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Points of Light Accelerates Social Entrepreneurship Nationally

by Muriel Vega

Civic engagement is essential when building healthy communities from the ground up. Atlanta-based non-profit, Points of Light launched its national Civic Accelerator to serve as a platform for social entrepreneurs to scale their new businesses and drive positive change in a national stage.

Through a partnership with corporations and program partners across the country, the Points of Light accelerator program provides mentoring, networking and support along with $50,000 in seed investments to the two most promising startups. The kicker? The two winners will be chosen by the entrepreneurs themselves. Their latest cohort, its 8th one, ends this December in Detroit, Michigan.

Founder/President Ayesha Khanna shares how their program’s design succeeds at attracting diverse entrepreneurs, the resources available to the startups through the program and how Atlanta weaves into their national story.

ayesha-head-shotHow has the Points of Light’s Civic Accelerator grown in the past few years?

In 2012, we launched in partnership with the PwC Charitable Foundation and Starbucks Foundation, both seed and continuing funders. Village Capital was also a program partner in our early days. We’ve continued to grow, evolve and learn. Most of our cohorts have been national, but we are based here in Atlanta and have made a concerted effort to develop our pipeline in Atlanta because we want to contribute to building the local ecosystem. There’s lots of talent and great solutions here and we are excited to be a part of what the innovation and entrepreneurship happening in our hometown. It has also been great to have Georgia Power’s support and a strong group of mentors and ventures from Atlanta.

We focus on scalable, innovative models that engage people as part of the solution. We believe that by creating more awareness about these new solutions, tapping into skills-based volunteers, and helping ventures connect with resources and community and corporate assets — that we can help support scalable, innovative models.

Our approach has allowed us to attract and support more diverse entrepreneurs. We baked it not only into our recruitment but our program design and our mentor network, so our founders represent the diversity of the larger community. When you look at our over 100 teams, 53% are co-founded or founded by women, 45% by ethnic and racial minorities. Our current cohort in Detroit and the Great Lakes region represents the most diverse we’ve had to date with 87% of the ventures founded or co-founded by minorities.

What do you think your program particularly attracts such a diverse number of people?

It’s a great question because it’s a part of what we’re trying to figure out across the country. It’s a combination of things.

Our recruitment practices are focused on attracting diverse candidates.  Lots of referrals from national partners allows us to attract top quality diverse entrepreneurs. We support them to scale and to seek investment at the end of the three month program.

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Many individuals or teams working on these issues don’t self-identify as an entrepreneur let alone social entrepreneur. We are creative and tap into non-traditional places to surface diverse entrepreneurs that are launching new social businesses. We havescouts that go into communities and tap into the local ecosystems around the country that draw in entrepreneurs.. We work withover 60 national partners that make referrals to us. Some are what you’d imagine, such as local hubs, accelerators or incubators, but also Teach for America alumni and universities that work with diverse talent. We are looking for individuals that are in communities and immersed in these issues, and are in the best position to figure out how to solve these problems. They have the personal drive and commitment to address these challenging social issues.

Program design is another way we attract diversity. Throwing in entrepreneurs into typical kinds of programs, where there’s embedded bias and models that are not developed in a way that incorporates inclusion, creates high failure rates. Our recruitment, program design with peer learning and the ability to go back to test assumptions and work with customers in home markets in between intensive sessions,  diverse mentors and seasoned entrepreneurs that come and connect with our teams…all of that makes a big difference.

What are the fundraising lessons these startups walk away with?

We’re not only a pitch accelerator and we’re not only a “get VC capital” accelerator. It’s absolutely part of our focus with some of our training and shared learning around creating a clear business model and testing customer and revenue assumptions. Then how do I think strategically about the development of my venture and when do I need an infusion of capital? We work with non-profit and for-profit early stage social ventures.

cohort-8-photoHow does Atlanta weave into the accelerator’s national presence?

It’s so exciting to see what’s happening in the Atlanta tech entrepreneurial scene and it’s just phenomenal to be based here. Similarly to other cities, we are still figuring out not how to create another Silicon Valley while keeping in mind: how do you build on what our assets are here, that are unique to Atlanta? How do we connect when there’s a fragmented ecosystem?

Honestly, we’ve had some of our Atlanta teams that have left Atlanta but several are still here. It’s exciting to be part of thisexpanding ecosystem. We want to continue to grow our Atlanta pipeline and would love to figure out how to go deeper here in Atlanta. Detroit’s going to be a good learning and model for us and we would love to replicate those learnings and our regional program model right here in Atlanta.

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