A Key Milestone for MIT delta v Entrepreneur Teams: The Board of Directors Meeting

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We’re about two-thirds through this summer’s MIT delta v educational accelerator, where student entrepreneurs participate in a rigorous “entrepreneurship boot camp” from June to early September. The students work on their ventures full time, and I am reminded of how much progress can be made when this is their sole focus.

Our 21 delta v teams have been preparing their companies for escape velocity and launching into the real world. To do this, they must discover who their customers are, understand their customers better than their competitors, and uncover which attributes of their value proposition really resonate. This is a key time to figure out if they really have a viable business or not.

One of the major milestones for the group is presenting to a mock board of directors. The board is made up of heavy hitters – business executives, entrepreneurs, faculty, and domain experts – and it’s always a tough hurdle for the teams to communicate their vision and business plan clearly and succinctly. The students have been living and breathing the intricacies of their businesses every day, and now they need to convince others to grasp and embrace their vision.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Communication before, during, and follow-up after the board meetings is key to successfully working with a board.  This can be difficult, because teams enter these meetings assuming that they can communicate a lot of detailed information about this idea they have been working on for some time. However, a board can only understand so much without getting “slide fatigue” or overload.

It is especially difficult if the business is very technical or requires deep expertise in a field such as healthcare. Students need to communicate their company’s value proposition in a way that people outside their field will understand. Their board of directors can include very smart people with great insight, but they may not be scientists, engineers, or doctors, and may not be as technical as the company founders.

There is a huge opportunity to learn from people on the board – particularly those in the investment community or those who don’t work in your field. These board members want the student companies to succeed. They know a great deal about business fundamentals and have tremendous networks that can help an entrepreneur. If students can’t successfully communicate with them, they will not succeed when out in the real world when they try to raise money.

It is worth learning how to manage interactions in board meetings. Although it is not always easy, entrepreneurs should try to get the best out of each person on the board.

The Feedback Process

After each mock board meeting, board members give feedback to the entrepreneurial teams. Often, the students will get feedback they didn’t anticipate or don’t agree with. This is where it is critical for teams to put their egos aside and really listen. This is their own personal “Shark Tank” – don’t argue, and strive to understand what each board member is trying to teach you. Even if an entrepreneur doesn’t agree with a piece of feedback, these folks have different and varied perspectives that can bring new insight and raise issues the students may not have considered.

Some students feel that a rating system based upon others’ perceptions can be unfair. In class, they are rewarded for completing certain activities; but at delta v, “business is business” and the board is concerned about return on their investment. When teams receive a mark of 75%, some students take that as a “C” and are upset about it, but the board is actually communicating that the team is about three-fourths of the way there with the business – that is positive feedback that the team is showing progress and now needs to finalize a few things.

There are no medals or performance trophies here. It is a harsh reality when a team gets feedback that they may not be communicating effectively, or when they are penalized for failing to meet a commitment. However, this feedback is designed to help the startups ultimately succeed.

Honest Conversations with Your Board Members

Our delta v teams learn that the feedback from the board is essential and the board members can also introduce them to lots of helpful people in their networks. When questions arise such as: “Is my team working collaboratively?’, “Do I have sales traction or a path to sales?”, “Do I need to pivot?” etc., the board members are there to help.

At this point in the accelerator program, you can see many of the student teams transitioning from a research project to building an actual business. The focus on testing hypotheses and assumptions quickly gets teams out of the “analysis paralysis” mode that often dominates an educational environment. The students now narrow their direction, which takes them from theory to a reality-based experience that they are living each day.

Although the students can earn venture money based on meeting a set of milestones, money is not the motivator at delta v. It is learning, working with a team, and ability to execute that are emphasized. The mock board meeting provides teams with enough structure so they don’t get lost in the superficial discussions; they provide a sounding board at this critical point in the business’ development.

I’m looking forward to the remainder of August where the students test their business readiness and audition for Demo Day on September 9th.  We hope you’ll join us!

Who will be among the next batch of MIT Startups?

MIT’s student venture accelerator program has kicked off for 2017!

delta v is a unique program that provides a capstone educational opportunity for MIT student entrepreneurs, and prepares them to hit escape velocity and launch into the real world.

“delta v” literally means a change in velocity, and we believe this truly captures what happens to these students when they join us for MIT’s accelerator program. (Our program was previously called the Global Founders’ Skill Accelerator – we changed the name last year.)

Our 2017 cohort of students has been selected, and they will begin go through “entrepreneur boot camp” this summer. Sorry, but we can’t yet release the startup names and ideas, but we have created an infographic to give you the big picture of our incoming group.

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Mark your calendars for September 9.  That’s our Demo Day in Boston, when each of the companies will present to the public. (Here’s a recap of Demo Day 2016.)

We also went back to our 2016 cohort and asked for advice they could share. Here are some of the highlights:

Create the Right Team and Team Culture

Get to know the rest of the cohort early! I can’t tell you how much I wished I had gotten to know the other teams in the cohort earlier, and how sad it felt to begin bonding so late in the summer only to leave a few weeks earlier. Take initiative and invite other teams out! They won’t bite.
Kumwe Logistics

Invest in getting to know Trust Center staff and the other teams; they are as much of a resource as the funding.
Solstice

I recommend taking free personality tests and working as a team to identify work styles and potential weaknesses that both individuals and the team as a whole may face so that when these hard times hit, and they will hit, you know what to expect and can band together to push through.
Rendever

As we have moved forward and made some progress it has become even more evident that VCs and investors, especially in the seed round, are investing as much, if not more, in the team than in the business idea.
Kumwe Logistics

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

For international team, communication is your best friend. Have a WhatsApp group, have a daily Skype call, do whatever it takes. It’s impossible to be talking too much to your fellow team members while you’re geographically separated.
Kumwe Logistics

Show up, Be Present & Network

Be present as much as possible, even if the attendance requirement says only 2 people have to be there.
Solstice

Go to every event possible. Even if you think you already know the topic, go to it anyways. Delta V brings in people at the top of their field to share their insights with the teams, take advantage of that! Other people would kill for that opportunity.
Kumwe Logistics

Simplify

Everyone has this big fetish for cool-sounding technology, especially at MIT. Talking tech helps wins competitions, but at the end of the day the only people you really need to impress are your customers (with a good product, not with the underlying tech!)
dot Learn

Promote Increased Value over Cost Savings

If I were to start over, I’d promote the time [our services] save their staff, the benefit of dealing with one company for all their needs that’s responsive, proper billing, and other similar points that our clients tell us they appreciate and are worth value [rather than just cost savings].
Kumwe Logistics

Perfect Your Pitch

One of the best things we got out of the whole exercise was the final pitch document and presentation we had. The same pitch and document has helped us get $100,000 from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and DFID UK, along with the money we have raised from investors.
ricult

Anticipate Change & Challenges

Company culture is created predominately through the personalities and work styles of the founders and early employees. Make sure to spend time understanding what sort of culture you’re looking to build and understand that the good comes with the bad.
Rendever

There WILL be challenges and failures that lie ahead and it’s helpful to understand how your team will work to overcome these hurdles.
Rendever

Prepare for After MIT

Treat Board members as valuable mentors even after the program is over.
Solstice

Take advantage of the support Network at MIT while you can, and if you’re leaving Boston, try to build a support network (friends/entrepreneurs/etc..) wherever you go. The struggle is real, and the real world can be cold and lonely.
dot Learn

Great advice from our last group of entrepreneurs!  I’m looking forward to spending the summer with our incoming class.

A Discussion on French Entrepreneurship with John Chambers

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I recently had the unique opportunity to join selected MIT faculty, students, and staff to discuss the current business climate with John Chambers, the Executive Chairman of the Board and former CEO of Cisco Systems. He was the guest of honor at a recent MIT Leadership Center luncheon and it was pure luck that I ended up sitting next to him as our meal was served.

My question to John was: what he thinks we should be doing to educate entrepreneurs today (that is currently lacking). Although he didn’t answer that question directly, he did talk about the differences in East Coast and West Coast philosophies. The West vs. East innovation discussion is always a good one (see my blog on Massachusetts being ranked the most innovative state in America) and it was clear that John felt that in Silicon Valley, it is more important to be a founder/key engineer than is to be the CEO of a Fortune 100 company.

Paris conferenceWe then started discussing innovation in other countries, particularly France, in light of my upcoming keynote speech in Paris at the symposium on Entrepreneurial Research: Past, Present and Future. John remarked that the French entrepreneurial ecosystem is actually as large as Boston’s. I was a bit surprised, but also intrigued as I’ve been researching how the French approach entrepreneurship to prepare for my presentation.

Here are some of the highlights of my research I thought I’d share:

  • The French business environment has undergone radical change in recent years. Investment activity in French startups has been on a steady rise. Moreover, it is coming from all sides of French society – the government, the corporations, and the new wave of entrepreneurs. In addition, France has over 100 venture capitalists who invested more than $2 billion in 2016.
  • This activity has changed the general attitude among the younger generation towards entrepreneurship. Up until 2012, France’s best talent was driven to big firms. However, now more than 50% of young people between the ages of 18 and 24 want to start a business, and 1 in 3 of France’s 70,000 Ph.D. students also want to create their own business. At this moment, France has more than 50 startup accelerators, and more than 100 co-working spaces have opened their doors recently.
  • President Hollande’s socialist government has made fostering startups an economic priority with a cohesive policy that has included:
    • Tax incentives for new businesses
    • Government and public sector funding
    • Creation of Special Tech Programs on national and regional levels
    • New crowd-funding legislation
  • The weak point of French VCs is lack of sufficient capital for later-stage funding rounds, forcing many promising French startups to look abroad for their financing needs or get acquired by global multinationals.
  • According to French government, more than 550,000 startups are created each year. More than $2 billion was invested in French startups in 2016. Three startups raised more than $100M:
    • Sigfox (IoT ecosystem)
    • Deezer (Music streaming)
    • Devialet (Sound technology)
  • According to European Digital City Index (EDCI), Paris is the 5th best city for startups in Europe. According to the Compass 2015 Global Startup Ecosystem Ranking, Paris is the 11th best ecosystem for startups globally.
  • Brexit creates excellent opportunity for France to lure best tech startups from UK and transform itself into the #1 European and one of the leading global startup hubs.
  • The presidential elections that will be held in April and May 2017 should be carefully watched. The possible win of Mr. Macron could be a big boost for the French entrepreneurial ecosystem since his tenure as a Minister of Economy was huge boon for the French startup ecosystem.

As Americans we tend to critique French capitalism due to issues such as a high level of government intervention, inflexible labor laws, a fear of failure among entrepreneurs, and the lack of innovation.  However, all this is changing.

I look forward to my visit to Paris in the springtime and will share what I learn at the symposium.

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Shining a Light on Female Entrepreneurs in Tech

Last night, MIT’s Martin Trust Center hosted a screening of the award-winning documentary “She Started It” which follows five women in their journeys to launch businesses in the technology industry. We were honored to have the director and co-producer of the film, Nora Poggi , with us to introduce the film and join in our discussion along with our own panel of budding tech entrepreneurs.

The event was inspiring and featured accomplished women who beat the odds. If one message came through “loud and clear” it was that the entrepreneurial journey is all about persistence and networking. Our discussion reinforced that entrepreneurship can be taught, and that practicing entrepreneurial skills will pay off in the end.

The “She Started It” film focuses on five female entrepreneurs and their experiences, along with empowering the next generation of women tech founders. (You can check out the trailer here.) The film cited statistics about being a female entrepreneur in the technology industry that were bleaker than a cross-industry perspective. For example:

  • Women create only 3% of tech startups
  • In Silicon Valley, women earn only 49 cents to a man’s dollar
  • Women receive less than 10% of venture capital funding
  • Only 12% of undergrad computer science degrees are earned by women
  • 96% of venture capitalists are men

Yet, the five women profiled in the film are out to break the mold.

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Following the screening, I moderated a discussion with Poggi and a panel of female founders sharing their own experiences. They included:

  • Elsa Sze of Agora which uses technology to bring more people to the civic conversation
  • Melissa James of The Tech Connection, a premier marketplace for purpose driven, diverse technical talent
  • Alex Wright-Gladstein of Ayar Labs which brings high bandwidths and energy efficiency of fiber optics to silicon chips
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L to R: Alex Wright Goldstein, Nora Poggi, Elsa Sze and Melissa James

 

The panelists discussed challenges and what is most intimidating about starting a tech business. The audience – which included many women in the process of exploring entrepreneurship for themselves was extremely engaged and had many questions. We also talked about how today’s female entrepreneurs can be role models to help other women and girls embrace the entrepreneurial path. Essentially, “you can’t be what you don’t see.”

One of the insightful quotes in the film is from Meghan Smith, Chief Technology Officer for the United States. She says, “There have always been women and minorities in all of the areas of technology for all history. It’s just the stories are less known. And so, we need to embrace our history and tell it to each other.”

Although women are a small minority of tech startup founders, it is also an issue that many women tend to understate their achievements, and not let their own light shine. “She Started It” is a first step to showcase some of these achievements. My thanks to everyone who participated in our event! It was a great success!

P.S. On a personal note, this week I received the exciting news that I’ve been selected as a finalist for the Stevie Awards for Women in Business the category of mentorship. As I worked with the panel for this our film event, I drew parallels to my own submission for the Stevie Awards. Often, as women, we dismiss the things that we do and don’t let our own lights shine (especially when surrounded by all the brilliance here at MIT). For me, this is a reminder to value our successes and share them with other women.