By Tatyana Hopkins
Having run her own catering and events company after a career in restaurant management and culinary arts, Dominque Tolbert, a graduate student pursing a global master's of business administration, is no stranger to entrepreneurship.
But when she decided to enter the “spice world,” launching Mesean Spices to sell the spice blends that flavored the African diaspora-inspired meals of her catering company, TLBRT Hospitality, she realized she was entering a “whole new ballgame.”
“There are so many more levels to selling a product than there are to offering a service,” Ms. Tolbert said. “I have to attack a business like Mesean Spices in a totally different way than I did with TLBRT Hospitality.”
Hoping to learn more about running a products-based business, she spent the summer as a member of the second cohort of the George Washington University Summer Startup Accelerator (GWSSA), a program run through the GW Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
Aimed at helping students launch their startup ideas, the intensive nine-week program typically offers its participants on-campus housing, a stipend, weekly workshops, mentors and additional specialized advisers to work full-time to launch their companies. However, due to restrictions on in-person meetings, the program persisted virtually this summer.
“There was a critical juncture in March when we had to decide whether to shut down our programming for the summer or to innovate and move things forward,” said Dave McCarthy, co-director of GWSSA. “We are the Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, so we innovated and took the entire experience online.”
Having had a successful summer, when GWSSA was able to support more teams than usual, Mr. McCarthy said OIE is now retrofitting its learnings from the summer program into its fall programming.
GWSSA’s online curriculum included assigned mentors, weekly workshops and lunches with successful entrepreneurs and the program’s culminating Showcase and Demo Day, where students pitch to a pool of actual investors and venture capitalists.
As a boot-strapping venture, one without outside investors, Ms. Tolbert was not seeking outside investment in Mesean Spices, but was rather looking to grow her understanding of scaling a business and network with experts on products-based businesses. However, through the program she said she was able to register her business, trademark her company’s name and brand and consult with lawyers as well as experts in content and digital strategy and distribution. All of it was done virtually.
“You could end up paying hundreds and thousands of dollars for those kinds of consulting services, and we got them for free in this program,” she said. “Although it wasn’t in person, which would’ve been my preference, there were still ways to connect and to engage.”
In addition to GWSSA going virtual, the 2020 New Venture Competition also took place virtually.
Now, OIE is implementing all its learned about best practices in its fall programs.
The office is beefing up its mentors-in-residence program so that every committed team will get a dedicated mentor with extensive entrepreneurship and business experience to guide, coach and connect students with needed business resources.
Students also will be connected with their peers while not on campus through virtual office hours hosted by student mentors as part of a new initiative, the Near Peer program.
“We were told by a lot of students that they miss student-to-student interaction, so we developed a program to connect students interested in innovation and entrepreneurship in a peer-to-peer format virtually,” said Scott Stein, associate director of student entrepreneurship programs.
OIE also is offering its lean startup introductory workshops monthly rather than quarterly and open them to all GW students, faculty and staff, even those without a specific startup idea in mind.
In addition, OIE is hosting a number of other virtual workshops and events to help students and faculty learn and network. Taking advantage of the online setting, OIE also will engage students with speakers and mentors from outside of the D.C. area.
“Basically, we’ve done a lot to take advantage of the different opportunities virtual learning enables so that the students and faculty continue to get world class support for their innovation and entrepreneurship,” said Jim Chung, GW’s associate vice president for research, innovation and entrepreneurship.
Robert Plante, a graduate student studying business administration and 2020 GWSSA participant, said he is excited to continue engaging with OIE’s virtual programming.
For him and his partner, Christian Helms, he said the online setting offered them more resources than “[they] could utilize” and the necessary flexibility to launch their company, Bladeswork, an online marketplace dedicated to custom cutlery.
“With Christian and I both being active duty Marine officers, our participation in this program would not have been possible in person,” Mr. Plante said. “The virtual environment was not only interactive, but facilitated stronger participation in some aspects. The SSA offered us the opportunity to refine our idea and make something real.”