They describe themselves as the first virtual accelerator developed and run by students for students, and when they invited women and nonwhites to participate in their first program this summer, they didn’t expect to receive an embarrassment of riches in applications. Within just a month of launching, the team behind Envision Accelerator found themselves confronted with the challenge of winnowing down their pool of nearly 200 applicants to 17.
For the next eight weeks, the budding entrepreneurs selected by Envision will have a chance to engage in workshops, receive one-on-one mentorship from investors and founders of successful companies, and get insights into funding strategies. The program, which will be entirely online, will give teams face time with a network of notable mentors including Charlie Cheever, the founder of Quora, and Arlan Hamilton, the founder of Backstage Capital. Participants will also receive funding for their ventures.
The goal of the accelerator, says Eliana Berger, a Northeastern business and psychology student who founded Envision with her colleague, Annabel Strauss, a recent graduate of Brown University, is to “democratize access to these opportunities” for those who face barriers to getting their companies off the ground.
“A virtual accelerator is meant to be a program that essentially works very, very closely with founders who are already past the idea stage of their business,” says Berger. “They’ve already had some traction, they already have a team around them, and they have a very strong idea of a problem that they really want to work on and solve.”
One of the 17 teams taking part in this summer’s program is working on addressing how to optimize the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP, which was formerly called food stamps). Another is looking into democratizing influencer marketing. And a third is identifying ways to reduce grocery store food waste.
Envision was born in June from the realization that while there is a plethora of student startups springing up at universities across the country, startups with nonwhite founders are significantly underrepresented, Berger says. She describes the team of 11 at Envision as students and recent graduates “who have worked on things in the past and wanted to work with others while they do the same.”
The Brookings Institution reports that longstanding systemic racial and gender disparities that exclude women and nonwhites from business ownership continue to persist in the U.S. Statistics show that the two disadvantaged groups are not starting up businesses at the same rate as white men. Nationally, women and minorities represent nearly 40 percent of the population, but comprise only 20 percent of the country’s 5.6 million business owners with employees.
Berger’s own entrepreneurship journey goes back to her high school days when she founded a nonprofit organization called Golden Heroes. The experience was “transformative” she says, not only on how she viewed the world, but how she tackled problems.
“It gave me a whole new sense of confidence and a sense of purpose,” she says. “And that paved the way for me to come to Northeastern and study entrepreneurship. So I know how incredibly powerful it is to work on something of your own from the ground up.”
At Northeastern, Berger is a former executive board member of the Entrepreneurs Club. She also helped found the Women’s Interdisciplinary Society of Entrepreneurship, an initiative to get more women involved in entrepreneurship.
“I’ve always been passionate about creating a more diverse ecosystem at Northeastern and beyond,” says Berger. “It’s incredibly exciting to see that happen on a way larger scale now outside of Northeastern, and really being able to support students from universities that may not have as many resources—or that aren’t sure where those resources exist, or feel like they don’t belong within programs that are around them.”
Depending on how the pilot program goes this summer, Berger says a second session could be forthcoming in the fall.
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