In a nondescript auditorium at Morehouse College, two dozen entrepreneurs pitched their growing or recently-formed startup concept to a room of investors, community members, and supporters. Last week’s event looked just like any other of the countless Demo Days that take place across the country, except for one thing: every founder on-stage was an underrepresented minority.
Atlanta has garnered attention on a national stage recently for its welcoming environment and proclivity for fostering minority-owned businesses. The “nation’s black tech capital”, a USA Today feature dubbed the city in an article that highlighted impressive examples like entrepreneur-investor Paul Judge and Jewel Burks Solomon of Amazon-acquired Partpic.
But getting to that upper echelon of startup success requires support at the earlier stages, way before USA Today comes calling.
That’s why, in 2017, a coalition of organizations including JPMorgan Chase & Co., Morehouse Entrepreneurship Center, and Judge’s TechSquare Labs launched an Atlanta chapter of national minority-focused pre-accelerator program Ascend2020.
The JPMorgan-sponsored initiative granted $400,000 to the local organizations to recruit startups, bring in a staff, and disseminate a business-building curriculum derived from University of Washington’s Foster School of Business.
Nationally, the program has garnered promising results, with Ascend2020 companies showing about 3-10 times higher economic growth rate and 8-21 times higher job growth rate than the U.S. average in 2016.
Atlanta was the sixth city to bring in the program — and the first to focus on tech startups.
The first cohort, which graduated in 2018, included fast-growing companies like Sudu, Stackfolio, and Storj. Since their Demo Day last spring, the 31 companies have raised a total of $3.7 million in debt and equity capital and generated $2.5 million in revenue.
Another 31 startups joined the program in 2018 to graduate at last week’s Demo Day. According to Judge’s remarks, the event coalesced one of the largest cohorts of minority tech entrepreneurs in the country.
Ascend2020 startups are divided into three categories: scale, early-stage, and idea stage. All are paired with mentors and attend the educational sessions, says Ascend2020 Entrepreneur-In-Residence Candace Mitchell, who leads program operations.
A Georgia Tech engineering grad and venture-backed startup founder herself, Mitchell tells Hypepotamus that this year’s program changed its focus slightly from last year. While the first cohort leaned heavily into the process of raising outside capital, this year they focused on growing revenue, landing pilots, and “generating actual traction for these companies beyond a funding round.”
Guest speakers included individuals from JPMorgan Chase, Georgia Tech’s Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC), the Metro Atlanta Chamber, Access to Capital for Entrepreneurs, Techstars, and legal, financial, IP, marketing, and business development experts.
Safir Monroe, CEO of airline employee communication platform Undelay, was one founder that found success landing a major pilot while in the program — the reward program provider for Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
“When I began the program Ascend2020, I had a rough prototype and idea of what I wanted to be a company. Through different sessions and constant mentorship, I was able to attain the knowledge to finally launch my product, attain user downloads, and partner with [the reward provider],” Monrow shares.
“Cyber Clipboard certainly would not be in the position it is in without the help of everyone involved in the program,” he says.
Other companies started even earlier in the startup process, and credit the program with helping them get off the ground. For example, the team behind habit-building app Goalcentive talked about releasing their beta product during Ascend2020.
Several of the companies at Demo Day shared upcoming plans to raise funding rounds, launch a new feature or updated product, and hire new employees.