“I’ve always been someone who wants to share knowledge with my community,” said Johnson. “After I had participated in several pitch competitions at UD, I thought young people in the community that share a similar background as me could benefit from this kind of platform as well. Having so many young people show up and present their creative ideas – especially young people who otherwise wouldn’t have had an opportunity like that – was really awesome for me.”
Those experiences laid the groundwork for Johnson’s new startup accelerator, First Founders, which launches in February with support from New Castle County Innovates and 1313 Innovation.
First Founders – a 12-session programming sprint on entrepreneurship – is geared toward all ages, not just youth, with a focus on people who are underrepresented in startup communities: People of color (especially Black people), people from low-income communities and blue collar workers with little time to spare.
These are the people who are few and far between in startup communities all over the country, Johnson says – and he’s seen many communities.
“While I was in my Master’s program, I wound up traveling all over the country, doing research to understand how different communities were empowering entrepreneurs within their own ecosystems,” Johnson said. “I had this assumption that people of color and underrepresented entrepreneurs weren’t getting the same access to resources and opportunities as others. I also had the assumption that there were people in the community who had ideas, but weren’t always getting the platforms that they needed.”
These assumptions proved to be true, in his experience.
“I went to conferences from Florida to Silicon Valley, and time and time again, they were validated,” Johnson said. “Diversity in tech and entrepreneurship was a problem everywhere.”
After graduating from one of UD’s Horn Entrepreneurship masters programs, he participated in the Summer Founders Program at UD, a 12-week pre-accelerator program.
“Again, the same problems I had identified and validated with other people, I was validating for myself,” he said. “Being a Black entrepreneur in particular, I realized that often times my experience was not always that great. And it doesn’t have to be that way.”
The turning point for the First Founders project was a meeting with NCC Innovates.
“After I got the chance to sit down with Tamarra Morris of the Office of Economic Development for New Castle County, we realized that we had similar missions to create an inclusive innovation economy. So from there it was full steam ahead. We started working together and I was able to design this curriculum. NCC Innovates has been really supportive in getting this program off the ground.’
The program is a 12-week accelerator. With only 10 spots available for its inaugural cohort, there is a $100 deposit fee, which is refunded at the end of the program (this is, Johnson said, so that the valuable spots go to those who are serious about attending sessions). Starting February 9, the accelerator will meet every Saturday at 1313 Innovation.
The Saturday sessions make the program more accessible to working adults with families, who have the ideas, not the time or resources.
“That was very intentional,” said Johnson. “I wanted to make sure that if people work full-time jobs they can take advantage of these programs.”
Those who miss out on one of the ten spots for this session will have future chances to land one. “My goal is to run three cohorts this year. By the second cohort I’d like to open it to any Delaware resident, not just New Castle County. The big thing is creating this community of diverse founders that are supporting each other through meetups, as well as our online community,” Johnson said.
Eventually, he hopes to launch an online accelerator that will serve people beyond Delaware as well.
Applications for the first session are open to residents of New Castle County through January 24. Applications for flexible mentorships are ongoing.
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