Accelerating the Accelerators

AtA_logo_squareSOCAP15 Invitation Only Event

Brought to you by GSBI, SOCAP, and

For the last four years, SOCAP has offered unique opportunities to both accelerator leaders and social entrepreneurs to participate in SOCAP events focused on the specific needs of accelerators and social entrepreneurs.

This year, the team at the Global Social Benefit Institute (GSBI ®), SOCAP, and have teamed up again to bring you a workshop specifically tailored to serve Accelerator Leaders. To be clear - we are using the term "Accelerator" broadly in this context - and include program managers and leaders of accelerators, incubators, business plan competitions, fellowships, and other programs that offer support to entrepreneurs in launching, building and scaling their ventures.


Accelerating the Accelerators @SOCAP14 was a successful first step in building deeper relationships between program leaders dedicated to the impact ecosystem. We convened 50 program leaders, developed an accelerator landscape map (that has continued to evolve and can be found here), and launched a series of Collective Impact Projects that led to the development of our Effective Cross Promotion Bulletin.
This year we will look at tools, resources, and pain points for program managers through lens of the path of the entrepreneur through the impact accelerator ecosystem. We will NOT focus on creating "experts" in the room; rather we will address the following questions through collaborative activities.

  • Discovery: How do entrepreneurs discover impact accelerators?
  • Application: How can we streamline the application process through a common application?  What is a reasonable amount of time for an entrepreneur to spend applying to programs?
  • Cohort Selection: What are the tools and resources used by programs to select viable cohorts?  What is working and where are there opportunities for improvement?
  • Running the Program: What are the best practices used in running an effective cohort based program?
  • Program Evaluation: How are efforts like the ANDE & Emory University research supporting programs in evaluation of their effectiveness?  Are there other efforts underway that can help programs achieve more consistent funding?  When/Is is there such a thing as "too much measurement?"
  • Building Lasting Community: How can programs build ongoing community with their participants?  How can these communities work together to strengthen the impact ecosystem?

Note - this session is free to attendees of SOCAP, a registration discount is provided in theEventbrite.

Please note that the times are 9:30AM-5:30PM PST.


What can Social Impact Accelerators learn from Tech?


Tech Accelerators, led by companies like Y-Combinator (YC), TechStars and 500Startups, attract some of the best and the brightest from around the world. Over the past 15 years, they have helped launch hundreds of companies, including household names Uber (YC), Airbnb (YC) and TaskRabbit (500Startups). According to Seed-DB, over 10 billion dollars have been invested in accelerator graduates. These accelerators have a clear proposition to entrepreneurs: join us for the chance to build a big company, really fast.

Traditional tech entrepreneurs are not the only people to have received this message. Entrepreneurs and supporters in the social impact community have also seen it and over the past five years have led to the rise of the Social Impact Accelerator.

"The Rockefeller Foundation defines an Impact Accelerator as “any intermediary organization or platform working to scale impact enterprises by providing support for multiple impact enterprise needs.”

With more than 200 Impact Accelerators around the world, this is a community that will have a massive impact on improving lives. However, we have yet to see the same level of investment and high profile companies emerge from these accelerators as we see from the Tech Accelerators. In fact, Y-Combinator recently recognized the opportunities that social impact companies offered and hasbegun to admit not-for-profit companies to its cohorts.

As the Impact Accelerator community grows and matures, what can these accelerators learn from their Tech counterparts? How can they attract the top impact entrepreneurs into their cohorts and help them gain the investment and growth that the Tech Accelerators have been able to garner for their participants?

There are four key ideas that have emerged from examining the success of Tech Accelerators. In the coming months, we will be diving deep into these topics and more.

  1. Communicating Success: Entrepreneurs have an increasing landscape of accelerators to select from. How can Impact Accelerators communicate their business and social impact success to potential cohort members?
  2. Community is Key: The major resources that accelerators offer is community. A strong community of former participants, experienced mentors, cohort members and investors are key to attracting and supporting entrepreneurs. How can you build your community and communicate to potential applicants?
  3. The Value of Specialization: Each accelerator has a clear focus and specialization that is clearly reflected in their messaging. How can specialization propel an accelerator forward?
  4. Hunting for Unicorns: A Unicorn is a one-in-a-thousand company that is an outlier success for an accelerator. How do Tech Accelerators identify and foster potential Unicorn entrepreneurs?

The Impact accelerator community is growing rapidly. As it does, questions arise about how to ensure that the accelerators meet their social mission while maintaining viability. Accelerating the Accelerators has brought this community together to share best practices and move their collective mission forward faster. Through this collaboration, we have mapped the impact accelerator community and driven the discussion on how to measure impact.

The Future of Impact Program Evaluation - Path of the Entrepreneur #4

At the Accelerating the Accelerators session at SOCAP15, participants had a chance to do a deep dive into understanding the current and future state of evaluation of Impact Accelerator and Incubator programs. The conversation focused on understanding the most effective methods of measuring relationships within the community, understanding metrics of external evaluators, and looking at different metrics of interest.


For this exercise we used a “3 Horizons” facilitation framework that helps people think through to a preferential future state of a system - in this case what program evaluation would ideally look like by the year 2020.


We started by looking at how program evaluation impacts the time of program staff performing the evaluations, and the value of the process.

1st Horizon


1st Horizon - Present Day

The process today is burdensome, frustrating, and fails to produce aggregated information that enables program managers to make strategic decisions about the future of their programs. Program evaluation is a significant time sink for most program staff. They currently are focused on self-evaluation using data collected from their cohorts and alumni and then must also fit in requests from third party evaluators.  These two channels for evaluation are not standardized, and frequently program staff are asked for data that require additional time and energy to collect.  


In 2015, there were a wide variety of external reports produced to shed light on the Impact Accelerator system and the role of accelerators in building strong economies:  

  1. Global Social Entrepreneurship Network - From Seed To Impact: Building the Foundations For a High Impact Social Entrepreneur Ecosystem
  2. UBI Global - Top Social Incubators in the US Benchmark Report
  3. Rockefeller Foundation - Accelerating Impact: Exploring Best Practices, Challenges, and Innovations in Impact Enterprise Acceleration
  4. Unitus & Capria - 2015 Global Best Practices Report on Incubation and Acceleration
  5. Brookings Institute - Accelerating Growth: Startup Accelerator Programs in the United States


Each of these reports:

  • Required time from program managers to answer their surveys
  • Included a variety of disparate players in the system without effectively showing the whole industry
  • Used a variety of disparate metrics in their evaluation process requiring program managers to uncover new data, aggregate data in new ways, or otherwise look at their program from a new angle.


The value from these reports was inconsistent.  Frequently it seemed like the intended audience for the report was funders, or other players in the ecosystem rather than the programs themselves (with a notable exception to the Rockefeller Foundation & GSEN reports.)  


The other source of the inconsistency was in the quality of the collected data (i.e. the number of errors or mistakes in the data) as well as the quality of the analysis conducted to transform the data into meaningful information.

2nd Horizon


2nd Horizon - The Future in 2020

The community of accelerators gathered for the Accelerating the Accelerators session were by no means homogeneous. They represented incubators and accelerators from 17 different countries, represented a wide range of sectors, and supporting entrepreneurs at a variety of stages.  Even with these differences, a shared vision for the future emerged - though it was acknowledged it will be very difficult to get there.  


Most acknowledged that some level of standardization of collected metrics would be an ideal state- especially normalization for social entrepreneurs around data that they already have to collect and report to their funders. This desire for alignment with funders emerged time and again, showing the depth of understanding that program managers have of the importance of funders to individual S.E.s, to programs, and to the health of the system as a whole.  


Individual groups came up with different strategies to tackle the issue of standardization - from a Consortium of Evaluators - who would all have access to a wide pool of raw data but be able to evaluate it using different frameworks; to a Common Platform - where the application process would seamlessly connect to an evaluation system making it as easy as possible for both entrepreneurs, program managers, and funders to keep data up to date.


The ideal future state would require little to no additional time, would include the perspectives of social entrepreneurs, programs, and funders, would have a series of standardized metrics, and would provide value to each of the stakeholders.


3rd Horizon - How to we get from here to there?

The groups were then asked to look at what would be required in 2019 to get us to this vision in 2020, and what would be required in 2018, 2017, and 2016 to ensure a less painful and more effective evaluation system.  


2016 - Program managers called out the importance of learning from the traditional business world.  Not just on the evaluation used for accelerator programs, but also on the metrics required of entrepreneurs.  The current system is dysfunctional when it comes to impact measurement and what impact investors require of entrepreneurs - creating pain points for social entrepreneurs that are not experienced by entrepreneurs in other sectors.  Impact Investors have a wide range of metrics that are not consistent between investors and require entrepreneurs to spend a significant amount of time in reporting. A process that sometimes takes away resources from actually achieving the mission of the organization. While financial focused investors have one clear and consistent set of metrics that are synced up on the timeline for when the entrepreneur needs to report, Impact Investors frequently require different information at different times.


The Global Accelerator Learning Initiative (GALI) has already taken steps to create a standardized application and longitudinal survey that enables multiple stakeholder groups to use different evaluation frameworks on the same pool of data.  Unfortunately this process is “really hard” for both program managers and entrepreneurs.  The fundamental objective of the GALI initiative to produce data that can be used for peer-reviewed academic literature and is IRB compliant.  This objective places a series of constraints and requirements for rigor that dissuades some programs from participation.  In addition, GALI is looking at the Global Accelerator landscape - not just the Impact Accelerators.  However, this initiative is an important and strong step in understanding the strengths and limitations of collaborative efforts within the Impact Accelerator system.  


2017-2018 - Within a few years, programs were interested in seeing a consortium of third party evaluators coming together to understand:

  1. What is the value to the third party evaluators in evaluating the Impact Accelerator System?
  2. Which organizations are representing funders who require this information to make more strategic investing decisions?
  3. Are any of these evaluators creating a set of metrics that would support the self evaluation of individual programs?


There were a few collaborative conversations identified that would need to happen to bring metrics into alignment - and once again the program managers recognize that standardization is really hard and do not take this process lightly.


The conversations identified were:

  1. Programs Managers Alone - understanding what is really needed for self evaluation.
  2. Program Managers + Social Entrepreneurs + Funders + Platforms - diving into the impact of evaluation on SE’s and seeing if we can ease the reporting burden on SE’s while still providing funders with the information they require to report on effectiveness and providing programs with what they must do starting at the application phase to support effective evaluation frameworks.
  3. Programs + Funders + Evaluators - bringing into alignment the data required to create the information that funders are seeking to evaluate the effectiveness of both individual social enterprises as well as accelerator programs.
  4. Evaluators Alone - understanding the fundamental drivers for why third party agents are focused on evaluation of the impact ecosystem and how their underlying competition could be set aside to create a more effective process that still meets the needs of evaluation organizations.
  5. Programs + Social Entrepreneurs + Evaluators - doing a deep dive to look at evaluation processes that have been used in the past, and dissecting the main sources of pain and promote inclusion of program manager perspectives in the design of new evaluation frameworks.


2020 - This whole process is designed to bring the impact ecosystem into the next stage of maturity.  The final objective is for social entrepreneurs, funders, and programs to be able to collect, analyze, and report the data necessary to illustrate impact.


The financial system also went through a long and messy processes to come to the standard financial metrics that companies report today.  It took decades for this process to come into alignment, and we must be patient in the impact ecosystem understanding that the creation of industry standards takes time.  The Generally Accepted Accounting Principals were first conceived of in 1932 after the trauma of the Great Depression, and took by some estimates almost 30 years to be fully adopted and are still only "generally accepted" and not a complete global standard.  Five years will likely not be enough time, but as entrepreneurs, impact investors, and program managers grow increasingly savvy at measuring their impact, it will become easier and easier to report the effectiveness of entrepreneurs and programs in address the critical challenges facing the future of our planet.  


There is an underlying psychological and emotional weight that must be acknowledged that is unique to the impact ecosystem - we have put it upon ourselves that we are developing the systems that will help both people and the planet Einstein picturethrive in the future.  This is a huge psychological burden to bear, and there is a natural resistance to the measurement of effectiveness, as we have so much more to lose if it is proven that we are failing to achieve our respective missions.  Part of the process required to help the impact ecosystem mature is to work with one another to be cooperative.  We must remember as Einstein said; “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Review of "What's Working in Startup Acceleration"

The Global Accelerator Learning Initiative (GALI) report, “What’s Working in Startup Acceleration”, released March 28, 2016, represents the first major report from a collaboration between Social Enterprise @ Goizueta at Emory University, the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs (ANDE) and Village Capital. It is a rare example of an effort to use data to determine the effect of impact accelerator programs, a category of enterprise support that has proliferated in the past ten years growing to over 250 organizations worldwide. The 2015 data collected as a result of this collaboration has been released and provides aggregated data on 4,125 early-stage ventures.

While the number and enrollment of impact focused accelerator programs has grown, their impact on attendees has not be quantitatively demonstrated. In addition, program managers do not have empirical studies that illustrate the relative value of different program components and must instead rely on anecdotal evidence that a particular component is making a positive contribution to their cohorts.

The work of the GALI report represents an exciting new age for impact accelerators. This report falls short of its promise in two critical areas. First, by failing to measure the social impact of accelerated companies and second, by ignoring selection bias. Despite shortcomings, the efforts of GALI have the potential to shed light on and ultimately improve accelerator programs across the social impact space.


Why is social impact different?

A common first question is why do social impact accelerators have to be distinguished from other business accelerators? Business accelerators are often judged by the amount of investment that graduates receive and by high profile exits, either on the public or private market. Even in the non-impact business accelerator space, there have been challenges to determining the impact of accelerator programs. Seed-DB has tracked key metrics for business accelerators including number of companies, level of funding, and value of the exit. Ultimately, accelerators are often most commonly judged by the presence of “name-brand” companies among their alumni.

For social impact ventures, they have the additional difficulty of not only showing improving business metrics but also improving social impact metrics.

Interestingly, this GALI report follows a very similar tack as the traditional accelerator measurements in evaluating financial metrics and does not include any measure of the social impact of the accelerated companies. Instead it focuses on three internal business metrics: number of staff employed, amount of revenue, and amount of investment received.

Should social impact companies also be accessed on the basis of their impact? For example, number of low-income customers served? or percentage decrease in hunger for school children?

One issue inherent in social impact evaluation is that an edu-tech, agricultural, clean water, and solar startup will all have different metrics. One solution is the take advantage of the standardization of IRIS and look at percentage change over the year before.


“What’s Working in Startup Acceleration”

What’s Working in Startup Acceleration” uses the applicant pools for 15 Village Capital programs with data from a variety of other programs including Points of Light Civic Accelerator to access the impact of each of these programs on participating entrepreneurs by comparing the number of non-founder employees, revenue including earned, borrowed, equity, and philanthropic for the ventures that participated in the program versus the ventures that applied but did not attend.


In this report, GALI sets out to reach two objectives:

  1. Determine the ‘early’, one-year, impacts of accelerator on three key performance indicators.
  2. Determine what characteristics distinguish between “high-performance” and “low-performance” programs


Early Impact

By looking at revenue growth, growth in the number of employees, and investment growth, the GALI report sought to show the differences between accelerated and non-accelerated ventures. By looking across 15 of Village Capital’s accelerator programs, it shows a significant impact in investment but not in employee growth or revenue growth (Table 1 below)

Table 1 - GALI "What's Working in Startup Acceleration"


Interestingly, when they go to analyze program performance for the 28 programs for which they have data, revenue growth improves significantly.  While, there is still a significant difference for investment raised by participating entrepreneurs, there is less of an impact on investment raised in general vs. the results in Table 1. (Box 02 below).


Box 2 - GALI - "What's Working in Startup Acceleration"


Further examination of the Village Capital programs illustrated two clear groups of high and low performance Village Capital programs (Table 2). In the next section, they try and determine the relative contribution of each program component on the success of the program.

Table 2 from What's working in startup acceleration


Characteristics of a Successful Village Capital Program

The report uses the programmatic difference between high and low performance programs to attempt to determine which program components were most important to enterprise success.

In this analysis they looked at measures of the following:

  1. Partner Quality
  2. Division of Time
  3. Quality of Applicant Pool
  4. Later-stage companies
  5. Networking
  6. Financial Training
  7. Mentor Quality

Considering that the strongest effect was seen in investment, it is curious that they omitted an analysis of potential funders (for instance, using size of fund) to which the entrepreneurs had access.

In this section, they find that the high-performing programs first had

  1. higher quality applicant pools,
  2. engaged higher quality partners, and
  3. provided entrepreneurs more time to work independently.

Weaker effects were seen for mentor quality and networking, and no effect was seen for the stage of the venture or a focus on “financial acumen” during the accelerator program.

These are interesting findings and should inform future research, however, it is difficult to use these results to extrapolate out to the overall importance of each of these components. As the authors state at the beginning of the report: “The main challenge faced when studying the effectiveness of accelerator programs is that different programs seek to accelerate different things.” This means that different programs will also have different admissions criteria. Where one might emphasize a strong financial plan, another might emphasize founder experience or market fit. This makes it difficult to generalize these findings beyond Village Capital.


Selection Bias

Inherent in this type of research is the issue of selection bias. Village Capital does not select its cohort randomly.  In fact, VilCap, and all accelerator programs, invests time and effort into creating the highest quality candidate pool and selecting the highest quality applicants from each pool. A better comparison, albeit one made challenging if not impossible by small sample sizes, is to compare ventures that were selected and did not attend with those that were selected and did attend. There is a well known study on the outcome of attending elite universities that illustrates that students who were admitted to, but did not attend, schools such as Harvard, do as well as their peers who did attend.  GALI has attempted this in tracking those who were accepted but chose not to attend, but unfortunately due to small sample sizes was unable to treat this as a own stand alone comparative group.

How can elite accelerator programs illustrate that they are not only selecting and holding the highest quality talent, but also genuinely accelerating their growth? Hopefully the next GALI report will get closer to this answer.

How Can We Make Mentoring Better for Social Entrepreneurs?

During our “Shared Resources” Collective Impact Project, a dynamic conversation took off surrounding the idea of a collective space for sharing mentors -- a mentor pool.

Arising from the Accelerating the Accelerators Co-hosted Session at SOCAP15, a group of accelerator and incubator* program managers from a variety of organizations participated in a Collective Impact Project (CIP) exploring pooling resources - human and material -  to reduce costs. While there was not a lot of interest in sharing software subscriptions or procurement, a dynamic conversation took off among us around the sharing of mentors.

As social enterprise accelerator leaders we believe in empowering entrepreneurs to create meaningful change and impact lives. What if we could, with a little collective effort, dig canals connecting our mentor networks in a pool so as to increase positive entrepreneurial outcomes across the impact sector?

Our CIP group found this question worthwhile to explore. As accelerator leaders, we work to provide mentorship to entrepreneurs and management teams within our programs. Most - if not all - accelerators do this. However, in practical terms and on the ground, the term mentorship can mean a variety of different things.

Mentorship is our backbone. Among most - if not all - accelerators, mentors constitute a core competitive advantage.

Accelerators invest heavily in recruiting the best mentors and maintaining our networks. We center our recruitment efforts around finding the right fit for the entrepreneurs in our programs. We dive into details of each potential mentor’s background, their industries and topics of interest,  their alignment with the organization’s mission, and the time they have available. Oftentimes, we will reach out directly to founders of successful companies or c-suite level individuals to find the right mentor. In other cases, we draw from past accelerator program alumni. Interestingly enough, research from the Mentor Capital Network indicates that entrepreneurs prefer peer-to-peer mentors who can speak to their shared experience in the program.

After recruiting mentors, it takes a lot of work to maintain a healthy mentor network. We utilize various methods to make sure that their mentor network is healthy and engaged such as:

  • Asking each mentor to opt-in to each mentoring opportunity,
  • Timing the programs to prevent overlap in mentorship engagement opportunities,
  • Hosting events specifically for mentors to network with each other, and
  • Providing ongoing training for the mentors.

There are a host of other engagement methods that add value to the mentorship experience, yet our overarching strategy is to be cognizant of the mentor’s time and expectations.

Mentor networks are crucial for programs to attract ventures.

Featured in marketing materials and held up as a value proposition to attract applicants, our networks of mentors serve as crucial points of intersection between our programs and the external world. For example, Unreasonable Institute features on its homepage the faces and bios of mentors. Most of us in the CIP consider our organization’s mentor pool to be our secret sauce of success, both in attracting entrepreneurs and in giving entrepreneurs the support and advice they need to for venture growth. For this reason, the mere suggestion of sharing the mentors might be met with resistance.  

Mentors are…  Technical Experts / Leadership Coaches / Business Teachers / Priority Setters / Shoulders to Lean On

During our CIP calls, our conversation quickly spiraled into esoteric territory around defining a common lexicon between programs. Amid the intense discussion, there was a moment of clarity – an “aha! Moment.” Suddenly it dawned on us that perhaps this idea of pooling mentors would be more popular if we shared only a certain type of mentor. We identified four main types to structure our conversation, recognizing that there are other mentor classifications that have not been included and that the categories below are not mutually exclusive.

  • Mentor Advisors engage with entrepreneurs through a 1:1 relationship and provide support long past the duration of the program.  Mentor advisors solidify their role with the entrepreneur by becoming an official “advisor” to the organization.  Their support can include everything from introductions to their networks, support in raising capital, strategic planning, and even personal support.  Sometimes relationships that start with mentor advisors formally become members of the board of directors for the organization.  All of the forms of mentorship below can evolve into mentor advisor roles.
  • Leadership Coaches engage with entrepreneurs to increase their capability to lead early-stage ventures and provide a sounding board, strategic support, and personal mentoring.  A leadership coach might be a certified executive coach or an entrepreneur who has “been there and done that.” Tending to build longer-term relationships with entrepreneurs, a leadership coach will normally be assigned to  an entrepreneur for continuous support throughout the duration of a program.
  • Taskmasters/Priority Setters help to keep the entrepreneur on track and focus on daily/weekly/monthly deliverables to support entrepreneurs in achieving specific milestones. More program manager than guide, taskmasters like leadership coaches will stick by the side of an entrepreneur throughout the duration of an accelerator program.
  • Technical Experts possess deep domain expertise and assist entrepreneurs with a specific challenge. A technical expert might be an individual specializing in intellectual property law or a senior cancer researcher at a leading university. While it may not be immediately obvious what they have in common, the shared identity is “mile-deep” expertise and strong networks in a specific area. Typically working with entrepreneurs for a short period of time, technical experts are engaged on an “as needed” basis and are generally not active throughout the full duration of a program.

In some programs, mentors are asked to serve as guides and supporters in one-on-one relationships over time or serve as leadership coaches, while others lean more heavily on their mentors’ deep domain or technical expertise. Beyond an occasion to clarify nomenclature, diversity in mentorship in all of its forms presents an opportunity to examine how accelerators can learn from one another or share mentor resources to meet the needs of entrepreneurs in cohorts to a greater extent.

Programs seek to engage mentors in meaningful ways and with the best fit.

During an active program or cohort, we engage our mentors at a high level, especially for the leadership coach and taskmaster roles.  We are sensitive to balancing two dynamics: we want to protect mentors from burnout AND at the same time we strive to generate engagement opportunities that are deep and meaningful.

With deep engagement over a long period of time, leadership coaches and taskmasters are more prone to more burnout and fatigue.  In contrast, with slack in the demand-side for highly specific technical advice, technical experts are more susceptible to experiencing a void of meaning.

Broadly generalizing, technical experts prioritize engagement with content and target areas over a focus on development on the human dimension. This is a key distinction from leadership coaches and taskmasters who offer consistent guidance in high touch mentor-mentee relationships. At times, cohorts might not be able to offer a match with meaningful ventures due to technical experts’ highly specific focus. Technical experts may experience this as intermittent and irregular demand on the part of the program and its entrepreneurs/ventures. In this way, technical experts may find themselves at times out in the cold and without a mentee.  This creates a relationship management challenge for the accelerator program, as they struggle to keep the technical expert engaged. Offering up a solution, a few of us in the CIP group suggested that engaging technical experts in a mentor pool offers promise of taking up some of the slack and supporting long term relationship development.

In the CIP we debated whether certain types of mentorship are bound to be most effective based on format and context. Place-based mentorship brings more occasions for meaningful in-person connections. On the other hand, choosing to offer both in-person and remote mentorship can bring added convenience and opportunities to scale resources. We largely agreed that technical expert mentorship is naturally most compatible with an online virtual format, while effectiveness in leadership coaching and taskmaster mentorship is most likely to have high correlation with place-based opportunities to connect.

When looking at pooling mentor resources, the matching process would have to be clear and engage program leaders, mentors, and entrepreneurs in a meaningful way.

We program leaders - or the organization as a whole in a longer-standing, mature accelerator - invest a lot of time in cultivating deep connections with the mentors to assess prospective mentor-mentee personality compatibility. A key ingredient for building a successful mentorship program is the mentor matching process that aims to make sure that there is mutual benefit to entrepreneurs and mentors in the match.

Relying greatly on our people skills, emotional IQ, and instinct, we aspire to match personalities between mentors and entrepreneur mentees. This is especially true for the leadership coach and taskmaster/priority setter roles. In contrast, finding a good match for technical experts is a more linear process based upon the technical needs of the mentee and the experience of the mentor. While still a consideration, personality fit was perceived as a less crucial ingredient for a successful relationship.

How can we leverage our community of accelerators to support ventures with better targeted and more meaningful mentor matches?

We see great potential for social enterprise accelerators globally to pool mentor resources, specifically for technical experts. Given the right protocols and tools, this could create a network of stronger mentors for entrepreneurs’ access. For example, if an entrepreneur based in Tulsa, Oklahoma is working on a project to be deployed in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, the accelerator program could reach out to a program with connections to mentors in Mongolia and find the right mentors that understand the local ecosystem.

A key consideration about the pooling of technical experts is understanding their motivations to support entrepreneurs and multiple programs. As the technical experts have deep domain expertise, their knowledge is very valuable to the entrepreneur, but ultimately what is in it for the technical expert?

Many technical expert mentors feel isolated when they only engage with programs virtually.  Ian Fisk of Mentor Capital Network recalled a number of times where mentors in geographies that are not the “hot spots” of entrepreneurship would appreciate the opportunity to build deeper relationships with mentees by connecting in person. In many rural parts of the world, the line between technical expert, leadership coach, and mentor/advisor may blur as in-person connections provide technical expert mentors the opportunity to build longer lasting relationships with their mentees.  

Another risk for technical experts is to isolate them and reduce their interaction with the program and entrepreneur to a “transactional” relationship, where the entrepreneur is extracting information they need to start their business.   Some programs combat this by training their entrepreneurs in the art of asking “potent questions.”  These questions move beyond gaining technical expertise from their mentor to asking, “How can I help you?” and other questions that will support a multi-dimensional relationship between mentor and mentee.

AtA at SOCAP16 – Can we pool our mentor resources?

In anticipation of the AtA Co-hosted Session at SOCAP16, we invite you to contemplate some questions as you continue to engage with your mentors and cohorts. We will have the opportunity at the session for those who are interested to explore the concept of a Shared Mentor Pool and would appreciate your thoughtful perspective.  This will help us to leverage our time together and advance discussions that will impact us all. Now the questions!:

  • How often do you find yourself with the need for content expertise? Would a platform linking you to contact experts be useful? Would you use it?
  • Can we as a community of entrepreneurial support organizations tap into our broad base of technical mentors experts and pool our resources? What safeguards would we be well advised to put in place?
  • How do we create a system to match technical experts with the appropriate entrepreneurs?
  • How do we prevent mentor burnout? Promote mentor satisfaction?
  • How can technical experts best be leveraged across multiple different programs? How will they best support entrepreneurs? What will be their motivations?

*For the sake of brevity, henceforth we will use the term accelerators as inclusive of incubators.

We wish to thank the participants in the Shared Resources Collective Impact Project for their contributions to the dialogue that inspired and influenced this post including: Andrew Grenfell (Global Social Entrepreneurship Network- GSEN), Emmanuele Musa (Babele), Ian T. Fisk (Mentor Capital Network- MCN), Janine Elliott (VentureWell/NCIIA), Rob Gradoville (, and Ryan Ross (Halcyon Incubator).

C’pher Gresham - CIP Host
IMG_8166C’pher Gresham is passionate about helping others globally and breaking down barriers to increase diversity in entrepreneurship. Currently, C’pher is the acting National Director of Expansion at SEED SPOT and is charged with the task of bringing the impact of SEED SPOT and SEED SPOT Ventures to more communities. C’pher previously served as the Phoenix Director of Entrepreneur initiatives where he designed and ran all accelerator programming and aided companies in raising capital. C’pher focuses on entrepreneurs developing sustainable solutions to the world's most pressing problems.

In addition to his work at SEED SPOT, C’pher is a co-founder of Swillings Coffee, an impact-driven Colombian coffee company. Swillings Coffee works directly with small family owned farms in rural Colombia to improve the quality of their harvest using sustainable growing techniques, roasts at origin to employ women in the local growing community, and distributes to high-end restaurants, coffee houses, and direct-to-consumers in the USA.

Prior to SEED SPOT, C’pher has consulted with non-governmental organizations and institutional investors. He has worked with the alternative investment arm of the Arizona State Retirement System, the African Development Bank and Non-Governmental Organizations in Tunisia, and a Biotech Hedge Fund in San Francisco. C'pher was an early employee at, a crowdfunding platform for nonprofits and socially minded causes.

C'pher has lived on a 135' tall ship in the Caribbean studying oceanography, and worked internationally in Thailand, Tunisia, and Nepal. He graduated with a B.A. from The George Washington University in Psychology with a Pre-Medicine concentration and an MBA Summa Cum Laude from the Thunderbird School of Global Management with a concentration in early-stage financing for growth companies.

Accelerating the Accelerators @SOCAP16


Brought to you by GSBI, SOCAP, and This year, the teams at Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship, SOCAP, and have joined forces for the third annual Accelerating the Accelerators workshop.

As a program manager we hope you can join us as this year we will be diving into the transformation of Collaboration into Action. This will be a great opportunity to learn about other programs, find out more about the successful conclusion of our last round of Collective Impact Projects, and participate in a mini-unconference for participant led discussions of what matters most to you. As always this is a safe space for program managers to discuss their strengths and weaknesses. We will not be including any entrepreneurs or investors into the conversation. We welcome you to include a colleague but will cap participation at 2 people per organization to ensure diversity in the conversation.

Please note, as this is a SOCAP16 event, you will be required to have registered for SOCAP16. This session is free to attendees of SOCAP and participants in this session are eligible for a $500 discount to SOCAP.

If you need a day pass and will not be attending SOCAP we can offer one for $300.  Please email Avary Kent at to register for the day pass.

We are also excited to co-host a happy hour with Opportunity Collaboration on September 13th from 4:30pm-6:30pm.  Please email for more event details.

To be clear – we are using the term “Accelerator” broadly in this context – and include program managers and leaders of accelerators, incubators, business plan competitions, fellowships, and other programs that offer support to entrepreneurs in launching, building, and scaling their ventures.

Program Evolution
Accelerating the Accelerators @SOCAP14 was a successful first step in building deeper relationships between program leaders dedicated to the impact ecosystem. We convened 50 program leaders, developed an accelerator landscape map (that has continued to evolve and can be found here), and launched a series of Collective Impact Projects that led to the development of our Effective Cross Promotion Bulletin.

Accelerating the Accelerators @SOCAP15 was a great second step in creating a resilient accelerator community. Last year we looked at tools, resources, and pain points for program managers through lens of the path of the entrepreneur through the imact accelerator ecosystem.

Program Structure
All sessions are fully participatory and there are no speakers or presenters.  The value of this experience is in learning from your peers and contributing to the shared knowledge base of impact accelerators. Please feel free to reach out to Avary Kent at with any questions or feedback prior to the event.

Catalyzing Inclusivity in Incubators and Accelerators

Join us in Boston on October 27th to catalyze a national conversation about what it will take to create inclusive incubators and accelerators! This event will convene incubator and accelerator leaders, economic development professionals, city officials, and other stakeholders interested in inclusive innovation to identify strategies to break down barriers for women and minority entrepreneurs.

How You Can Help the Entrepreneurs You Care About Succeed: Lessons from 26 Communities Worldwide

She Leads Africa, a female founder-focused VilCap Community in Lagos, Nigeria

Silicon Valley is the envy of the entrepreneurial world, and it deserves to be. It’s a seamless ecosystem for entrepreneurs: if you’re in the Silicon Valley system, and have a great idea, you can find the resources you need to succeed.

But in other cities, local leaders have had to create this ecosystem from the ground up.

In 2007, in Boulder, Colorado, Brad Feld and Dave Cohen built Techstars as an early “accelerator”, surrounding new businesses with the resources and mentors they needed to succeed. Since then, local leaders have launched accelerators in more than 1,000 communities across the world.

But do accelerators and other entrepreneur support programs actually work? In 2013, our team at Village Capital joined with Emory University and the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs to release the first global research study on entrepreneur support programs: Bridging the Pioneer Gap. Three years later, the Global Accelerator Learning Initiative published a first-of-its-kind study to find out what works and what doesn’t in acceleration: looking at 15 of Village Capital’s investment-readiness programs, they found that our model was helping entrepreneurs raise more capital — and that we might want to spend less time on certain things, like teaching financial modeling.

Last year, our team at Village Capital set out to take this question — “What works in entrepreneur support?” — one step further. We teamed up with the DOEN Foundation, the Kauffman Foundation, and the Sorenson Impact Foundation to conduct a real-life experiment called VilCap Communities. In the pilot year, we selected 26 community leaders who committed to using Village Capital’s peer-selected investment model to invest $50,000 into local entrepreneurs. While not every program succeeded, all the programs provided instructive insights into how to build effective communities.

Here’s what we learned.

1. Know the problem you’re solving: Helping entrepreneurs raise money isn’t a natural outcome: it’s a distinct skill set

Most companies are under-capitalized: 78% of startup investment in the US, and 50% of startup investment in the world, goes to just three states, while less than 5% goes to women and less than 1% goes to people of color. Ecosystem builders can help.

Yet if the problem you’re solving for is helping entrepreneurs raise money — getting companies ready to close a deal with an investor — make sure you’re building the right solution.

Too many entrepreneur support programs promise everything to everyone. There’s a distinct difference between ‘business model development’ and ‘leveling up for investment’, but most entrepreneur support programs spend their time teaching the former, with the goal being to help companies validate their business model (think: “Lean Startup”, or “Business Model Canvas”) and then let entrepreneurs loose on a Demo Day, introducing them to investors — often with poor results.

I started Village Capital in 2009 to help entrepreneurs specifically level up for investment. Our core innovation: a peer-review process through which entrepreneurs in each program actually play the role of investor. Does this make for a better program? Although most of our 26 Communities chose to customize the tools we provided (only 23% used the full curriculum), 100% of the communities used peer-selected investment.

The results were positive: 92% of businesses felt that the program made them more ready to raise investment for their next stage of growth. Beyond that, 92% of entrepreneurs connected with a meaningful mentor, 80% connected with a potential partner, and 64% connected with a potential investor.

The lesson: Know the problem you are solving. Not every accelerator or entrepreneur support program should focus on investment-readiness. Some specialize in offering product validation; others help founders develop strategic partnerships with big institutions. But if your promise and goal is helping entrepreneurs raise capital, make sure your pedagogy and learning outcomes are targeted to measurable increases in investment-readiness.

2. Be honest that building an ecosystem isn’t a profitable end in itself (and that’s ok!) Entrepreneur support organizations are infrastructure, not businesses. Get real about your goals beyond profitability, and track them.

There’s an old saying: “The cobbler’s son has no shoes.” The idea applies here: accelerators and incubators that are helping local businesses often have trouble with their own business models.

In our evaluation of the pilot, we found that 55% of every dollar taken in by the 26 programs was philanthropic. At the end of 12 months, 11 of the 26 communities were unable to reach their capital goals for launch — and none of them were “sustainable” without philanthropic subsidy.

As it turns out, entrepreneur support organizations may never be “revenue-sustainable” in a traditional sense. That’s actually OK! These organizations, when effective, are critical infrastructure for a city or a community, and should be treated as such.

The Lean Lab, an education-focused VilCap Community in Kansas City

There are two important takeaways here. For policymakers, foundations and elected officials who commit publicly to supporting entrepreneurs: remember that you’ll more than likely need to put your money where your mouth is, and support those who support entrepreneurs.

For entrepreneur support organizations: make sure you are accurately communicating what your goals are and sharing your progress with entrepreneurs, funders and any other stakeholders. Are you trying to make every company that goes through your program ten times more profitable? Are you trying to build a more resilient community? If you fail to set expectations, you risk alienating those who can support you financially.

3. Topophilia: Communities should focus on sectors with deep and local resonance

Last fall over breakfast, I asked John Hickenlooper, Governor of Colorado, why his state had four of the top 10 best-performing ecosystems in the country. “Topophilia,” he answered. The word, meaning “love of place,” highlighted a Colorado truth: Fort Collins is distinct from Boulder and Boulder is distinct from Colorado Springs, and they are all thriving because they are trying to be the best version of themselves.

Our VilCap Communities hypothesis from the beginning was that cities shouldn’t try and recreate Silicon Valley; they should be the best version of themselves. Many of our programs embraced a sector focus that resonated with the city. For example, Philadelphia launched a financial technology program, building on Philadelphia’s institutional history of financial services R&D since Benjamin Franklin designed the coins for the first U.S. Mint. Cincinnati’s program focused on water innovation, building on their history as a bre town and their private sector leadership in the water sector.

The results for these sector-specific programs were strongly positive. The cities that embraced a sector-meets-city thesis raised money more quickly, attracted better entrepreneurs, and were more likely to run and succeed. 

VilCap Communities 2.0: What’s Next?

Rather than revolving around one distinct program, VilCap Communities 2.0 will be organized around three key skill sets that everyone who wants to support entrepreneurs needs to excel at, and work with partners worldwide to build solutions around each:

FIND: A tool to recruit for entrepreneurs like we recruit for athletes

Jim Clifton, Gallup CEO, often comments that if you’re a world-class athlete, then wherever you live, you’ve got a path to success. Our society spends billions of dollars recruiting athletes each year — why can’t we do that for people who build businesses? The single most common resource that our Communities requested was a tool to better recruit and evaluate companies better.

In the coming months, we’ll be launching a “FIND” working group of investors and entrepreneur support organization who want to think differently about how to source and evaluating communities. If you’re interested in being a part of it, let us know.

TRAIN: Best practices in helping companies raise money

92% of the entrepreneurs in the pilot year reported that the peer review model helped them level up for their next stage of investment. Building on lessons learned from the past year, we are working to combine our successful curriculum with an investor/entrepreneur curation tool.

We’re going to build on our work over the last year and launch a more focused “TRAIN” working group of people who are creating, implementing, and sharing best practices in investment-readiness programs. If you’re interested in joining, please let us know.

INVEST: Innovation in new financing vehicles

One of the organizing questions of VilCap Communities: “How do we get more venture capital into more communities across the world?” Maybe that’s the wrong question. Fewer than 1% of companies worldwide raise venture capital, and in most industries and places, “one size fits all” tools, like tech accelerators or venture capital funds, might be the right tool — or might not fit.

We’ve seen many other models work better in some contexts. For example, many agricultural businesses actually prefer a revenue-share structure to traditional equity investment, including Fin Gourmet, which is creating living wage jobs in one of Kentucky’s poorest counties and was recently profiled in Bloomberg. And my co-founder Victoria has highlighted other ways that new and alternative investment models are delivering better results.

Last week, the Kauffman Foundation convened a design session of 45 investors and entrepreneurs discuss a trillion-dollar “Moonshot” — how could we get a trillion dollars of new capital into entrepreneurs in the next decade? We’re not going to solve the problems we have by only using the investment structures we’re most familiar with. A third bucket of VilCap Communities 2.0 will be to explore blended investment options that look past the one-size-fits-all equity model, and instead deliver capital based on company needs: let me know if you’re interested in getting involved.

This post was written by Ross Baird, CEO of Village Capital, and originally appeared on Medium; it is republished here with permission. Learn more about Village Capital on their website and read their insights on Medium.

Early Stage Entrepreneurship Support Programs

Early entrepreneurship support programs come in various forms, however, there are four main types: accelerators, incubators and coworking spaces, events and competitions, and formal degree or educational programs. They exist across multiple sectors (e.g., public, private, social) and vary widely in quality and scope, which contributes to a mix of research findings about how they impact entrepreneur formation and startup outcomes.


Early stage entrepreneurship support programs are increasingly popular, with thousands of programs existing across the U.S and abroad to support entrepreneurs and startups. Many of these programs are relatively new and hail from a range of sectors, including federal, state, and local governments. Universities play an increasing role, with most colleges having some form of entrepreneurial support program, and many larger universities hosting several. Non-profits and for-profit corporations alike also create programs to support startups and their founders. A whole industry now exists around supporting entrepreneurs with varied business models including fee-for-service, rent-for-workspace, equity-for-seed investments, philanthropic donations, and more. Entrepreneurial support programs have become ubiquitous, however they come in several types. Four main categories of early stage entrepreneurship support programs are outlined below.



The accelerator is a new form of financing and early stage entrepreneurship support program that was pioneered by Y Combinator in 2005. While the number of privately-funded accelerators has increased rapidly in the United States and worldwide, university-based and government-sponsored accelerators are growing in numbers as well. The typical accelerator consists of a time-boxed program with a combination of education, mentorship, and funding, often culminating in a demo day, but the exact structure and terms continue to diversify.

  • Privately-funded accelerators such as Y Combinator, Techstars, and 500 Startups operate primarily as early-stage investors in startups. Similar to venture capitalists and angel investors, accelerators invest in startups in exchange for equity, but the investment amount is much lower. Applications to this type of accelerator are typically open to any founder, and they are followed by a rigorous screening process to narrow down to the final cohort of startups. During the program, founders learn more about building a company through educational workshops, and are connected with various mentors affiliated with the accelerator. The large number of mentors is one of the distinguishing features of accelerators. Oftentimes, these accelerators also offer coworking spaces for the cohort, so founders are also able to learn and receive feedback from their peers. The end of the program is marked by demo day, which is an opportunity for founders to pitch their company in front of an audience with the goal of raising additional funding and awareness. Corporate-sponsored accelerators operate similarly, but usually with a focus on a specific industry sector or technology platform (such as Windows Azure).The academic literature has largely focused on privately-funded accelerators, specifically, on how participation affects performance and learning outcomes Hallen, Bingham, and Cohen, 2014; Winston and Hannigan, 2015; Yu, 2015. While the findings on fundraising have been mixed, research consistently finds that companies that participate in accelerators go out of business faster—potentially a positive “fail faster” situation.
  • University-based accelerators such as StartX tend to emphasize education and entrepreneurial experience over financial returns. Moreover, often founders have to be affiliated with the university. The main difference between university and privately-funded accelerators is that founders receive grants rather than having to dilute the company in exchange for seed financing. In the handful of instances that university accelerators do extract equity, they tends to take lower percentages than non-university accelerators (~2-3%). These arrangements are also found more often in biotech and life science university incubators than more open tech incubators. Furthermore, many university accelerators are built around a structured curriculum such as Lean Launchpad and offer students their first exposure to entrepreneurship.
  • Government-sponsored initiatives such as Start-Up Chile and the Growth Accelerator Fund generally invest in accelerators rather than companies themselves. The primary goal is to encourage economic growth, which in turn attracts accelerators and startups focused on specific aspects of regional impact, such as job growth and education. While government-sponsored accelerators are still growing in numbers, there is some evidence that certain aspects of the accelerator, such as schooling services, can increase the performance of companies Gonzalez-Uribe and Leatherbee, 2016.
  • In addition to different sponsoring entities, accelerators may also differ by their technology focus. For example Y Combinator is industry-agnostic while QB3 admits only startups in life sciences. Furthermore, several accelerators focused on underrepresented groups, such as MergeLane, have also emerged as a vehicle to increase diversity in the entrepreneurship ecosystem.

Incubators and Coworking Spaces

Incubators have overlapping functions with accelerators—namely mentorship, technical assistance, and often some form of seed funding—yet they can be differentiated from accelerators in a few key ways as well. Incubators tend to be longer in duration, usually around two or three years, compared to the multi-month accelerator timeframes. The impact of Incubators on their portfolio companies is difficult to untangle, but research has suggested that incubation has mixed results: decreasing survival rates but improving sales growth in companies that "graduate" out of the space (Amezcua 2010) Incubators tend to have a broad range of local companies rather than cohorts of industry-specific companies. And incubators tend to provide physical infrastructure more often than the culminating demo day approach found more commonly in accelerators (Dempwolf, Auer, D’Ippolito, 2014). Coworking spaces share this emphasis on providing physical infrastructure with incubators, often with educational opportunities as well. Coworking spaces differ in that many allow freelancers or branches of small companies to occupy space, in addition to startup ventures.

  • Incubators themselves have different strategies and practices. In terms of selection strategies, some are idea-focused while others are entrepreneur-focused. Concurrently, some select earlier stage ventures with a “survival-of-the-fittest” approach, while others carefully vet already promising teams for a “picking-the-winners” approach. The range of business support and innovation exist along a continuum from laissez-faire to strong intervention. Some have an emphasis on certain technology or regional innovation area clusters (e.g., life sciences, hardware, social ventures), while others tend to be more open (Bergek and Norrman, 2008).
  • Different types of incubators tend to have different kinds of outcomes. Private and basic research incubators tend to outperform economic development incubators at achieving their goals, while university incubators appear somewhere in the middle (Barbero et al., 2012).
  • University incubators are a rapidly growing part of the incubator landscape, claiming about a third of the share of incubators in the U.S. (Torrance, 2013). Like incubators outside of the academy, they also display a wide range of quality and industry foci. More recently, incubators targeting student entrepreneurs have emerged and are spreading at a range of institutions, including lower-ranking universities and community colleges (Mars and Ginter, 2012).
  • Coworking spaces have many of the elements of incubators, however they are not always exclusively for startup ventures. They often include individual freelancers and small staff teams that may function as a satellite site of a larger company headquartered in another city. Most provide open floor plans with drop-in desks for a few hundred dollars a month, and with more expensive plans for designated desk space or private offices (Spinuzzi, 2012). Their effectiveness in spurring synergy, productivity, and knowledge sharing are still under review, but it does appear that proximity to colleagues has modest benefits (e.g. Parrino, 2015). Coworking spaces are a growing phenomenon in most U.S. cities in part because of rising interest in startups, but also because of the steady increase in alternative work arrangements in the new economy (e.g., freelance, independent contract, contingent, and part-time).

Prize Competitions and Events

Prize competitions have a long and storied career in the history of innovation and entrepreneurship, including the solution to the calculation of longitude by English clockmaker and entrepreneur John Harrison (Sobel, 2007). Since the Longitude Prize, policy-makers have attempted to facilitate the entry and success of new innovative ideas through the creation of prize competitions for both the ideas themselves and new businesses that incorporate them. Prizes excel at inducing entry (especially heterogeneous) of new participants in an innovation ecosystem, but prize competitions also redirect labor and attention toward competition (potentially at the cost of useful work) so that prize competition design can have surprising consequences. Early theoretical work on the mechanism behind prize competitions has stressed monetary rewards, but the empirical work in prizes has suggested that non-monetary incentives seem to dominate monetary in the actual operation of prizes. The emerging empirical evidence on prize competitions has stressed the non-monetary impacts of competitions such as the signal value obtained by winning a competition (Brunt et al., 2012). Thus, prize competitions are one of the ways in which entrepreneurs can improve their capacity to gain access to critical resources. Another set of institutions that facilitate the process of resource acquisition are networking events which improve an entrepreneur's social capital. Taken together, competitions and prizes are critical institutions in an innovation ecosystem that facilitate the improvement of the capacity of early stage firms to gain resources.

  • Much of our understanding of prize competitions comes from the innovation literature that has focused on comparisons to other funding mechanisms. In his analysis of patents, prizes, and procurement, Wright shows that each of these mechanisms can be the optimal funding mechanisms in his model under different parameter conditions (Wright, 1983). Gallini and Scotchmer (2002) use patent design to explore the impact of institutions on how information aggregation shapes cumulative innovation, suggesting that critical information and capacity/willingness to pursue a new opportunity are not always housed in the same firm (Gallini and Scotchmer, 2002). A similar theme is echoed in Kremer and Williams (2010) who sketch out the trade-offs of a range of incentive mechanisms for innovation, stressing the importance of demand uncertainty as a main driver in market failures for products like vaccines (Kremer and Williams, 2010).
  • Other researchers have noted that there is a significant discrepancy between the theoretical motivation for prizes developed in the economics literature, which stresses the incentive effects of monetary reward, and the rationale for competition participation put forward by participants, who stress the importance of additional non-pecuniary receipts including novel information on customers, media attention, and a certification effect of winning (Murray et al., 2012). These non-monetary incentives evoke previous discussions by economists about the signaling rationale for participating in open source software development (Lerner and Tirole, 2002), but otherwise economic theory has remained relatively blind to the importance of non-monetary rewards.One of the few empirical attempts to characterize the impact of prize competitions on innovation is Brunt et al. (2012) on the agricultural prizes in England where they find that the value of monetary rewards was not as important as the medals that were given out (Brunt et al., 2012). The participants in the agricultural prizes benefitted more from the credentialing effects of prizes as a signal of the quality of their innovation than from the direct resources provided. The importance of non-monetary rewards in prize competitions has also been found in modern prizes such as the X-Prize and Northrop Grumman’s Lunar Lander prize (Kay, 2011). Similarly, the benefit of SBIR grants by entrepreneurial firms is more in the signal value to other external funders than the dollar value of the grant (Lerner, 1999; Howell 2015). In that sense, prize competitions operate in much the same way as other status mechanisms that operate to enable entrepreneurs to acquire resources more easily (Stuart, Hoang, and Hybels, 1999; Waguespack and Fleming, 2009). Relatedly, participating in prestigious accelerators and incubators can have a similar status signaling effect on startups, providing nonmaterial value that goes beyond the seed money or physical space these programs offer. This effect contributes to the mixed results in the literature on the effectiveness of such programs.
  • Formal networking events also increase the capacity of entrepreneurs to acquire critical resources to build their new ventures. A plethora of studies have noted the importance of entrepreneurs’ initial social capital in determining the survival chances of a new company (Shane and Stuart, 2002; Shane and Cable, 2002; Hallen, 2008). At a more macro-level, regional studies have found that geographies with higher levels of social capital produce more successful startups (Laursen, Masciarelli, and Prencipe, 2012; Samila and Sorenson, 2013; Kwon, Heflin, and Ruef, 2013). Fewer studies have explored the mechanisms whereby startup founders can improve their social capital. The likelihood that entrepreneurs seek outside advice is moderated by the provision of networking events and the level of entrepreneurship in their area (Davidsson and Honig, 2003), but their ability to capitalize on these networking events is highly influenced by their status characteristics (e.g., race and gender) (Abraham, 2014).

Degrees and Education

Entrepreneurship education programs have become widespread in U.S. colleges and universities, numbering more than 5,000 thousand courses on entrepreneurism nationwide as of 2008, with continued growth since (Torrance, 2013). Nearly every accredited school of business in the country hosts at least one class if not several, and hundreds offer formal certificates and degrees in entrepreneurship. Nor are entrepreneurship programs limited to business schools, with programs springing up in engineering and computer science schools, medical schools, law schools, and more. Beyond post-secondary programs, entrepreneurship education programs are offered in a variety of contexts from secondary and vocational schools to students enrolled as part of an unemployment relief program (Valerio, Parton, and Robb, 2014). Indeed, internationally, entrepreneurship education has been deployed as part of an effort at poverty reduction in a large number of contexts (McKenzie and Woodruff, 2013). Yet despite the huge number of programs, the literature on entrepreneurial education programs offers less than straightforward answers on how effective they are at increasing entrepreneurial intention, rates of startups, and long-term venture success.

  • Part of the lack of clarity comes from conflicting research reports. Some of the contradictory findings, however, can be explained due to entrepreneurship education research that suffers from: (1) a lack of theoretical grounding; (2) lack of methodological rigor; (3) lack of examination of moderators—or confounding variables, like family exposure to entrepreneurism, race, class, gender, immigration status, nationality, etc.; and (4) and lack of longitudinal tracking (Honing and Martin, 2014).
  • A meta-analysis shows that despite some of these contradictory outcomes, overall a modest net positive influence exists between entrepreneurial education and entrepreneurial knowledge and skill, positive perceptions of entrepreneurship, intentions to become an entrepreneur, and to a lesser degree on startup creation and performance outcomes. Academic entrepreneurship education environments appear to be slightly more effective than training or non-academic environments (Martin et al., 2013).
  • Another review of the literature on entrepreneurial education outcomes—this one exclusively in higher education settings—similarly finds modest positive relationships between entrepreneurship education and various entrepreneurial outcomes, especially the subjective outcomes (e.g., intention to startup, inspiration, knowledge) over the objective outcomes (e.g., actually starting up, long-term venture survival, financial outcomes). Notably, the relationships were stronger where the education included an emphasis on experiential learning rather than primarily classroom-based pedagogies (Nabi et al., forthcoming).

Future Research

  • Accelerators: While academic research related to accelerators has increased in recent years, there are still open questions surrounding the role of accelerators in the entrepreneurial process and their impact on the ecosystem as a whole. For example, do accelerator cohorts encourage founders or create competition? Do accelerators enable more entrepreneurship in a region? Furthermore, collecting data on nascent firms and having good counterfactuals for comparison remains a challenge. Quasi-experimental techniques and randomized controlled trials would be beneficial for establishing causal linkages between accelerators and performance outcomes.
  • Coworking Spaces: Future research on coworking spaces should look at the differences between spaces made up mostly or exclusively of entrepreneurs compared to those with varying proportions of freelancers and independent contractors. Do these groups share enough similarity in culture to benefit each other, or not? More work also needs done on the impact of spatial layout on synergy, information sharing, and productivity.
  • Incubators: Future research on incubators will benefit from attention given to the rapidly growing share of incubators found in universities. How do university-sponsored incubators compare with non-university sponsored incubators? Further, some evidence exists that startups may move between incubators, sometimes moving from less to more prestigious programs as the startup develops. Does this “fish-ladder” approach to moving between incubators enhance startup outcomes (by nurturing startups in evolving stages of development), or potentially hinder them (by putting unviable startups on “life support” for longer than they perhaps should be)?
  • Prize Competitions and Events: Future research on the impact of prize competitions and events should attempt to dissect the impact of the design of these institutions. In terms of prize competitions, researchers should focus on how the structure of judging impacts the startup firms that are selected and how the changes to prize terms vary the startups that apply to the competition. In terms of events, researchers can use the institution itself to understand better the mechanism whereby startup founders accrue and mobilize social capital in order to acquire the resources necessary to build their firms.
  • Educational Programs: Future research on the effectiveness of entrepreneurial education should improve by comparing several institutions (avoiding single institution studies), gaining a longitudinal over cross-sectional emphasis, drilling into the actual differences of course content and pedagogical styles (not all education is equal), as well as taking seriously variables related to the students (e.g., race, class, gender, previous entrepreneurial exposure). In addition, some evidence suggests that certain types of entrepreneurial education (e.g., a single course in business plan writing) actually can decrease the likelihood of the student attempting entrepreneurship. How do one or two courses, compared to a certificate, compared to a formal major or minor, and/or master’s degrees in entrepreneurship impact outcomes? Is it possible that undergraduates at the traditional age (18-22 years old) are not served well by an emphasis on the rigors of entrepreneurism, which detracts from their academics as well as more traditional internship experiences (nor appears to lead to high rates of sustainable venture creation)?

Data Sources


This post originally appeared on the Kauffman Foundation site and is republished here with permission. Daniel Davis of the University of California, San Diego; Daniel Colin Fehder of the University of Southern California, Marshall School of Business; and Sandy Yu of the University of California, Berkeley contributed to this article.

CLEAN ENERGY COUNCIL: Australian Clean Energy Summit

The 2017 Australian Clean Energy Summit will be held on 18-19 July at the Hilton Sydney.

The Summit is the peak gathering of leaders driving Australia’s energy transformation. The agenda includes two days of sessions where heads of industry, government and finance share the models, trends and technology innovations that they’re leveraging to drive renewable energy adoption, and overcome barriers in its deployment.