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Lessons Learned from the Launch Lane Accelerator

Over the past year and a half, the Launch Lane Accelerator program at the University City Science Center has successfully supported a diverse cohort of seven early stage companies (with another eight selected for the newest cohort) through their commercialization pathway. Here are some lessons learned that, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, contributed to their success in building an accelerator that is as effective in scaling startups as it is equitable and inclusive.

1. Anonymous review infuses equity in the selection process.

As part of the selection process, applicants submitted a two-page document about their venture, and were specifically instructed to write it without using pronouns, names or other identifying information. Launch Lane’s diverse reviewer pool read and rated these briefs without any information about the applicants themselves. This method served as a step in preventing stereotypes and biases from distorting rater assessments about who can be successful in entrepreneurship. After selection decisions were made, the Science Center collected applicant demographic information in a separate system to assess the process for potential bias and to identify areas for improvement in outreach and support strategies.

2. Intentional network development helps meet recruitment goals.

Everyone knows they need to network, but what does that even mean? Networking doesn’t mean printing out a bunch of business cards and handing them out at happy hour. Networks can be assessed by reviewing the knowledge, experience, perspectives, and communities among contacts and comparing that with personal or organizational goals. To find and access applicants that had been underserved in previous cycles, Launch Lane recruited a steering committee, representing individuals who had access to members of target groups through their networks. Building relationships and engaging members of new communities set a strong foundation for reaching a diversity of great candidates.

3. Engaged and diverse leadership matters across the board.

Well-intentioned recruiters understand that they need to build relationships and connect to members of communities that have historically been overlooked by entrepreneurship support organizations or funders. Building relationships and developing networks are important first steps. Taking it to the next level, the Science Center made these relationships stronger by creating a diverse Launch Lane steering committee who served as leaders, reviewers, experts, and mentors for the program. Engaging the committee as true leadership partners who shaped the vision and outcomes of the program also provided participants with mentors, role models, and a wider range of experiences and perspectives to draw on.

4. Program design based in inclusive entrepreneurship research facilitates community and belonging.

It’s often difficult and lonely work to launch products and build companies. Founders often cite the opportunity for community and connection with peers who are currently on the same journey--and mentors who have successfully navigated the start-up world--as reasons to join accelerators. One of Launch Lane’s differentiators is the effort invested in designing a program experience specifically to build trust, resilience, and belonging, all of which were key to creating a space where entrepreneurs feel free to take risks and ask questions. Launch Lane’s psychological program design, and the culture it created, provided an alternative model to hypercompetitive cultures at accelerators which often dampen trust, resilience, and innovation.

5. Access to managing staff and transparency in communication help participants feel valued.

All Launch Lane cohort members cited access to and support from managing staff as major contributors to the growth and success they experienced in the program. Cohort members could contact managing staff by email, phone, text, or Slack and receive quick responses. One participant commented on how valued she felt when staff responded to inquiries after business hours, late into the evening. In addition, transparency in communication bolstered this feeling by allowing participants to see how decisions were being made and why. The combination of developed trust, transparency, and responsiveness helped participants feel like they and their success mattered to the staff.

6. Customized design meets the needs of all participants.

Entrepreneur support organizations often use similar curricula to educate entrepreneurs about pathways to commercialization. However, not all entrepreneurs have the same needs or follow the same pathway. Instead, Launch Lane identified the common and distinct needs of their entrepreneurs and, based on those needs, used their networks to identify experts to attend weekly sessions and speak about their experience and share expertise. These highly engaging and interactive sessions provided participants with resources they needed and supported them on their own unique entrepreneurial journeys.

7. Holistic support develops successful entrepreneurs.

Particularly important in a year of flux and uncertainty, it was important to recognize that what participants did in the program was not the entirety of what was going on in their lives. Founders have rich, complex identities, which often provide important context to the story of their product. Too often, however, accelerators focus on commercialization activities to the exclusion of other challenges that may affect participants. During Launch Lane’s weekly sessions, staff encouraged a broad conversation about weekly updates, which included and celebrated progress on their respective milestones but also personal challenges and successes that cohort members faced. This holistic support contributed to the culture of trust and helped participants feel that all parts of them belonged in the program.

Erin Kelley, Diversity Equity Inclusion & Entrepreneurship Consultant and Heather Metcalf, Ph.D., Director of Research and Constituent Relations at Women in Engineering ProActive Network, were engaged by the Science Center as external evaluators of the Launch Lane Accelerator.

The Science Center received support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation for the Launch Lane Accelerator.