In 2016, after 20 years at Dell, Preston L. James II co-founded DivInc to help bridge the gap between underrepresented entrepreneurs and the resources they need, running tech accelerator programs targeting that population. But earlier this spring, after the killing of George Floyd, he decided the Austin-based organization needed to add a more-targeted focus on social justice.
So, in August, DivInc launched a new program called the Social Justice Innovation Accelerator, aimed at enterprises trying to minimize racial disparities in criminal justice, healthcare, education, voting or housing. Now, the first three-month cohort is heading into its last month.
Copyright Winter Kane
“Because of the nature of what we do, we knew we were really well-positioned to create a program aimed at social justice,” says Program Director Brooke Turner.
The idea for the new program grew out of a week of conversations between James and DivInc’s board of directors about how the organization could best address the problems laid bare by the killing of Floyd. The likeliest path to take, they figured, was to introduce a program that fit their expertise and entrepreneurial mindset. Specifically, that meant an accelerator program targeting very early-stage Black, Brown and female founders addressing social justice issues.
One such enterprise is Civic Links. Founded earlier this year, it aims to help low-income individuals manage their public benefits through simple tech tools, partnering with nonprofits. That means helping users understand such matters as what aid is available and what to do when they move off that assistance.
During her time as the former deputy director of a domestic violence shelter, founder Kara Duggan observed that many people eligible for benefits weren’t receiving them, in part because they were hard to understand and the government bureaucracy was difficult to navigate. “I began to think about how I could make it easier for people to receive these benefits, which are the building blocks of financial stability,” she says.
When she launched in March, Duggan focused on helping individuals navigate the process for receiving stimulus checks. In three months, according to Duggan, 150,000 people used the platform. Then she created a tool that helped unemployed workers recertify to receive unemployment benefits, sending weekly reminders to about 2,000 people. Now, at the accelerator, Duggan is working with a nonprofit to build a product helping to manage welfare-to-work benefits. “I’m learning basic principles of how to build a business quickly, test ideas and work on the highest priority issues, so you’re not spinning your wheels,” she says.
The curriculum covers core subjects, from customer discovery to financial modeling. But there are also more nuanced lessons, since some companies are further along, with a full-fledged product and a first customer, while others have just a prototype. And there’s more of an emphasis on impact investors. One mentor, the director of an impact investing network, for example, has discussed the venture process with other accelerator cohorts, with a flick at impact investing. For this accelerator, the focus is more on the latter and how to measure impact.
Since the accelerator has room for just eight enterprises in its first cohort, in cases where there wasn’t room for a promising venture or the fit wasn’t right, the program suggested other alternatives. Take one applicant focused on telehealth. “We thought what they’re doing is important, but they didn’t have a specific social justice focus,” says Turner. “So we connected the founders to contacts at Techstars and the leader of an angel network focused on health.”
Since it’s 100% virtual, the program also will be the first DivInc accelerator to be national, with enterprises from five states. Other DivInc programs have mostly attracted ventures from such places as Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio.
DivInc runs a 12-week accelerator held twice a year for underrepresented tech entrepreneurs. Plus, it supports graduates for another 18 months or so with various services Another entrepreneurship-oriented program, Startup Sistas, focuses on earlier-stage Black and Brown female founders with monthly public events where they can get matched with mentors, among other features.