Meet the new class of startups looking to take advantage of INCLT’s post-pilot mentorship program

Wendy Hickey, the founder of ArtPop Street Gallery, is at a pivot point in her journey of building a sustainable organization.

Kevin Giriunas, the founder of Advent Coworking, wants to find the “secret sauce” that fuels his business.

Marc Mataya, the founder of Leaf Burrito, is looking to build a manufacturing facility and create anywhere from 250 to 1,000 jobs.

They’re all facing different challenges, but they all came to the same conclusion: They need help to get where they want to go.

That’s why all three founders applied to take part in the new class of Innovate Charlotte’s Venture Mentoring Service. The program is modeled after the mentorship program used at MIT in Boston. Innovate Charlotte (INCLT) brought it to the Queen City last year to give local startups the opportunity to harness the power and expertise of seasoned mentors as they build thriving, sustainable and profitable businesses. NC IDEA lent its support to the program in the form of a grant in November of last year.

The Venture Mentoring Services launched in a pilot stage, pairing 10 startups at a variety of stages with teams of two to five mentors. As the year progressed, INCLT leaders began to study the program’s processes, its people and its impact.

As with any startup, the goal was iteration, right from the start, said Keith Luedeman, executive director of INCLT.

INCLT had a playbook from MIT to start with, but it quickly became clear that the implementation would require a fair amount of customization to suit the needs of Queen City startups. Expectations needed to be set among the companies receiving mentorship; this was about getting better and stronger as an entrepreneur, not just about making connections. The selection process for startups needed to be more intentional, with diversity a core factor to consider. And the program needed to work more diligently to assign startups to mentors based on their specific needs, Luedeman said.

“We tried a lot of different things during the pilot, as we should have. We learned a lot about what we’re looking for in companies and mentors, and we are continuing to refine the teams so we’re getting folks value sooner than we were during the pilot,” Luedeman said. “Now we have companies in a lot of industries, at all different stages.  It’s a very exciting and passionate group.”

In addition to ArtPop, Advent and Leaf Burrito, the new class includes:

  • Invoira, an invoicing software company;
  • Maze Services, a platform that connects clients with mobile hair and nail specialists;
  • Step In Sock, a company that manufactures a reusable shoe cover;
  • Genubot, a machine-learning platform for students taking calculus;
  • SPREAD, an online platform and magazine for creatives;
  • Dineamic Smart Signage, which offers marketing technology solutions for restaurant and retail brands.

And while they all had different reasons for wanting to take part in the INCLT Venture Mentoring Service, they share a common understanding of the value that a team of unbiased advisors can provide.

“Mentorship is a knowledge springboard to help you grow faster and more efficiently,” said Giriunas, of Advent.

“Receiving guidance from others will contribute to our success and push us to challenge our current way of thinking,” said Samonica Ngo, of MAZE.

“The venture mentoring program at INCLT is the perfect opportunity for us to leverage the collective knowledge and experience of Charlotte’s best and brightest during this stage of our company’s growth,” said Jake Corday, of Dineamic Smarter Signage.

The new class of companies represents a range of industries and stages, while its founders represent different genders and ethnicities. Of the 16 founders who are part of the program, nine are either women or minority male founders. And that is by design, Luedeman said. “We want the next generation of successful entrepreneurs to be more representative of the overall population of Charlotte, so diversity will remain a core focus,” he said.

The evolution of the mentorship program is symbolic of the evolution of INCLT as a whole. The past year Logo of RMCSofthas been about testing and iteration so that the organization builds a resource the city’s startup community needs now. And startups have started to take note and lend their support: Local software development firm RMCSoft, for instance, recently agreed to support INCLT’s newsletter.

“It all comes down to product/market fit,” Luedeman said. “We know there’s a need for support in Charlotte’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. The question is, what are the best ways our organization can help? We’re learning more and more every day, and the plan is to continue doing just that.”

INCLT is currently accepting applications from companies and mentors looking to take part in the Venture Mentoring Service (Interested companies should be beyond the idea stage, with some traction or validation and preferably at least one full-time employee.)

Apply to get a team of mentors

Apply to become a mentor with INCLT

Want to learn more about how to support INCLT? Contact Igor Gorlatov at

A conversation with Keith Luedeman

Changes at Innovate Charlotte were formally announced last week, including Walt Frye stepping down to pursue other interests and passions around entrepreneurship. Keith Luedeman, a local entrepreneur and contributor to StartCharlotte, has agreed to volunteer as the interim leader of Innovate Charlotte as the organization evolves during this next stage. We caught up with Keith for a short interview to provide some answers about the transition at Innovate Charlotte and the path forward.

Keith, why did you decide to become the interim lead at Innovate Charlotte?

Because I believe in the mission: supporting the Charlotte entrepreneurial ecosystem. I’m at a unique time in my life where I have time to contribute as a volunteer, and this is one of my passions. This role at Innovate Charlotte/CRFE seemed like a natural fit, and there was a need.

Over the past year, the groundwork has been laid by inClt with the MIT VMS Mentoring program launch, the EO Accelerator founding, revamp of the website and pilot fundraising project with StartCharlotte. With Walt Frye moving on, I agreed to step in to make sure that the organization would be able to bridge from this first phase of its existence to its next phase with renewed city support. There is a lot more to do, and I thought it made sense to continue and evolve this organization as opposed to a de novo new organization at some undefined point in the future. Charlotte has a lot of raw materials to continue our growth as a great city in which to start a business.

Can you share with us how you and other stakeholders reached this decision?

I’ve had a long history with CRFE, the precursor organization to Innovate Charlotte. I was an original member of the board when it formed back in 2012. I was on the board until 2015, when I rolled off because of some other obligations associated with the sale of my startup, I rolled back onto the board a couple of months ago as I saw the potential of what inClt could help accomplish.

As we were looking at a new direction for the organization, we felt having more entrepreneurs involved would benefit the cause. We looked around for who could step up in this interim role and who had familiarity with this position, and because most entrepreneurs are heads down in their business, that made it a pretty short list. Since I was free after a recent exit, I had the time, the passion, ability to volunteer and the familiarity with the organization.

What is going to change about Innovate Charlotte and its mission with you stepping in?

The good news I have is that we now have the city’s support for the next three years in the form of seed funding. We are going to continue building out the MIT Venture Mentorship Program and the EO Accelerator. We are looking at including other pillars and initiatives under inClt, but we’re not quite ready to announce those yet.

At the same time, Innovate Charlotte is currently in transition, so the mission and the vision for this organization are going to be refined in the next couple of months based on input from all relevant stakeholders in the community. The more we can involve entrepreneurs and entrepreneur support organizations in the leadership of the ecosystem, the better for all. We expect disagreements and lively conversation, but the key is, we will have conversations. Communication is key and has been noted as an area where we all can get better.

As I mentioned, we have an organization that is seed-funded by the city. On the other hand, we also need to provide a relevant value proposition to corporate and individual donors who want to support the startup ecosystem financially. What I would like to see happen is for Innovate Charlotte to have funds to advance its mission, and also to have an advisory board of entrepreneurs who are going to help decide on the best way to distribute these funds in a transparent way. That’s good for the city and its growth.

What are the major challenges you see yourself facing in the near future?

Nurturing an ecosystem is challenging. And it’s nurturing; it’s not anything you can order up and control. If you look at other cities and what they’ve done, the models are mostly different: They depend on the players and the funding sources. And it is up to all of us to find out what’s going to work for Charlotte. It’s a special place with special people, and we need to play to those strengths.

During the last six months of meeting a ton of players in the ecosystem, I’ve heard some common complaints. A lot of groups are heads down doing great things, and perhaps not aware of what other players are doing. That leads folks to think we are fragmented and uncoordinated, when in fact we’re just lacking some communication. There is a fair number of bridges that need to be built. Given the amount of healthy skepticism in the startup community, this is probably the biggest short-term challenge. Unless we show better coordination to donors, raising funds will continue to remain an issue in the foreseeable future. They are not necessarily used to the chaos that is a startup, and we need to show what we can accomplish in their terms if we want their support.

What gets you excited about the future?

I’ve spent the last six months meeting a lot of players in the startup space in Charlotte. I am very enthused about the possibilities of what’s going on. It is so much better than it was three years ago. It’s tremendously better than it was 10 years ago. I want to build on that.

I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy, and it will be hard to convince me that we can’t win in this race.

There has been a lot of great news: Time magazine and Yelp recently named Charlotte the top up-and-coming city. Our percentage growth with tech talent has been absolutely enormous. Does it mean we are perfect or great? Not yet; there is still a lot of work to be done. We need to be a city where you have the resources and support to become a startup, with nurturing across all the steps along the way all the way through exit — and then re-engaging as an investor and mentor.

When startups grow, you create jobs. And to keep growing the city’s economic base, we need these high-paying jobs to keep the new folks moving to town each day here, and to create mobility opportunities for all Charlotte citizens.

There are a ton of groups out there who are doing a fantastic job, and our job is to absolutely support them.

What help and resources do you need to accomplish this?

I need communication and an opportunity to hear the needs of the folks doing the day-to-day work. From the top, I am reaching out to mentorship programs in other cities to learn best practices. I’m reaching out to state organizations that support entrepreneurship. I am having meetings with people who are potential sources of funds to support the mission. The willingness to have a conversation is going to be important. We need to create more opportunities for people to invest in startups here, and then create wealth.

The studies and research inClt has done so far got us to where we are today: The city decided to fund us. Now we need to bring it to the next level in terms of better understanding of what various ecosystem players are doing, planning to do, how they collaborate and what would it take for them to get to the next level. Because we want to help, we are going to be asking a lot of questions.

Charlotte has had a great tradition of being an entrepreneurial city. Consider the Belks, the Levines with the Family Dollar, Hugh McColl with NationsBank, Ed Crutchfield with First Union and so on. Today we have success stories with AvidExchange, LendingTree, Peak10/Flexential and Red Ventures (and more). Some people look at these companies and say, “they aren’t startups; they’re too big.” We should never forget that, at some point in time, they were startups, and Charlotte nurtured and supported them. This is what we need to do for the next generation of entrepreneurs. After all, don’t we want more big company success stories, too?

If we are successful and able to channel funds to organizations to amplify the great work they are already doing, we can help the ecosystem as a whole.

It takes a village, and I think we have some very cool folks working in our village of Charlotte.

Change of Direction and Leadership

Since 2012, The Charlotte Regional Fund for Entrepreneurism (CRFE) has worked with the City of Charlotte, Charlotte Chamber and its entrepreneur community to progress building the local entrepreneurial ecosystem.  From ecosystem research, supporting local partners and events, and bringing programs like the MIT Venture Mentoring service to our community, CRFE’s accomplishments would not have been possible without the active engagement of the Charlotte entrepreneurship community.

Over the next 12 months, CRFE will evolve into InCLT Labs. InCLT Labs will be applying entrepreneurial principles, collaborating with the City of Charlotte and community entrepreneurs, and executing with entrepreneurial spirit across several defined program areas such as minority and women small business capacity-building, smart cities innovation, entrepreneur mentoring, and ecosystem support through grant-making.

As part of this new direction, Keith Luedeman will serve as the interim Executive Director of InCLT Labs.

Keith is a successful entrepreneur and recently exited from his company  He has agreed to do the interim roll in a volunteer capacity.  Please join us in thanking the previous Executive Director Walt Frye for his service to CRFE and welcoming Keith into this new role.

We are excited about inCLT Labs and will be sending out more information in the upcoming months.