How did we adapt MIT’s Venture Accelerator as a Virtual Experience?

2020 is a year we’ll remember for many things, but 2020 graduates will certainly remember how typically crowd-filled graduation ceremonies were transformed into unique and socially distanced celebration amid COVID-19 restrictions. At MIT’s delta v, we can relate. We are just starting our summer-long student venture accelerator program, and, our entire program – start-to-finish will be virtual this year.

What does that mean? Although our fantastic space at the Martin Trust Center – usually buzzing with activity – will be dark, we’ve created a virtual model to provide a unique experience and lots of new and different opportunities for our student-entrepreneurs. At the end of the summer, these students will kick-start their ventures and reach escape velocity with a final presentation of their startup companies at Demo Day. We anticipate seeing some of the best and brightest new startups ever to come out of MIT, because – as said by Benjamin Franklin – “Out of adversity comes opportunity.”

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Prepping to Go Virtual

The delta v program has become known as a “transformative experience that only MIT could provide,” and the entrepreneurs that go through this program are truly helping to make the world a better place (Check out this video for 2-minute synopsis.) Many MIT programs were cancelled this summer, but thanks to Managing Director Bill Aulet’s advocacy across MIT and with the Trust Center donors, this summer’s virtual delta v program has become a reality. 

Students joining this program, and the whole MIT community, have major expectations of delta v. So, we knew we would need to go beyond just transitioning to Zoom meetings and putting our content online. We looked at what worked for MIT’s remote learning classes in the spring, and also reached out to our entrepreneurial education colleagues at other universities to gain their insight.

We held brainstorming sessions and many, many meetings to figure out how we could make this year’s delta v experience engaging and interactive. We honestly looked at the challenges and worked hard to address issues like onboarding, the lack of personal connections, less-than-ideal work from home situations, and “Zoom fatigue.” We knew that engagement, high-touch experiences, and cohort learning would all be essential for making this a success, and we put in extra effort to ensure delta v would not lose its special touch.

The 2020 Cohort

Our 2020 cohort of delta v teams was the smallest we’ve had in six years – 11 teams in Cambridge and six in New York City. We purposely selected fewer teams to allow for more individualized attention from our Entrepreneurs-in-Residence (EIRs), who are spending dedicated online time mentoring each team. (This also means if you didn’t get selected this year, think about applying again for 2021!)

This infographic shows the makeup of our 2020 delta cohort. Each year, we work on trying to get a diverse and balanced group of entrepreneurs tackling problems in a variety of industries.

More Talent!

A big part of delta v is learning from the pros. One of the benefits of our virtual session this summer is the sheer number of experts we’ve been able to line up. In fact, in the month of June alone, the delta v teams will have opportunities to hear from 21 different speakers delivering workshops.

With a virtual program, we have the benefit of being able to approach experts who are located anywhere, rather than focusing only on local resources or those willing to travel to the MIT campus. This summer, our students are fortunate enough to learn from many outstanding experts, including the following people:

Ryan Choi, MIT Alum, now with Y Combinator for a discussion on finding product-market fit and will be back for a discussion on hiring

Eleanor Carey, who spent 62 days at sea, rowing from California to Hawaii, gave an inspiring talk relating to the realities of entrepreneurship

James Baum, technology leader, investor, and advisor, who shared his advice on managing boards and will be back for office hours

George Petrovas, serial entrepreneur, who shared his founder journey and is on a delta v mock board

Brad Feld, Managing Director at Foundry Group will talk about fundraising in a Covid-19 environment

John Belizaire, CEO of Soluna, will speak about leadership

Perry Cohen, Founder Executive Director of The Venture Out Project will speak about his journey

Plus, our amazing faculty including Kirk Arnold, Kit Hickey, Erin Scott, Jason Jay, Bill Aulet, Paul Cheek, and Dip Patel.

More Mindfulness

This year at delta v, we will build on our Entrepreneurial Confidence and Communication (ECC) program to teach tools for self-awareness and mindfulness with the goal of better mental health and “anti-fragility” for entrepreneurs. We recently wrote about this program for the Harvard Business Review, and it has been well-received by students and the community. We believe that if we teach new entrepreneurs how to work through the stresses of entrepreneurship more effectively, it will lead to better decision making and healthier choices for their life and their business.

An interesting dimension to this year’s delta v cohort is that they are particularly receptive to learning about meditation and mindfulness for stress reduction, according to Kathleen Stetson, our ECC coach and creator of the program. She believes this is a direct result of the proliferation of information in the news and on social media about mental health concerns during the pandemic.

Demo Day

This year, Demo Day may be where we see the biggest impact of going virtual. Traditionally, at the end of the summer, all of the delta v teams gather to formally present their startups to the MIT entrepreneurship community. Things will change this year, but we are making some amazing plans for Demo Day and a post-event networking experience.

We will also hold a Virtual Investor Day, which is new this summer.  This will focus specifically on the financial foundation of the startups and will allow the final Demo Day pitches to be a bit shorter. Students will benefit by having two completed pitches when they finish the program.

Conclusion

Conducting the delta v accelerator program virtually is a first for all of us – we are learning too. We strive to bring this year’s delta v cohort an incredible and rewarding experience, and we are open to feedback and suggestions.

The delta v student venture accelerator is the most inspiring environment I can think of for an entrepreneur. There’s an energy here that propels each of our teams forward. For 90 days, our student-entrepreneurs will eat, sleep, and breathe their startups. They will be guided through a process that makes them really think through the realities of starting an actual business, not just chasing a cool idea. Our fervent desire is that some of our student-entrepreneurs will create companies that will help to solve some of the big, global problems we are seeing in our world today – such as preventing the next pandemic or eradicating racism.

As the delta v leadership team, our opportunity this summer is to assist our students in their educational journeys as entrepreneurs and to guide them in making entrepreneurship a force for good.

Why We Need to Redefine Start-up Culture With Positive Mental Health Habits

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

Data shows self-awareness practices helped M.I.T. entrepreneurs better manage the stress of entrepreneurship.

Anxiety and depression are rampant among entrepreneurs. The stereotype of a founder — fueled by caffeine and ramen noodles, while forgoing sleep, exercise, fresh air, friends, and family in the quest for success — has been the norm for years. It has been encouraged, and even glorified, by start-up culture.

The Inc. article “The Psychological Price of Entrepreneurship” explores this topic and explains, “the same passionate dispositions that drive founders heedlessly toward success can sometimes consume them. Business owners are ‘vulnerable to the dark side of obsession.’” Yet this is not healthy or helpful for long-term success.

Compounding this problem is the start-up founder’s hesitation to show weakness or self-doubt. They feel the need to project confidence for investors and employees, despite any inner insecurities. They also tend to connect their self-worth and identity to their start-ups, which can lead to feelings of depression if their start-up fails.

We also commonly see “impostor syndrome” — an unjustified, yet pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity, or fraudulence. This can slow down an otherwise well-designed new organization by curtailing its ultimate impact and potentially even its existence. The majority of entrepreneurs have experienced these feelings, but they are pushed away and not discussed.

At M.I.T., we don’t believe entrepreneurship has to be this way. The health of a start-up doesn’t need to impact founders’ mental health. We believe self-awareness and mental preparedness can enhance an entrepreneur’s abilities. This, in turn, leads to creating a more successful business. The right tools can help entrepreneurs work through stress, rather than work in spite of it. This is a real game changer for the start-up culture.

Through a new exploratory program, we’ve found data affirming that when entrepreneurs understand their thoughts, feelings, and biases, it is useful in managing stress — and this is a skill that can be taught. In fact, 93% of M.I.T. delta v entrepreneurs believe self-awareness practices can help them create more successful businesses. Here’s more about the program:

Entrepreneurial Confidence and Communication

Last year, we debuted Entrepreneurial Confidence and Communication (E.C.C.) at M.I.T.’s delta v accelerator. This is the first comprehensive program to address mental health challenges in the start-up community and builds on our previous smaller experiments in this area. Our goal was to teach 84 student founders and their team members tools to build greater self-awareness and to provide a confidential environment for venting and peer feedback. Stress is inevitable in start-ups, but by learning how to be less affected by that stress, participants could make better choices for themselves and their start-ups.

In the first six weeks of the program, participants were taught the tools of self-awareness, including meditation and mindfulness, and their benefits. What are the benefits of meditation or mindfulness? Studies abound, but two that may be of particular interest to entrepreneurs are:

  • Harvard study on practicing mindfulness meditation for at least 30 minutes a day reports that the practice can increase grey matter in the hippocampus. This is one of the more important meditation facts, since this part of the brain plays an important role in memory and learning.
  • Another study, published in Heliyon, showed that practicing mindfulness meditation for a short period of time may enhance visuospatial processing, working memory, and executive functioning.

In the second six weeks, they applied their learnings, discussing key choices entrepreneurs face — taking breaks vs. spending all your time on your start-up, working through limiting beliefs, considering others’ perspectives, and approaching challenges with fear or curiosity. Participants learned through readings, optional group meditation, and small group sessions where they could talk confidentially about challenges they were facing with people who could relate to what they were going through.

The results were significant. Participants didn’t just learn that a self-awareness practice can benefit them — they decided to implement it on a regular basis in their own lives. The overall experience had a measurable effect on their well-being.

The student entrepreneurs started becoming what we call “antifragile.” The term antifragile is used by professor and author Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book titled Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. When applying his systems analysis to humans, antifragile people are those who “grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty.”

A comparison of surveys conducted before and after the program, with 60 participants responding, revealed the following results:

Learning new skills

Before the program, 65% of participants had never meditated and only 21% were regularly practicing meditation or mindfulness.

By the end of the summer, 88% of had independently established their own regular, weekly meditation or mindfulness practice, despite heavy workloads and continual critical deadlines. And, their practices were measurably impacting how they worked through stress. After the program, 53% of participants were using a deliberate technique to calm themselves when in the midst of a stressful situation.

Sharing challenges

Most founders rarely have the opportunity to talk about the challenges of entrepreneurship with someone who is knowledgeable, and whom they don’t feel the need to impress. Participants in E.C.C. reported significant value from both small group discussions and optional one-on-one sessions, which were both 100% utilized by the students. The fact that very busy students took full advantage of E.C.C.’s optional one-on-one coaching, in particular, indicates the strong value the participants realized from the program.

Credit: The Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship

Making better choices

We hypothesized that self-awareness tools could help founders make better moment-to-moment choices in their daily entrepreneurial lives. We found that after the program, 34% of participants who had established a meditation or mindfulness practice were more confident in their communications with others. And 40% were more aware of the emotions they were feeling, choosing to go ahead and feel those emotions rather than push them away.

The data affirms that self-awareness tools are useful in managing stress — and they can be taught. These tools help you understand your automatic responses to difficult situations and to perspectives different from your own. You start to notice problems earlier and feel more personal confidence, making it is easier to treat yourself and others with respect and to be resilient in the face of entrepreneurship’s challenges.

As demonstrated in this Boston Consulting Group article “Unleashing the Power of Mindfulness in Corporations,” meditation and mindfulness have proven positive effects in other industries — and now we have data that shows they can be significantly beneficial in entrepreneurship. Integrating self-awareness into the entrepreneurial experience will help prevent burnout, encourage better mental and physical health, and create better team dynamics. It’s great for entrepreneurs, and it could be great for their start-ups’ bottom line too.

Self-awareness education can guide entrepreneurs to not only take care of themselves, but to spread these skills across the entrepreneurial ecosystem, building company cultures that are supportive of both individual and start-up success. As M.I.T.’s delta v program works to redefine the start-up culture by incorporating positive mental health practices, we want to help entrepreneurs practice the self-awareness skills necessary to nurture their own mental health and create more successful businesses.

This piece originally appeared in Thrive Global and was co-written by Kathleen Stetson.