Any entrepreneurial journey is long, winding, and there are typically some bumps in the road. But for dozens of entrepreneurs crossing the country last week on one of several ‘StartupBuses,’ these metaphors took on a distinctly literal meaning.
“I didn’t think about how intense it would be — just being on the bus,” shares Harriet Williams, Director of Operations at Atlanta-based business support organization Village Micro Fund. For ten years, StartupBus has held this annual pilgrimage of entrepreneurs from all over the country coalescing in what is essentially a traveling hackathon.
When she spoke to Hypepotamus, Williams was already halfway through the 72-hour trip, on a short stop in Atlanta at The Gathering Spot.
The bus she was traveling on had departed from Harlem and stopped in Detroit before making its way down to Atlanta, where a crowd of startup enthusiasts greeted the tired but enthusiastic riders.
This bus also had a very specific mission: the Advancing Black Entrepreneurs StartupBus, sponsored by JPMorgan Chase, recruited 30 black entrepreneurs to come up with startups focused on improving economic mobility and financial access for the black community.
“This competition aligns with our long-term goal to drive inclusive growth by empowering more people in the Black community to further their education, grow their careers and build wealth,” said Sekou Kaalund, Head of the Advancing Black Pathways initiative at JPMorgan.
The majority of the entrepreneurs, who came together from New York City, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Detroit, Atlanta and Oakland, had never been in contact with each other before getting on the bus.
Within a few minutes of meeting for the first time, they divided into teams, each coming up with a business idea and beginning to create a company.
By the time they got to Atlanta, many of the teams already had a business plan, a pitch, website, app or platform beta versions, and social media pages. They ran through a lightning pitch round and then solicited feedback and assistance from local mentors.
Williams joined the Advancing Black Pathways bus with her colleague and Village Micro Fund co-founder, Donte Miller. They ended up joining the same startup team, developing a digital platform called Cl1que that connects small business owners to subject matter experts or investors.
The four-person Cl1que team used Twitter and text message to crowdfund customer discovery for the idea. Williams, who came up with the original concept, and Miller explain that it could function as an extension of their non-profit.
“This idea works in tandem with what we already do,” says Miller.
After leaving Atlanta, the bus headed toward its ultimate destination: New Orleans, where they would meet up with the seven other buses from regions across the country that had been traveling and creating their own startup ideas.
The final pitch took place on Sunday evening. Thirty startup teams shared their idea and progress with a panel of judges and a packed audience.
The Advancing Black Entrepreneurs bus had a winner amongst their ranks: Small Street, an equity crowdfunding platform for small businesses, took one of three finalist spots, along with bragging rights, at the competition.
The business idea aims to better connect community supporters and patrons of small businesses with their owners to help them thrive, explains Ernest James, one of the Small Street team members.
“They were already emotionally invested, now they can be financially invested,” James tells Hypepotamus. The owner of a Washington, D.C.-based talent management agency for diverse influencers, James joined the StartupBus to learn more about new technologies that he can bring to his clients.
Though there were many obstacles — uncertain Wifi, sporadic sleep, literal bumps in the road that disrupted writing and typing — James says the StartupBus was the ultimate think tank for ideas.
“We literally had to figure this out, because we pitch in two hours and we cannot go anywhere.”
The Advancing Black Entrepreneurs bus was also awarded the Best Bus designation at the finals.
Though the entrepreneurs have now gone back to their respective cities and jobs, Williams says she feels confident that she will stay in touch with her fellow riders.
Despite their exhaustion, she tells Hypepotamus the entire bus had become “like a big family.”
Featured photo via StartupBus