innovation

This is the first piece of the series “Who are Urban Innovators?,” an effort to show what’s possible when urban innovators and people of color get the capital they need to advance their big ideas. Below, read the exchange between Brit Fitzpatrick, creator of Mentor Me, and  Jennifer Bradley, director of the Aspen Institute Center for Urban Innovation

Jennifer Bradley: What does your company do?

Brit Fitzpatrick: The MentorMe platform combines the power of the cloud with the impact of mentorship tounlock potential inside organizations, businesses and communities. We sell our white-labeled mentorship software and app to organizations running small business and youth mentorship programs. For organizations, MentorMe handles everything from onboarding, to matching, to tracking, to reporting outcomes.

For mentorship matches, MentorMe enables them to keep track of sessions and set/track goals. We’re also rolling out a suite of communication tools that will enable matches to keep in touch in between sessions and to meet via video chat.

JB: What was the problem that you set out to solve when you created your company?

BF: I have been involved in mentoring programs since the age of six. Unfortunately, I saw a lot of inefficiency, and difficulties on both sides of the process. Our platform automates a lot of the previously manual processes — for example, matching using spreadsheets, or tracking using pieces of paper — and brings mentoring programs into the 21st century.

B: What brought you to this problem?

BF: A close friend of mine had started mentoring, and she was really worried that her and her mentee weren’t going to click. Being a nerd, I thought about all of the data that mentors and mentees provide to mentoring programs in the beginning. There is an application, references, and typically an in-person interview. There is all of this great data being collected, and yet you still don’t know if it’s going to work out.

When I did some research, I found that bad matches have a regressive effect, doing more harm than if you never had a mentor in the first place. It’s really important not only to get the match right, but also to be able to track the match to make sure things are going well. If you have one person doing that for a hundred matches, it’s hard to do effectively, if at all. So those were sort of my two big “ah-ha” moments: that conversation with my friend, and then my instinct being verified by the studies that I found on the impact of mentoring experiences.

JB: Where did you get the initial money to start your company?

BF: I went through a Startup Weekend-style event, which led me to apply to Memphis’s traditional IT tech accelerator. I was the first woman CEO to be accepted into the program. We got an initial small round of seed funding from there, and about a year later I was able to raise an additional round of funding, which has ended up being $275,000.

JB: Why did you choose the for-profit model?

BF: I was attracted to the for-profit social enterprise model because I feel that sometimes there are barriers to scaling when you are dependent on grant funding or donors, rather than being able to raise from an institutional investor. I also think that I’m able to play in different spaces as a for-profit social enterprise: we can sell our platform to someone like the State of New York, or also be in school mentoring programs statewide. The reach that we have through that business relationship is astronomical. Our business model bakes our impact into our growth.

JB: It’s not just financial capital that new businesses need, but social capital. What other support did you have when you were getting started?

BF: Money is important, don’t get me wrong. Just want that to be clear, in case any of my investors read this article. But, I did find that that was just part of what we needed. Really, it’s the support—people being willing to open doors for you—that really helps you grow. So many companies raise money and still fail. For me, it’s being a part of networks like the Focus Fellows, or the Points of Light Civic AcceleratorI was still very intentional after we got our funding on growing my network. I sought out people like Kathryn Finney, and folks like Megan and Ayesha from Points of Light Civic Accelerator, so that we could build relationships and become a part of different communities.

For me, especially as a woman of color, it was really important for me to connect with other women who look like me, so that I could have someone to have more nuanced conversations with which I might not be able to have with one of my investors who can’t connect with me in that same way. I believe you need a diverse network regardless of what you look like, because there is value in everyone’s experiences and perspectives, but I also believe you can’t be what you can’t see, and so being able to connect, with someone like Jewel Burks with Partpic or Natalie Cofield with Walker’s Legacy, to have a Kathryn Finney with Digital Undivided , being able to see them, what they’re doing, and being able to have those conversations with them, for me it’s been more valuable than any dollar I’ve ever received.

JB: Is there any kind of support that you did not have, or that you got but you wished you’d had it a lot sooner?

BF: I spent a lot of time on the business model, and having conversations with customers in terms of customer discovery, and I don’t think I got my prototype built quickly enough. As a non-technical founder, I wish I’d been educated around the development process, been educated around agile development, which is very different from learning to code. Unfortunately, a lot of the women and the women of color who I speak with who don’t have a technical background but have technical products. They have this amazing background, domain expertise, a great idea, and a real market, but can’t get it built.

JB: What would you tell somebody who was trying to start an urban innovation company?

BF: This is going to sound trite coming from me, but find mentors. It’s been people that have been willing to advocate for me and have been willing to put their own reputation and their own name behind me who have gotten me the farthest. You’ll find a lot of people who want to give you advice. You can find yourself in a habit of just going to coffee with folks, but you’re not really getting anywhere. It’s important to find mentors who will actually serve as advocates. It doesn’t happen overnight, but the sooner you start that process of identifying them, the more quickly you’ll get to that type of relationship building.

JB: Why should we care about companies like yours having access to capital?

BF: One, because we’re based in Memphis, not Silicon Valley or New York. We leave a lot of untapped talent on the table because we have this perception of what we think an entrepreneur is—not just their experience, but where they went to school, what type of family they come from, or where they live. When we talk supporting diverse entrepreneurs, a lot of that conversation ends up being housed on the coasts. I think we have to start looking at non-traditional tech communities that also are majority-minority cities. I’ve started to talk to some of the individuals that I’ve met about looking at majority-minority cities as potential hubs for building this pipeline of diverse tech talent.

Two, there are a lot of unsolved problems that certain types of people are poised to build solutions for. Look at Tristan Walker of Walker and Company, and what he has done with Bevel, solving a common problem that men of color have using razors on their skin. Who better to solve that problem than a man of color? These markets are looked at as niche, but actually they are multi-billion dollar markets. You have Candace Mitchell with Myavana who’s addressing this multi-billion dollar African-American hair care market. These are real markets that have a great potential of providing real returns for investors, which is what we’re all here for, right? We’re here to build successful companies.

JB: If you weren’t doing MentorMe what would you be doing?

BF: I would be looking for a way to do MentorMe! I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, and I knew that I wanted to build a company that had not just a financial return, but also had some sort of impact. I think I would probably still be on that search. Meanwhile, I love what Kathryn [Finney] is doing in terms of building an ecosystem, so maybe I’d be trying to work for digital undivided or somewhere similar so I could be a part of that system of change.

 

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