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Proof Positive for an Idea and a Dream

Ten weeks ago our first Proof Positive cohort kicked off at Venture Café to address both old and new obstacles in launching a business. The “old” is the process of gaining knowledge from experts and access to resources. The “new” challenges are those presented by the pandemic, an economic downturn, and the disproportionate impact it’s had on underrepresented innovators which in turn, have amplified existing disparities. Proof Positive was designed to help narrow that resource gap.

This inaugural cohort was made up of 54 individuals of which 67% are Black and a total of 85% identifying as nonwhite, 58% are women and 19% without a college degree.

We sat down with Thom Webster, our first Proof Positive Founder-in-Residence, to get his take on the importance of programs like this and why the work being done today will lay the groundwork for a more vibrant and inclusive startup ecosystem tomorrow.

Why were you initially interested in being the Proof Positive Founder-in-Residence?

Having partnered with the Science Center since 2017, first with Black & Brown Founders, then Backstage Capital, I was intrigued when approached by Tracy Brala on working together on a recent award the Science Center had received from the EDA’s SPRINT Challenge grant. The Science Center wanted to develop a program model in support of small businesses impacted by the COVID-19 crisis by creating a hub for regional stakeholders and partners in this ecosystem to collaborate and help re-ignite the seeding, sustaining, and scaling of those disproportionately affected by the Pandemic. I agreed and the work began!

Why is this type of programming so critical in a city like Philadelphia?

Philadelphia is a great city filled with a vast range of opportunities, but often it is perceived that you need a playbook or a tour guide (i.e. sponsor) to understand the who, the where, and the what to participate. Whether this opinion is valid or perceived, if there is no recognizable doorway, it becomes real. Furthermore, the city historically has had inadequate and, in some instances, limited programming in support of its small business community. The city is home to over 93,000 small businesses that create approximately 54% of all jobs within the city limits (according to the Greater Phila. Chamber). Many of these small businesses are located on one of 269 commercial corridors across the city including West Philadelphia where the Science Center is located. These small businesses are an organic ecosystem in need of ENGAGEMENT to building community; EDUCATION – curated programming that supports their ability to thrive; and EMPOWERMENT for access to real and relevant resources that can strengthen and accelerate their business success. I am a firm believer that the Science Center is the ideal institution to lead this effort to enhance the viability of the region's small business community.

What surprised you most about the process/cohort?

I wasn’t too surprised about the interest Proof Positive generated and the type of businesses we attracted and enrolled in the inaugural cohort. Hi-Tech to Tech-enabled, home-based to office-based, pre-revenue -to-post; this region’s small business community has grit! With a goal of 25 participants for the first cohort, we enrolled 54 founders. Our weekly programming rapidly took shape with great support from regional stakeholders and partners like the Ben Franklin Technology Partners, City of Philadelphia, Greater Philadelphia Chamber, Black & Brown Founders, PACT, the African-American Chamber, and Drexel University, to name a few, who provided a range of resources in support of the plan to build Proof Positive as a destination for startups, early founders and entrepreneurs to access resources, networks and valuable information to improve their business success.

Are there any participants/stories that stand out to you?

They are several, but in my opinion, the real story is despite being a virtual program that limited contact to online interaction between program participants, cohort members recognized the need for greater one-on-one interaction that resulted in launching the Proof Positive pre-session. This session started one1 hour prior to our weekly programming where we provided a chat room for cohort members to connect one-on-one or in groups to meet, share ideas, information, and support for each other’s venture. How this happened so naturally, was a joy to experience and witness. As a result, some are now exploring collaboration and seeking each other out to test ideas and for advice.

Thom Webster with Arlan Hamilton at the Venture Café’s Backstage Takeover Night

What is your hope for the graduating cohort?

I believe Proof Positive has given participants a lot to think about and digest. If you have an idea, a dream, or even a wish, at Proof Positive we showed you a path, So Go For It! The roadmap we laid out in the program gave attendees not only the core elements for building a solid business strategy with actionable tactics but access to Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) for them to connect with on their journey….and for them to remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint. The program also provided first-hand knowledge, the dos, and don’ts combined with the real deal and, straight talk from those who have traveled this road, gone the distance, and succeeded. So, it showed them examples of how it could be done if they are willing to embrace the problems, find solutions, and overcome obstacles resulting in one day the realization you’re no longer a startup but a sustainable business enterprise.

What advice would you share with the incoming Founder-in-Residence and/or incoming cohort?

We launched Proof Positive as a destination that links entrepreneurs and founders in a support system for the startup community, so we need to be constantly asking, “where can we have a maximum impact?” People are hungry for real and meaningful relationships that can empower them on their entrepreneurial path. Being authentic is critical to connecting with this community on this journey because if you are viewed other than being that, you have NO credibility, and Proof Positive can have NO value. So as the Founder-In-Residence, you must foster relationships, collaborate with others, and build social capital across networks that you can bring and bridge to the Proof Positive community and your cohort. If each Founder-In-Residence can accomplish this, Proof Positive will become an economically vibrant, and inclusive startup community as a part of the region’s entrepreneur-centric ecosystem that delivers meaningful and relevant services for business success.

Interested in participating in Proof Positive? We’re accepting applications for the next cohort through July 25th. The free 8-week program, hosted by Founder-in-Residence, Tanya Morris is for aspiring entrepreneurs with an idea and the drive, but without previous startup experience under their belt.

The cohort will launch on July 29th with weekly sessions held virtually at Venture Café Philadelphia from 4:30-6 p.m. The curriculum will conclude on September 30th with a pitch competition.

Proof Positive is free and open to all!