Buffalo, N.Y. – The road to building a new startup company is fraught with bends and valleys for all entrepreneurs, but for a Black founder embarking on a business that wants to “go big”– generating tens of millions of dollars in product sales in a year or more – the navigation can be especially tough. In fact, only 1% of venture capital funding in the United States goes to Black founders each year, according to numerous studies including one by RateMyInvestor and Diversity VC.
That’s why Launch NY, the first and only nonprofit venture development organization serving the 27 westernmost counties in the state focused on helping startup companies become investment-ready, continues to be a go-to resource for Black entrepreneurs to access both expert business coaching and #InvestLocal financing.
Dr. Marnie LaVigne, president and CEO of Launch NY, said the organization’s framework to support and mentor startups that has served over 1,170 companies, including 26% minority companies since 2012, has the ideal approach to working in communities that don’t have access to the resources they need to grow a scalable business that sells products not just regionally, but nationally or even globally.
“The landscape for Black entrepreneurs in Upstate NY reflects the national scene but with even greater disadvantages since we’re simply not in one of the hotbeds for venture capital like New York City or Silicon Valley,” she said. “Without highly visible role models and a diverse entrepreneurial ecosystem paving the way for budding entrepreneurs of color, our mentorship-first model that focuses on supporting those who don’t have ready access to startup capital in their social networks has become the ideal resource. We’ve stepped-up our programming, mentors and funding that Black entrepreneurs can relate to and tap easily in the early steps of their journey.”
Building on its existing investments in Black founders, last February, Launch NY intentionally increased their efforts by creating the Founders Go Big diversity and inclusion program, funded by JPMorgan Chase. Founders Go Big is designed to empower minority and female entrepreneurs, especially those impacting low-income neighborhoods, to build scalable businesses. Launch NY announced Black co-leads and Buffalo expatriates, Anthony Jones and Crystal Callahan, to lead the effort reflecting not only their entrepreneurial expertise but also their passion for the Upstate NY region. More recently, Launch NY added Crystal Wallace, chief operating strategist of CMW Services, LLC, to manage the development of educational content and outreach strategies designed for underrepresented entrepreneurs, particularly the Black community.
“Through the Founders Go Big program, Launch NY is intentionally showing the WNY community that it’s committed to supporting ‘Big’ ideas from all people,” said Crystal Wallace. “For example, a Black founder from the East Side of Buffalo can get support for his or her scalable business and learn how to prepare for investor capital. The goal is for more people in our community to see high-growth entrepreneurship as a career path and not just a dream. As a Black female entrepreneur, I am excited to part of an initiative that is changing this narrative.”
Even before introducing its Founders Go Big program before the pandemic, Launch NY led the way among business support organizations for high-growth companies in the region by fueling Black founders across industry sectors with nascent ideas that have grown and achieved visibility and progress. For example, Re-Nuble is a Launch NY portfolio company that has benefitted from numerous funding and mentorship opportunities. Tinia Pina started a highly innovative ag-tech company that converts food waste into fertilizers that return to the farm for 100% closed loop agriculture. She recently closed on a $100,000 raise through Launch NY’s Investor Network, nonprofit and LP funds.
“Re-Nuble has received $1.7 million to date, representing a blend of both non-dilutive and dilutive capital,” said Pina. “With the funding raised from our seed round, our goal is to accelerate our products’ entry to the market, expand our team to meet the needs of scaling beyond New York and align our marketing with the success stories of our customers. We plan to do this in a way that’s repeatable beyond the U.S. borders as we continue to gain interest from international markets looking for ways to increase domestic food production and sustainability.”
Buffalo-based GRASPIE™ led the way as the first Black founder business funded by Launch NY’s nonprofit Seed Fund. The Buffalo-based creator of a mobile-first learning and engagement platform received $50,000 in 2020 and was selected into a startup program called Black Founders Exchange by Google for Startups and American Underground. Founder Derrick Parson has been a passionate spokesperson for Black entrepreneurs, as he provides a role model of navigating the challenges of being a minority-led startup with the added burden of the pandemic.
“As one of their first minority founders, Launch NY has helped to take our product, that was initially a service part of a boutique agency, to a stand-alone high-growth tech startup,” said Parson. “However, what’s most important, is they bet on me at the earliest point of my founder journey, ultimately helping me to raise $125,000 pre-seed funding at a time where local and national funding sources for Black founders were little to none. While we still have a long way to go, programs like Launch NY help to begin leveling the playing field, and I encourage those like me to begin utilizing their services.”
Agapé is a Rochester-based relationship wellness app designed to prompt meaningful conversation and self-reflection through personalized daily questions. The company has already had a successful beta cohort of 250 users who reported that the app had become a habit in less than three days, and 97% believed their participation had a positive effect on their relationship with a significant person in their lives.
“Launch NY was our first institutional investor, which really transformed our trajectory,” said Khadesha Okwudili, CEO and founder of Agapé. “They invested prior to our product launch and by taking that risk we were able to create our relationship wellness app, and the first version of our propriety algorithm. We launched our mobile app in November 2020, and we have already achieved an 8% conversion rate from free to paying customers. As a Black female founder, it can be more challenging to find people that believe in your ability to execute, so I am thankful for Launch NY’s support.”
Launch NY is dedicated to encouraging more of the Black community to consider starting scalable businesses by making connections to the success stories and mentorship from these and other experienced Black entrepreneurs. Over the past year, Launch NY recruited into its Founders Go Big program two dozen more companies led by underrepresented founders who were just beginning their startup journey. The public is invited to meet many of Launch NY’s client companies led by Black founders, who will be panelists in the upcoming #LaunchHour Twitter Chat on Wednesday, February 17 from noon to 1 p.m. as part of the interactive session entitled “High-Growth Entrepreneurship From the Perspective of Black Founders.”
Launch NY is pleased to highlight its Black-owned Founders Go Big companies:
- Anaghe Atelier, a Buffalo-based company design studio dedicated to manufacturing exclusive products, including denim jeans and causal sneakers.
- Arkatecht, located in Rochester, and creator of web-based professional development tools that help parents overcome the unique challenges of work-life balance.
- dooProcessTM, a Buffalo-based streetwear brand that donates 15% of every purchase to a defense fund that raises awareness on behalf of social justice.
- “Founders Go Big has been great, from my mentor and to all the other assistance Launch NY has given to underrepresented founders,” said Chad Williams, founder of dooProcess. “Founders Go Big is helping me and other founders learn the fundamentals of obtaining funding that guide you through the right way to go about doing it. I appreciate all that Launch NY is doing to help underrepresented founders and hope others can follow in their footsteps!”
- MyRetreat, a Rochester-based service that creates a customized staff retreat for businesses that promote self-care and mindfulness.
- “I’ve always been a life-long learner,” said Melissa Mueller-Douglas, founder of MyRetreat. “The Founders Go Big program instilled in me a love for customer discovery. I actively listen to the current needs of professionals and what motivates them to make changes for a healthier life.”
- SPATCHED, a Buffalo-based online marketplace that connects on-demand delivery with local businesses.
- SwingFlex, a Buffalo-based, swing training device specifically for golf, hockey, baseball and cricket. Its method of operation aligns the feet of the user at a perfect stance.
- “Founders Go Big program has been very helpful,” said Jesse Mack, CEO and founder of SwingFlex. “Conducting interviews and being open minded to learn from Launch NY Entrepreneurs-in-Residence has allowed me to figure out my potential customer(s) and whether my product is desirable for the intended market.”
- Tola, or Tenant Landlord Owner Alliance, headquartered in Buffalo, produces content and resources to enhance access to existing agencies and resources to help improve communities.