When Diego Mariscal founded 2Gether-International in 2012, he set out on a mission to help D.C.’s disabled population create and execute business ideas.
To that end, the nonprofit recently began running an accelerator thanks to a $75,000 grant awarded last year by the D.C. Deputy Mayor’s Office for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED). This funding came from DMPED’s Innovation Accelerator Grant program, which offers funding to minority-led tech organizations supporting underrepresented entrepreneurs via accelerators.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mariscal has had to rethink how to run the program, that relied so heavily on in-person interactions. He said the most difficult aspect of taking the accelerator virtual was keeping the program’s culture and a sense of momentum and motivation.
“It was definitely scary, primarily because one of our strengths as an organization is community building,” Mariscal told Technical.ly about his initial thought process when moving the program virtual. “Creating a sense of community and camaraderie, trying to figure out how to build online — that was scary. We had an advantage, though, because nine out of 12 weeks were [completed] in person, so we had a strong foundation.”
2Gether-International’s three-month accelerator first kicked off in January with five entrepreneurs, all of which have continued participating in the program virtually. In the past few weeks, the participants have been working on improving their pitches and business models, and one participant even secured funding. Despite moving online, Mariscal said the team and cohort were better prepared for this transition than expected because they had a great sense of teamwork already.
During this time, 2Gether-International has been able to use Video Relay Service (VRS), a federally funded telecommunication service that provides free interpreter services for people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.
Through the challenges, Mariscal said the nonprofit has been able to find some advantages.
“What we’ve seen is that disabled entrepreneurs are uniquely poised to lead during this time of uncertainty because most disabled have had to deal with social isolation, unemployment and high levels of uncertainty our entire lives,” he said.
Though the nonprofit is financially backed by DMPED, Mariscal said he attempted to apply for some COVID-related government funding opportunities, but the application was turned in too late.
“Trust your gut and instincts and jump at any opportunity, even if you don’t have everything ready,” Mariscal said about other organizations contemplating on applying for funding. “You will learn a lot just from doing it, whether the award is given to you or not. Even if you have a strong team and policies in place, an entrepreneur’s greatest strength and differentiator is the ability to make tough decisions in the face of adversity.”
Since its inaugural accelerator program, 2Gether-International is launching a philanthropic seed funding round that would allow it to support 100 disabled entrepreneurs nationwide. Mariscal said philanthropic investors interested in finding out more information can reach out to him directly: email@example.com.
As far as tips for other accelerators going virtual during this time, Mariscal suggests programs use VRS to make their services more accessible and also to “be intentional about community, camaraderie and company culture.”
Watch Mariscal’s 2017 TEDxLeonardtown talk below:-30-