Leslie Vander Baan, Andrew Tucker and Dan Comisar

Why mentorship matters

Leslie Vander Baan, Andrew Tucker and Dan Comisar
Leslie Vander Baan, Andrew Tucker and Dan Comisar

Leslie Vander Baan has been there.

She’s built and exited two businesses. She’s bootstrapped and raised money. She’s struggled and succeeded. And she wants to put all the lessons she’s learned in the process to good use.

“When you’re starting out, you may not have a board or a group of strategic advisors, and yet you have questions. Where do you go to get those answered? What attracted me to the Innovate Charlotte (INCLT) mentorship program is that we are providing that resource for founders,” Vander Baan said. “I knew from my experience as a founder that having a group of strategic advisors was a need, and it was a need I was looking to solve.”

Vander Baan is an INCLT mentor, one of many local leaders who have chosen to give their time and expertise to entrepreneurs building businesses in the Queen City. They aren’t all entrepreneurs. Some are subject-matter experts in law or finance. Others have lengthy track records with large local organizations. But they all share a desire to support founders looking to build new businesses right here in Charlotte.

That pool of mentors has grown significantly since INCLT launched the Venture Mentoring Service more than a year ago — not just in number but in diversity, said Keith Luedeman, INCLT’s interim executive director.

“Over the past 18 months, we’ve created more structure for our mentors and offered more training, which has opened the door to many more leaders who may not realize the value they can provide to local founders,” Luedeman said. “We also want to let people know there’s no right time to get involved. We’re constantly interviewing new mentors and founders for the program, so if you’re thinking about it, don’t wait, reach out to learn how you fit in.”

Diversity and structure

Vander Baan joined the program at a time when she was looking to give back.

She spent time meeting with various founders and investors in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, but when she found out about the mentoring program through INCLT, she liked the infrastructure the program provided, as well as the diversity of people involved.

“It allows me to volunteer and make an impact in a meaningful way, with clear guidelines to ensure all benefit from the commitment.” Vander Baan explained. “You’ve got people from diverse backgrounds with depths of experience who can lend input, and they’re doing it because they recognize the value that it would have been to themselves and are interested in paying it forward.” 

Vander Baan has been working closely with Carol Waggener, the founder of Bold Missy Brewery, as part of the program. Together with a few other mentors, Vander Baan has been helping Waggener develop the business in a manner that would be attractive to investors. They’re also working on employee development, strategic partnerships, product expansion and sales enablement, so Waggener can continue building her business.

“I understand what she’s going through, and I care about seeing her succeed because not only is it good for her, it’s good for her employees, and it’s good for our community,” Vander Baan said. “The fulfillment I get from knowing I’m pinch-hitting for someone that needs it means a lot, because I’ve been in the trenches and this is the type of support I would have wanted to have.” 

Founder-centric

Dan Comisar spent more than 25 years working in HR roles with big financial companies, from AIG to Lehman Brothers, Wells Fargo Securities to Bank of America. About four years ago, Comisar decided to use that experience to give back, first as a mentor with Queen City Fintech and now as part of the INCLT Venture Mentoring Service.

“I got to the point in my career where I really got excited about helping younger companies grow and build their strategy,” Comisar said.

Much of that work has been focused on the fintech space, given his past experience in large financial institutions, but INCLT offered him the chance to diversify his impact.

“I think about INCLT as a component of the overall picture in our community, but an important one. It’s got a much broader charter than QC Fintech or CLT Joules. That’s attractive to a broader group of founders, which I think is good,” Comisar said. 

The program also allows him to focus on the founder above all else.

“That’s something different about INCLT: It’s totally founder-centric,” Comisar explained. “A lot of accelerator programs or incubators are mostly focused on growth. This is more of what I think about as pure mentorship. You’re really there to support the founders, and as long as they’re committed, they generally get a lot out of it.”

 Relationship building

Andrew Tucker is the founder of an independent consulting firm, AETucker Consulting, that provides outsourced CFO services to companies. His business revolves around helping companies manage their finances so they can grow, but typically, his work is limited to companies that are at least five years old. 

When he learned about INCLT’s Venture Mentoring Service, he saw in it the possibility to help companies at earlier stages — and to get exposed to a world of new ideas.

“As part of the program, I’m getting to see all these people with all these different ideas and getting to understand what’s really happening in Charlotte, other than the humongous companies out there,” Tucker said. “At the end of the day, they’re not the ones who create jobs. It’s the small to midsized, privately held companies that create jobs.” 

In its pilot year, INCLT only accepted a set number of mentors, so by the time Tucker applied, the program was at capacity. But he kept in touch with Jack Heil, one of the first INCLT mentors, who continued to tout the program, its impact and the relationships he had built as a result. He encouraged Tucker to get involved, so Tucker did.

Now, Tucker is working with Advent Coworking and Step In Sock, which makes hands-free shoe covers. At the same time, he’s strengthening his own network as he builds relationships with other mentors.

All it costs is a small commitment of time.

“It’s a great opportunity for people who are willing to share their knowledge, want to share their knowledge and can actually provide some good quality feedback to help them with whatever hurdles they may have,” Tucker said.

It’s all part of a broader effort to build Charlotte’s entrepreneurial ecosystem — and we are grateful to RMCSoft for sponsoring our communications and helping us tell the story of our impact to the community at large.

Interested in becoming an INCLT mentor? We are accepting applications now. Check this section for more information and to apply today. 

Are you a founder looking for mentorship? We can help. Click here for more information about how to get involved.  


Getting on board — How INCLT is preparing startups and seasoned leaders for mentorship success

The Innovate Charlotte (INCLT) Venture Mentoring Service looks very different today than it did just over a year ago, when the program officially launched in the Queen City.

For one, INCLT has welcomed a total of 19 companies looking for mentorship into the program (including 12 currently enrolled) and added more seasoned business veterans to its pool of more than 35 mentors. But the biggest changes have happened behind the scenes — the team worked on mission, vision, and values for the mentoring program, and documented the processes, specifically the on boarding component that forms the foundation of the program.

As with any startup, once you get your MVP out into the market, that’s when the real learning starts to happen.

Igor Gorlatov, VMS Operations Manager

“Over the course of the past year, we learned there was a lot more we could do to educate and support not just our mentors, but also the companies taking part in the program,” said Igor Gorlatov, VMS operations manager at INCLT.

The INCLT leadership team drilled it down to three core goals to improve the onboarding process and make the program more powerful for both mentors and companies.  

“We needed to improve transparency and ensure both companies and mentors understood the opportunities and challenges that would come with the program. We needed to get everyone focused around how to maximize the impact of the program and to understand that it was up to the founders to be accountable to themselves and to their mentoring team. And we needed to ensure all parties respected the process and were committed to showing up, taking notes, responding promptly, listening and doing what they said they were going to do,” Gorlatov explained.

To accomplish all of that, INCLT decided to start at the beginning.

The startup onboarding process

On the company side, the onboarding process begins when an application comes in from an
interested founder. INCLT conducts an initial screening to ensure the company hits certain
baseline requirements:

  • Coachable founder(s)
  • The founder is already working full-time on this venture, or is planning to go full-time in
    the near future.
  • Some paying or at least pilot customers
  • All founders are able to meet with mentors in person

From there, the INCLT intake committee meets with the prospective mentees.

“The intake committee is a group of mentors who talk with the prospective founders to make sure they’re coachable and that they understand what the program is about,” Gorlatov explained.

When the intake committee recommends a company move forward, that company participates in a two-hour onboarding session to go over the history of INCLT, the core principles of the Venture Mentoring Service and the overarching goal to create a program that benefits all parties involved.

“During that meeting, we’ll actually look into specific situations, such as what to do if you have a meeting scheduled with your mentors and then you get a call from a potential investor at the same time. What do we consider appropriate behavior in that instance?” Gorlatov said.

Then, the first three months of the program are considered another trial period, he added.

“The goal is to figure out if the founder is actually coachable: Are they willing to do the homework, commit to growing the business and learn together with mentors? Usually that’s decided within the first three meetings,” Gorlatov said. “In that time, we’re also able to find the right mix of mentors for the team and to ensure that the founder and the mentors are having a truly good experience with the program.”

Wendy Hickey, the founder and executive director of ArtPop Street Gallery, joined the program as a mentee earlier this year, after going through the revamped onboarding process.

“The process allows founders to be clear with the mentors about what they need most from them. At the same time, we as the founders learn how our responsibility to the project allows for a mutually beneficial relationship and commitment,” Hickey said.

The mentor onboarding process  

On the mentor side, the onboarding process begins when INCLT receives an application from an interested individual. If the candidate seems like a good fit, Gorlatov conducts an interview.

“I’m learning about their background and career and the lessons they’ve learned in life. But one of the biggest roadblocks is time commitment. Our expectation is that a mentor commits one year to the program and spends eight hours a month with us. It involves mentoring two ventures, attending a monthly mentoring session and doing some communications via email in between,” Gorlatov said. “It means that the mentor needs to be at the stage in their life when they have the time to commit to this program.”

If the mentor is a fit, he or she takes part in a two-hour onboarding session to go over principles of the program, which originated at MIT, as well as actual case studies that help define how these principles apply to real-life scenarios. Then, the mentors can select the companies they want to work with and start helping local founders build strong, thriving companies.

“We have over 35 mentors, and they are referring their friends because they’re enjoying the experience. They get to learn from each other. They get to be part of a community, and they get to provide guidance for the challenges that early-stage startups are facing,” Gorlatov said.

One of those mentors is Judith Jeffries, a former executive with Carolinas Healthcare System, who appreciates the value the onboarding process brings to the experience.

If there is a conscious effort to introduce the mentors to mission, vision and each other and subsequently the culture, trust is built,” Jeffries explained. “Leaders often want to be so helpful that they could defeat the purpose of mentoring. Keeping the mentors from enabling is essential for a successful mentoring program.”

And the more people learn about the benefits of what INCLT provides, the more people are aligning with the program. RMCSoft, for one, has signed on to sponsor INCLT’s monthly publications and help the organization continue spreading the word.

“We are proud to support an organization that is committed to consistently improving and growing its mentorship program overtime. It’s also exciting to be of assistance to mentees who need advanced software development talent and expertise,” said Olga Muller, Director of Business Development at RMCSoft.

INCLT is currently accepting applications for companies and mentors looking to take part in the Venture Mentoring Service.

Apply to get a team of mentors

Apply to become a mentor with INCLT

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Want to learn more about how to support INCLT? Contact Igor Gorlatov at igor@inclt.org.


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 igor@inclt.org.


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, goodmortgage.com. 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 GoodMortgage.com.  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.