By Nick Erickson
D.C.-based entrepreneur Sheryl Ponds wanted to change the electric vehicle game, targeting commercial businesses to make charging stations more equitable in urban areas. But then the game changed on her, as COVID-19 struck and kept commuter parking garages empty as people transitioned to working from home.
She quickly targeted residential areas for DaiTechCorp, her startup company that makes tailor-made, turnkey installations of electric vehicle charging stations.
Ponds, who founded DaiTechCorp in 2018, was accepted last year to the pilot program of the Entrepreneur Development Network of D.C. (EDNDC), a collaboration between George Washington University’s Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (OIE) and faculty at Howard University. Thanks to the business mentoring and strategic assistance she received from the program’s industry experts, Ponds was able to identify unmet needs and found a market solution that has attracted the attention of investors and accelerators.
“(EDNDC) simplified how to get the right questions out and get an answer that would inform you how to build your business,” Ponds said.
Wells Fargo, which provided an initial $75,000 grant to EDNDC at its January 2021 launch, pledged an additional $200,000 gift to EDNDC so the program can continue to help current and aspiring entrepreneurs in the region.
“The Wells Fargo gift means that we can continue to grow the program, while impacting a larger pool of entrepreneurs,” said EDNDC Program Manager Qyana M. Stewart. “We learned that there is a real need. Now that we have additional funding, we can continue to meet the need.”
EDNDC is a partnership between GW and Howard that serves the broader D.C. startup ecosystem. While open to all, this program provides an opportunity to further bolster entrepreneurial teams and small business owners from diverse backgrounds—including local founders of color, women entrepreneurs, minority business owners and LBGTQIA+ community entrepreneurs. Ponds’ DaiTechCorp is the region’s first and only company founded by a Black female focused on solutions that make EV charging accessible to all drivers.
“The Wells Fargo Foundation, through our D.C.-focused Where We Live® program, is proud to support the Entrepreneur Development Network, a partnership between George Washington University and Howard University,” said Monica Mitchell, Wells Fargo vice president of Social Impact and Sustainability. “Small businesses play an important role in the D.C. economy, and it is a benefit to provide every tool needed to help expand the ecosystem to help them succeed. Diverse business owners are innovating across industries, and Ms. Ponds’ success is an example of what is possible when all communities have access to the resources for their small businesses to grow and thrive.”
EDNDC includes training programs at no cost and mentoring services provided by local mentors, and I-Corps instructors and offers anyone an opportunity to attend an Introduction to Lean Innovation Workshop (ILI). From there, teams interested in the intensive program complete an application, and based on the stage of team development and maturity of business models, a select set of entrepreneurs are invited to a three-week, intensive customer discovery “bootcamp.”
The initial grant during the pilot run showed team members that there was indeed a need for this type of inclusive program. Stewart said EDNDC filled a gap for the community that didn’t have access to programming tied specifically to academic institutions such as the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) I-Corps programming. What makes EDNDC different is that it takes university resources and disseminates them out to the larger D.C. community.
“The gap we saw was that oftentimes, programming leaves out a subset of the entrepreneur community,” Stewart said. “What's amazing about EDNDC is the partnership between these two awesome universities, and our ability to offer support to the D.C. entrepreneurial communities that may not directly be connected to these institutions and their program offerings.”
EDNDC’s approach is to build a network and entrepreneurial ecosystem allowing for growth among D.C. area entrepreneurs, and the Wells Fargo grant will enable EDNDC to expand that. Ponds said the involvement in the program not only paid dividends in terms of strategic assistance, but also in networking and recognition.
“The program offers you another layer of credibility,” said Ponds, who Qmerit and Volvo Cars chose to provide home charger installations for Volvo's new electric vehicle owners in the D.C. metropolitan area.
Stewart hopes Ponds’ success story will be one of many for program participants. Stewart is pleased to point out that EDNDC is seeing growth in participants completing the program and increase in applicants interested in the program. She believes as funding support for the program increases, the ability to welcome more diverse entrepreneurs into the program will continue to increase.