Program Targets A Missing Link For Founders: Friends And Family Money

Anne Field
Written by Anne Field

founders of color
Christian Zimmerman and Nate Washington. ARMAND SARAMOUT

Many startups fund their earliest days with money from friends and family, as well as angels. But what if your friends and family are not wealthy—and, in fact, are more on the struggling side of the equation?

This, in fact, is one critically important missing link in access to capital faced by many founders from diverse backgrounds. (Another one that receives more attention, of course, is funding from venture capital).

With that in mind, social enterprise accelerator Village Capital created an initiative called VC Pathways to help such early-stage African American, Latinx and female founders get on a solid path to raising money. First launched last year as a pilot in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with The Rockefeller Foundation, it more recently ran in Philadelphia, Chicago and Atlanta, with partner UBS. Each cohort included 10 startups. Village Pathways also recently came out with a report about the experience.

“Something important was missing from the ecosystem and we wanted to see how we could help,” says Director of U.S. Ventures at Village Capital Ebony Pope.

How does it work? The program is aimed at founders at too early a stage for the usual three-month Village Capital program, but who have a prototype and, perhaps, a pilot underway. There’s a one-to-two-day training during which entrepreneurs receive the most important parts of the usual Village Capital training. But the focus is on setting milestones for important points in the process, from friends and family fundraising up to an IPO.

Specifically, entrepreneurs receive several milestones to reach over three months. To help achieve those goals, they’re paired with an angel or local investor, with whom they met regularly. Examples of milestones: “I will sell 100 units at my current price point to prove initial marketplace interest and survey 25% of my customers to learn what is working/not working with the current product.” Or, “I will hire a VP of sales.”

Each program works with a different organization that acts as a supporting partner. For example, in Philadelphia, the partner is Ben Franklin Technology Partners, a public-private partnership that invests in early-stage companies. In Chicago, it’s ImBlackInTech, which works with black & Latinx founders of emerging tech startups and technology professionals.

Ultimately, according to Pope, not every entrepreneur will decide that pursuing venture backing is the right move, and that’s OK.  “We want them to understand what it looks like to build a venture-backable business,” she says. In other words, the goal is for founders to learn an important lesson that generally takes some entrepreneurs a while to figure out — whether they have a business with the potential for high growth or an enterprise that is promising, but not potentially of interest to VCs.

How did it all come about? Last year, folks from Village Capital and Rockefeller Foundation got together to hammer out a solution to the friends and family/angel conundrum. As they talked to more founders from diverse backgrounds, they learned some eye-opening lessons. For example, there was this issue: While most founders couldn’t name a single angel investor in their professional network, angels clearly were more favorably disposed towards entrepreneurial referrals coming from people they already knew and trusted. Since Village Capital had access to a great many angels, they decided they were in a good position to design a program targeting this group of founders.

So far, two companies have raised seed funding. Case in point: Qoins. Co-founded by Christian Zimmerman and Nate Washington, the Atlanta-based startup has an app that helps people put aside money to pay for credit card and student loan debt. After attending the Atlanta session earlier this year, they raised $750,000 from 14 angels; their second investor was one of their VC Pathways mentors. “I ended up getting introduced to one guy who introduced me to another guy who introduced me to his friends,” says Zimmerman. “It was a domino effect.”

This article originally appeared in Forbes.

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About Anne Field
I'm an award-winning journalist with a particular interest in for-profit social enterprise, as well as entrepreneurship and small business in general. I've covered those areas for many many places, including The New York Times, Bloomberg Businessweek, Crain's New York Business, Inc. and Business Insider. As an entrepreneurial journalist--ie, a freelancer--I work from my home office in Pelham, NY.