Founder stories — Why Leaf Burrito is charging forward as the world is pushing pause

It’s been nearly three years since Innovate Charlotte launched with a mission to support the community of entrepreneurs in the Queen City, and here we are, in the midst of the most challenging crisis most of our founders have ever experienced. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented challenges for businesses of all sizes, and our mentors have been hard at work, conducting virtual sessions with all the founders in the INCLT mentorship program to help them find solutions to weather the storm. 

Now, we want to share some of their stories with you, the startups, founders and investors who are part of this community. Maybe you’ll learn about a new business worth watching. Perhaps there’s a way some of you can help. Maybe this could spark some powerful, albeit still virtual, connections. 

Whatever happens, we know there is value in giving our founders and startups a platform to showcase who they are and what they do. So over the next days and weeks, we’ll be doing just that. 

Kicking us off this week is Marc Mataya, of Leaf Burrito

Company: Leaf Burrito Reusable Yard Debris Bag 

Founder: Marc Mataya 

Year launched: 2016

Description: Leaf Burrito® is an innovative and eco-friendly reusable yard-debris bag, invented, designed and manufactured in the USA. Leaf Burrito makes collecting and transporting yard debris easier, quicker and safer, and its unique design opens completely flat then zips up like a sack. It is helping the green industry, landscapers and homeowners save time and money, as well as replace short-lived tarps and single-use plastic and paper bags.

What’s your biggest challenge right now? Setting up our new Burrito Factory and retail location at South Boulevard and Scaleybark Road.

What do you need the most help with? We sell our reusable yard debris bags nationally, and internationally, to landscapers, universities, facilities management companies, resorts and residential home owners. The landscaping and grounds businesses are all still in motion nationally, and our goal is to spread awareness of our reusable yard debris bags to replace plastic bags and tarps and continue our partnership with Keep America Beautiful and its national affiliates. Any relationships with commercial landscapers, grounds management companies, homeowners associations, townships and universities would be of great help to accelerate our pipeline of sales so that we can continue to hire more seamstresses, seamsters, screen printers and fulfillment employees right here in Charlotte.

Can you share with us some good news? We are opening our new Burrito Factory on South Boulevard and hope to expand the business to employ 250 to 1000 new employees over the next two years. We also reincorporated as Burrito Brands Incorporated in January and are releasing multiple new products, such as Gear Burrito, Boat Burrito, Beach Burrito and Tote Burritos. As COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on our economy, we are weathering the storm and moving forward with hiring new employees to start staffing our new factory. We believe that sustainability and reducing plastic will not be thwarted by the virus but, in fact, will ultimately bring even more awareness for us to stop using single-use imported plastic products and to focus on reusable and sustainable products.

Thank you to Kepler Team for sponsoring our storytelling efforts. For more information on the INCLT mentorship program, or any of our companies, click here to learn more.

Founder stories — Whystle

It’s been nearly three years since Innovate Charlotte launched with a mission to support the community of entrepreneurs in the Queen City, and here we are, in the midst of the most challenging crisis most of our founders have ever experienced. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented challenges for businesses of all sizes, and our mentors have been hard at work, conducting virtual sessions with all the founders in the INCLT mentorship program to help them find solutions to weather the storm. 

Now, we want to share some of their stories with you, the startups, founders and investors who are part of this community. Maybe you’ll learn about a new business worth watching. Perhaps there’s a way some of you can help. Maybe this could spark some powerful, albeit still virtual, connections. 

Whatever happens, we know there is value in giving our founders and startups a platform to showcase who they are and what they do. So over the past few weeks, we’ve been doing just that. 

Today, we’re catching up with Chris Wright of Whystle

Company: Whystle

Founder: Chris Wright

Year launched: 2019

Description: Whystle is a home cleaning service available at your fingertips. Homeowners can book disinfection and move-in cleanings through the company’s website. Whystle also offers special cleaning for Airbnb hosts, complete with dishwashing and fresh linens. Customers can book appointments through the Whystle app available through the App Store and Google Play. 


What’s your biggest challenge right now? 

“COVID-19 has had a significant impact on our business, unfortunately not for the positive. Logic persists that now, more than ever, that cleaning and disinfection services are paramount. But the fact remains, no one knows what to expect with this virus. During uncertain times, people are reasonably wary of introducing unknown variables into their life. Given this, Airbnb bookings have come to a halt, and some residential clients are deferring services until this blows over. Some clients have really stepped up for us and are paying our teams, even though they are cancelling the actual service. We are forever grateful for their generosity. 

“My No. 1 priority is doing whatever we can to continue to pay our people, who rely on us for income. After that, it's ensuring they have a job to return to once life gets back to normal. It is going to be a bumpy ride, but we'll continue to do whatever we can to make sure people remain financially secure and homes and businesses continue to remain healthy.

“To pivot, we are offering additional levels of disinfection services for individuals and essential businesses. More information can be found here and here.

“Additionally, we are offering a free bottle of medical grade disinfectant with each cleaning that is booked!”


What do you need the most help with? 

“Spreading the word about our disinfection services and connecting us with any essential businesses that can use our help. We are uniquely positioned with OSHA and CDC trained teams to provide disinfection that everyone needs right now. Anything helps right now!”


Can you share with us some good news? 

“With the slowing in business, we are taking time to rebuild our foundation and ensure we are bulletproof once this comes to an end. Additionally, we are here to help the community however we can, whether it's disinfecting the cars of ride sharers or sharing disinfection solution with businesses. Let us know how we can be of service.”

Thank you to Kepler Team for sponsoring our storytelling efforts. For more information on the INCLT mentorship program, or any of our companies, click here to learn more

Charlotte’s late-stage funding success stories — and how we can create more of them

There comes a point in the life of some startups when you need serious money to pursue next-level growth. You have an established business, a track record of success, revenue. Now you’re looking for exponential growth. While bootstrapping is always a valid option, there are some businesses who need an infusion of capital on a grand scale to get there. 

In the past two articles in this series, we’ve discussed the funding that happens in the earlier stages of startup life: the friends-and-family round and seed or angel funding. In this article, we’re talking about late-stage funding, and while its definition varies depending on who you talk to, generally speaking, it means you’re no longer looking for hundreds of thousands of dollars. You’re looking for millions.

Locally, we have a handful of examples of companies that have successfully raised late-stage funding. Late last year, for instance, Passport raised $65 million in Series D funding. MapAnything raised $42.5 million in Series C funding back in 2018, shortly before Salesforce announced it was buying the company. And after bootstrapping SignUpGenius to support more than 66 million visitors a year, co-founders Dan and Angel Rutledge and Michael Vadini sold a majority stake in their company to a private equity firm.

“We knew what we wanted to do, and we still had a vision for going forward, but we knew it was going to be better if we had advisers come in and also share the risk and that whole next step,” Angel Rutledge recalled. 

 The move worked: SignUpGenius has continued its strong organic growth, reaching more than 131 million unique users in 2019. At the same time, the private equity team has led the way on making strategic acquisitions and developing a strong B2B enterprise solution.  

That’s the power of late-stage funding. The problem can be finding it, particularly in Charlotte, where the options are more limited than in more established startup hubs like Silicon Valley, New York and Atlanta.

William Bissett, an angel investor and host of the Charlotte Angel Connection podcast, has interviewed many founders and investors in Charlotte since he launched the podcast. He said most founders and investors understand that Charlotte’s later-stage funding opportunities are limited, which means companies looking for that kind of investment are forced to look elsewhere.

“If you want to open a business and run it with all Charlotte money, that’s going to be a hard thing to do,” Bissett said. “You might have a great friends and family network here, and they might fund the business. But if you’re creating a startup and you’re expecting it to be fully funded within 485, there’s a poor chance.”

That doesn’t mean it’s impossible. 2U Laundry, for instance, closed a $2.5 million round of funding back in 2017 that was led, in part, by two partners at the Charlotte-based Pamlico Capital, which ranks second on the Charlotte Business Journal’s list of North Carolina’s largest venture capital and private equity firms. 2U Laundry recently announced another round of funding totaling $6 million.

But, as Charlotte’s startup scene continues to grow, the question becomes, how do we increase late-stage funding opportunities for Charlotte companies from Charlotte companies?

Rob Cummings, an angel investor and co-founder of DealCloud, said the answer lies in part in filling Charlotte’s startup pipeline, which right now is heavily weighted toward early-stage startups.

“There are a lot of very interesting companies that are very early on in Charlotte, and then there are a few others that have raised VC funding and are well on their way. But there aren’t a ton right in the middle,” Cummings said. “But it’s the cycle working, and as those early-stage companies grow, they will continue to move through the funnel.”

Greg Brown, administrator of the Charlotte Angel Fund, said the city’s startup community would also benefit from more research and development resources, to fill the area with the tech talent necessary to build what our startup founders want to create.

“If you gave me a magic wand and said, ‘Do something with it that you think will enhance the startup environment here in Charlotte,’ I’d be thinking about how can I increase R&D being done here in Charlotte — either corporately or academically — because what I want is more engineers in the system rather than more finance and MBA types.”

Charlotte has found success bringing more companies to the city. It kept LendingTree from moving its headquarters elsewhere, and while we may have lost out on Amazon, we won Honeywell, wooing its headquarters away from New Jersey. And Truist, the new bank formed by the merger of BB&T and SunTrust, will call Uptown Charlotte home, as well.

But those companies aren’t bringing more research and development to the city, Brown said. And as we’ve seen just a few hours up the road in Raleigh, where venture capital firms routinely invest in local tech startups, more tech talent and resources can make a profound impact on the success of founders and investors.

 “If R&D is a core element, why would founders and investors put themselves in an environment that was low on one of the raw materials that you need?” Brown said. 

Bringing more R&D to the city would take time. But, as Bissett explains, so will transforming the Charlotte from banking town to startup hub.

“It’s like creating family wealth. For most people, it does happen over time, and the first generation has it tougher than the second generation. And the second has it tougher than the third. Where we are in the startup cycle is in the first generation,” Bissett said. “In 10 years, the first generation is going to sit around and tell the second generation how easy life is for them.”

Until then, the community needs to continue throwing out ideas, trying and failing, and then sharing their wins and losses. INCLT is proud to play a role in that process, providing access to critical mentorship services and giving a voice to members of the community thanks to the generous support of software development agency RMCSoft.

If you’d like to do your part for local founders, you can sign up to serve as a mentor to a local founder. We are also accepting applications for founders in need of mentorship.

You can find more information here.

The HURT HUB @ Davidson

In 2014, Davidson College purchased industrial space in downtown Davidson, originally built as part of the Davidson Cotton Mill in 1920. Today, it is a beautiful 23,000 square foot, cutting-edge, LEED Gold-certified facility where campus and community collide to spark vibrant technology, innovation and entrepreneurship in the Lake Norman area.

Business leader and venture philanthropist Jay Hurt ’88 committed $5 million to support these innovation and entrepreneurship efforts. “At first blush, this project didn’t seem like Davidson at all,” said Hurt. “But I quickly realized there is a need for students to have this opportunity, and companies can benefit from the engagement of talented students in their work. There is unlimited potential when this is done well.”


The Van Deman Innovation Lab serves as the home for Davidson College’s innovation, entrepreneurship and emerging technology programs. Made possible with a $1 million gift from Ed Van Deman ’69, CEO of Financial Navigator, Inc., and his wife Dr. Nancie Fimbel, the Lab includes open collaboration space, a Virtual Reality lab, Startup Alley, The D-Space, and Analytics Factory.


Flywheel Coworking offers 15 private office suites and 36 open plan benching seats for local startups, entrepreneurs, and Davidson College students, faculty and alumni. The space has capacity for more than 100 seated members. Members of the coworking community enjoy all-inclusive amenities such as meeting rooms equipped with ideation and display technologies, phone rooms for focus and privacy, a print-copy workroom, and free coffee and beverages.


LaunchLKN, the region’s network to support startup growth, calls the Hurt Hub its home. Its offices are located within the coworking community and the organization regularly offers events and programs that educate the greater Charlotte community about emerging technologies that are impacting our world.



Ventureprise® is UNC Charlotte’s innovation and entrepreneurship center serving the campus and Charlotte region as a center of excellence for evidence based entrepreneurship. Ventureprise works to provide the resources and expertise for university and community based startups as they commercialize their innovations and scale their ventures.

Our core programs serving the UNC Charlotte students, faculty and staff include the NSF I-Corps Program49er Foundry student business incubator and the annual Charlotte Venture Challenge.

Ventureprise is UNC Charlotte’s innovation and entrepreneurship center serving not only the UNC Charlotte Campus, but the Charlotte region. As one of the 80 NSF I-Corps sites, recipient of a 2016 NC IDEA Ecosystem Grant and creator of the Charlotte Entrepreneur Growth Report; Ventureprise serves as a center of excellence for customer-centered innovation and entrepreneurship.

The entrepreneurial accelerator no one is talking about

And why that’s about to change

When you’re a member of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization, the first rule is, you can’t talk about the Entrepreneurs’ Organization.

The conversations that happen when the 100 members of the Charlotte EO chapter come together are confidential; the goal is to create a safe space for honest conversation and entrepreneurial support, free from sales pitches, competition and judgment.

There’s one downside to that rule: Because the organization, which has chapters around the world, is so good at not talking about what it does, it has stayed relatively quiet about its latest — and less confidential — community endeavors, the EO Accelerator.

The EO Accelerator is a training program that helps entrepreneurs and small business owners scale. To qualify, a business must make at least $250,000 in revenue. Then, over the course of three years, that business works with EO members and mentors to reach $1 million — the threshold for membership in EO.

 “One of our core values are go boldly, make a mark, have a thirst for learning, build trust and show respect” said Bryan Delaney, co-founder of Skookum and a longtime EO member. “As a board, we started to look at how we could create a program that would help other entrepreneurs in town. EO global had put together a curriculum. We’ve turned that into a unique experience for our participants, the coaches and the other people who get involved.”

Delaney joined EO eight years ago. A friend told him about it after a pickup basketball game, and, as an early-stage entrepreneur, he liked the idea of having a place to go for support. He’d looked into other local organizations designed to help small businesses, but this was something different. 

“It was a sacred space — somewhere you could talk about how you just lost a client or how someone just embezzled from you. That’s not something you’re going to share publicly,” Delaney explained.

But those are real situations entrepreneurs encounter, and without help, it can be hard to find a way out. In fact, that’s the story behind EO, Delaney explained. A group of entrepreneurs in the 1980s started getting together and talking business, and everything was always great — until one of them committed suicide.

“Things were not great for him, but the bravado of entrepreneurship wouldn’t let him get past telling everyone things were amazing. No one ever knew what was going on until it was too late,” Delaney said.

By nature of its revenue threshold, EO has always been limited in the number of entrepreneurs it can help. The EO Accelerator changes that, Delaney said.

To participate, entrepreneurs need to hit a lower revenue threshold of $250,000. They have to apply and go through an interview process. They also have to pay $2,500 a year for the three-year program.

“It’s challenging for a lot of folks to bite off on that,” Delaney said. “But for people who took this program seriously in the first year and committed to it and really wanted to scale, across the board they say spending $2,500 is a no-brainer. The value they’ve received from the program is exponentially more.”

Case in point: Jeni Bukolt, founder of Haven Creative, a marketing agency that creates comprehensive branding platforms for towns, counties, developments and community projects.

“Before EO Accelerator, I was too ‘busy’ working in my business to work on my business. That alone was a valuable lesson to learn. You have to step out of your business in order to grow,” Bukolt said.

Each quarter, she attends a full-day workshop that focuses on people, strategy, execution or cash. She also meets monthly with her accountability group — a group of 4 to 6 entrepreneurs led by an active EO member.

“The accountability groups pushed me beyond my comfort zone — in a good way — to see the value of my business and to set measurable goals, which resulted in over 40% of our growth this year,” Bukolt said.

Bukolt is one of 16 entrepreneurs in the accelerator now, and Delaney said the goal is to increase that number to 50 by this time next year. That means EO has to do the one thing it doesn’t like to do: talk about EO.

 “Now, it’s about spreading the word, building partnerships with other groups around town and trying to be visible where there will be entrepreneurs looking for help around scaling,” Delaney said. “We can learn a lot from working with each other to help the city and the community.”

One of those early partnerships was with INCLT. We provided financial support to help launch  the EO Accelerator and help create yet another option to support entrepreneurs in Charlotte. It’s part of our overarching effort to strengthen the Queen City’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. Local startup RMCSoft is helping us do that, as an avid INCLT supporter and sponsor of stories like this.

Want to learn more about how INCLT is supporting the Queen City’s entrepreneurs? Click here.

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For information on how you can support INCLT as a sponsor, contact Igor Gorlatov at [email protected]


Inside a growing movement to help black women entrepreneurs find success in the Queen City

Last month, a group of nearly 70 black female entrepreneurs (and a few men) gathered in the space occupied by Dupp & Swat at Camp North End. 

Photo provided by Davita Galloway

It was referred to as a town hall — an opportunity for black women in Charlotte’s startup community to come together and talk about the issues limiting their growth and what it would take to find success as an entrepreneur of color in the Queen City. 

The event, organized by Davita Galloway and Melody Gross, was in part a response to an article that ran in Queen City Nerve about a week before, under the headline “Charlotte’s leading black women entrepreneurs are leaving the city.”  

“The article was highlighting three women who chose to leave. What about those of us who are still here and who choose to remain present and fight?” Galloway said. “Our story is just as important, if not more important, because we’re still in the trenches.” 

It soon became clear the town hall was more than a one-time reaction. The conversation that night was passionate and intense. It dug into the issues facing black women entrepreneurs in Charlotte — issues related to access, resources, mentorship, affordable space, social capital, trauma — and explored solutions. The nonprofit Women’s Business Center of Charlotte talked about its free educational programs. A few financial advisors in the room offered to host complimentary workshops and classes. And by the end of the night, the hashtag for the evening, #bweinclt, had reached trending status. 

“That proves the point that there are women here who are still fighting, and we matter,” Galloway said. “We just need to figure out how we can pool resources and work together to win.” 

The diversity problem in Charlotte is well-documented: In 2017, for instance, BBC Research conducted a study on disparity for the City of Charlotte. It found that, on average, annual revenues for black-owned businesses total $60,000, compared to nearly $500,000 a year for white-owned businesses. 

So instead of focusing on the problems, Galloway wants more conversations about solutions. As a new ecosystem support organization, Innovate Charlotte wants to do the same. We are actively working with tech and non-tech entrepreneurs, for-profit and non-profit founders, and we are reaching into different communities to ensure our work is as diverse as the city we serve. As part of those efforts, we spoke with five black women living and working in Charlotte: Davita Galloway, Dr. Shante’ Williams, Jameka Whitten, Kelley Palmer and Melody Gross. We asked about their experiences as entrepreneurs, and about how we can foster greater diversity in the Queen City. Here’s what they had to say. 

Solution: Broaden our definition of viable, scalable and profitable businesses

Dr. Shante’ Williams is a venture capitalist in the thick of raising $50 million for two funds, one focused on social impact and the other centered on health care. She’s also the managing partner of RW Capital Partners, a venture capital and investment due diligence firm with investments across nine industries, from biotech and pharma to consumer technology. And she’s an advisor, to more than 42 small businesses and 75 entrepreneurs.

In short, her work is about looking for opportunity, and she knows Charlotte is actively missing out.

“In Charlotte, we have a very narrow definition of what entrepreneurship is,” Williams explained. “We are now at the stage where it would be very hard to recognize our next billion-dollar company because we are so focused on it being a fintech company or some socially connected XYZ that I think we miss complete sectors.” 

For example, the first black female millionaire was a woman named Madam C.J. Walker. She started her business in 1905. It was a line of hair products for African-American women called “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.”

“No one here would invest in that. We see a business like hair products as a side thing. But it takes investment in any concept to take it to the next level. If we continue with our narrow definitions, we’re going to miss a lot of potentially good things,” Williams said. 

Solution: Start saying ‘yes’ 

Davita Galloway is an artist, costume designer, writer, publisher and co-owner of the creative studio Dupp & Swat, which played host to the town hall back in June. She’s the co-founder of Spread, a quarterly digital and print magazine celebrating the culture of Charlotte, a Queen City native and a participant in Innovate Charlotte’s Venture Mentoring Service

A few years back, Galloway shared a story about survival at Creative Mornings. It was a story she had shared several times before, but this time was different. 

“I was able to tell my story in front of an audience that didn’t look like me. And so many opportunities have come from that,” she recalled. “Because that platform was given to me, because they said ‘yes’ to me, I was able to share and expand.” 

That’s why Galloway is an advocate for a seemingly simple solution: saying “yes” to people, regardless of what they look like. 

“I’m constantly fighting the idea of what a professional looks like. We have tattoos, and we’re colorful. We look differently these days, but what we look like has nothing to do with what we’re capable of doing,” Galloway said. 

Solution: Give everyone access 

Jameka Whitten is the CEO and principal publicist at JSW Media Group, a boutique public relations and brand management firm headquartered in Charlotte, with offices in New York, D.C. and Atlanta. She was born in Charlotte, left when her family moved to Richmond, Va., attended Northwestern University and then moved back to the Queen City in 2000 to start her career. 

Over the past 19 years, she’s watched the city’s business landscape change in different ways, but what hasn’t changed is access, she said. 

“Black women in particular, we’re not getting the access we need. The talent is here. The knowledge is here, but if you don’t have access to the appropriate resources and the people, then you’re not going to advance in a way that’s going to be meaningful and effective,” she said.

Access is a complex problem to solve, but one solution Whitten advocates is more mentorship, specifically for young black women in Charlotte. 

“Are we going into the high schools and targeting the young black women? Are you getting into coding? Are you getting into tech? Do a math camp. Learn a different language. Get ready to go abroad. There are so many teenagers I talk to who don’t even realize they can go abroad for school,” Whitten said. “That’s resources and education, and we have to build that foundation.” 

One woman in Charlotte is already doing that: Jania Massey, founder of Stiletto Boss University

“She goes into the community and finds little girls who look like us and brings professional women and people to them to show them about entrepreneurship. She’s doing at a micro scale what we should be doing all over the city,” Whitten said. 

Another path to greater access? Don’t wait for an invitation to meet people from outside your network. Be proactive; invite yourself, Whitten said. 

“People of color are well-versed on the majority. We speak two languages. We live two different lives, and we go in and out of both. There’s nothing stopping someone from finding out what’s important to our community, too,” Whitten said. “It would be great for both sides to be deliberate about diversity and not stop at it.” 

Solution: Embrace cooperative economics 

Kelley Palmer is a creator, curator, yogi, wellness advocate and writer and the founder of Peace Filled Mama, the platform through which she offers coaching, yoga and workshops primarily for women and mothers. She is the co-founder of the nonprofit Sanctuary in the City, which provides restorative yoga for those who have suffered race-based traumatic stress injuries. She too is a native Charlottean, and before embarking on her career in mindfulness and wellness, she owned a hair salon in the Queen City for eight years. 

For her, part of what makes a business sustainable and successful is cultivating community. She points to Davita Galloway as a prime example. 

“Davita holds this space for so many other people to sell their things, to have their workshops. That’s the first place I taught yoga because I wanted to teach a class that was $5, and I wanted to do it on a weekend. Davita charged me $20 to teach in her space. No other yoga studio would do that,” Palmer said. 

She calls it “cooperative economics”. 

“Because of this notion of just trying to survive, there’s this space of not sharing — because we think there’s not enough. Cooperative economics is the notion that I’m going to use whatever resources I have to make sure that you also have access to resources,” Palmer explained. “Everyone is starting to awaken. We just keep talking about it so hopefully more and more people will awaken.” 

Solution: Get comfortable being uncomfortable 

Melody Gross is the director of marketing and communications for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Carolinas. She also runs her own PR firm, The STACII Agency, helping nonprofits with community outreach and working with speakers and authors, and conducts workshops around balancing motherhood and entrepreneurship. A domestic violence survivor, she also does speaking engagements around town about her experience.

Gross moved to Charlotte from New York in 2011, and since then, she’s worked with a number of organizations on issues the city is facing. But more often than not, those conversations are missing a diversity of perspective. 

“If I feel like someone’s missing in the room, I’m going to say it in a way that, for some people, can be very uncomfortable. But I’m not going to speak a language to make someone else feel comfortable because the fact that they’re comfortable is the reason someone else isn’t in the room,” Gross said. “If that makes you uncomfortable, you need to figure out why because the language I speak is the language of passion, the language of love. It just may not look like what people are used to.” 

As a co-founder of the initial town hall at Dupp & Swat, Gross said the plan is to keep the conversation going and create a safe space for black female entrepreneurs to talk, learn and share resources. 

“We’ve been getting some great feedback, great support, and we don’t want to lose that momentum,” Gross said. “And we want to make sure we’re listening to the women and what they’re needs are, where we can meet them.” 

At Innovate Charlotte, we are committed to promoting greater diversity in Charlotte’s startup community. As part of that commitment, we want to encourage more conversations about solutions when we discuss problems. We want to encourage everyone to contribute, rather than waiting for someone else to solve it. And we want to find a way to bring the conversations around diversity out of the silos and into the mainstream. 


More and more companies want to be a part of those efforts. RMCSoft, for one, is excited to continue partnering with INCLT and supporting our efforts to spread the word about what’s happening in the Charlotte startup community now — and where we’re heading.  


INCLT is currently accepting applications for mentors looking to take part in the Venture Mentoring Service. Companies are encouraged to apply as well but you will be joining the waiting list.

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 [email protected].




  • Software solution, powered by B2Gnow, that streamlines and automates the city’s diversity data gathering, tracking, reporting, vendor management, and administrative processes.
  • Enhances the city’s communication with vendors and promotes transparency, accountability, and efficiency for tracking, monitoring, and reporting MWSBE and DBE subcontractor participation.
  • Went live April 1, 2019

Vendors are able to

  • Apply online for SBE certification and MBE registration
  • Search for diverse certified vendors and verify certification status in real time
  • Review payments received from the city and report subcontractor payments
  • Confirm subcontractor payments reported by primes to the city
  • Monitor contract compliance of MWSBE/DBE commitments

Program Success

A total of 75 MWSBE firms have been certified/registered utilizing inclusionCLT

The Programs, People And Platforms Behind Charlotte’s Entrepreneurial Growth

This spring, the Small Business Technology Development Center (SBTDC) at UNC Charlotte launched an initiative designed to serve those at the very beginning of the entrepreneurial process.

It’s called Business Launch, and it’s part of a statewide initiative intended to help people across the state turn their ideas into businesses, said Mike Barugel, the Business Launch specialist at the SBTDC.  

Mike Barugel, the Business Launch specialist at the SBTDC

“Traditionally, our organization helps a lot of people who are already in business, so now the requirements have shifted to put us more in the startup space and helping businesses launch,” Barugel explained. “Right now, the target market is anyone who might be thinking about starting a tech-oriented, scalable or innovative business of any kind.”

The core offering is a 4-week program called “Taking the Leap,” which is designed to provide prospective founders with a baseline understanding of what it takes to start a business. It culminates with a pitch competition in front of members of the Charlotte startup ecosystem. And the entire thing is free.

Business Launch is just the latest program for entrepreneurs in the Queen City — and another sign that the city’s startup scene is growing fast, said Keith Luedeman, executive director at Innovate CLT, itself a relatively new organization created to unite the disparate pieces of the Charlotte startup ecosystem and foster even more growth.  

“While metrics related to investment, job creation and valuation are certainly signs of success for any entrepreneurial community, so is the number of programs that pop up to serve that community. We wouldn’t need resources if we weren’t flooded with driven people trying to capitalize on innovative ideas,” Luedeman said.

Barugel was one of those people. He moved to Charlotte two and a half years ago and started a virtual assistant business out of Advent’s coworking space. Through Advent, Barugel also learned about INCLT and the organization’s Venture Mentoring Service, which he took part in for nine months. All of that helped him build connections, which led to his current role at SBTDC.

“I feel like it’s a really great fit, and I attribute attaining the role and the early success I’ve had to starting a business myself and being able to tap into so many resources, educational opportunities, trainings, workshops — not just through Advent but throughout the whole ecosystem in Charlotte,” Barugel said.

So, what exactly does Charlotte have to offer its entrepreneurs? Take a look at some of the many programs the Queen City has to offer:


INCLT’s Venture Mentoring Service is one option, modeled after a similar program at MIT and designed to pair founders who have gained some traction in their businesses with a team of mentors selected specifically for the needs of the startups and their founders. The service is free for entrepreneurs, but founders must apply and be accepted to take part.  

In addition, the local chapter of SCORE, the nation’s largest network of volunteer business mentors, can pair entrepreneurs with mentors from all kinds of industries and backgrounds, for free.

And the Small Business Center at Central Piedmont Community College offers no-cost business counseling services, in addition to free seminars, networking events and a business resource library.


No founder can succeed in a vacuum. You need a community to grow your business, to collect valuable insight and feedback, and to find investors and other resources. And Charlotte has a number of ways to build it.

Coworking is a big one, as Barugel described. There are now roughly two dozen coworking options in the Queen City, each offering their own events, services and opportunities to forge connections.

There are also organizations that provide programming and opportunities to network with other founders, investors and members of the community. BLKTECHCLT, for instance, is dedicated to developing black tech talent and entrepreneurs across Charlotte. Collective Hustle hosts panel discussions and other events focused on diversity in the startup community, particularly as it relates to women. BIG (Business Innovation & Growth) is a membership organization for high-profile entrepreneurs, creating safe space for meaningful, peer-to-peer exchanges. One Million Cups is a gathering that brings together entrepreneurs on the first Wednesday of every month to improve their companies, increase visibility and get feedback. F*ck Up Night at Advent allows entrepreneurs to share their startup mistakes, setbacks and failures in a friendly environment — and members of the community to learn from their mistakes. And a group called Finsiders comes together regularly to discuss the intersection of banking, design and technology.


There are also resources designed specifically to help founders improve, grow and get funding.

PitchBreakfast, for instance, is a free event that allows founders to pitch to investors for educational purposes only. There is no money at stake; it’s purely an opportunity to collect feedback and make a startup pitch stronger.

Accelerator and incubator programs such as the ones offered by Queen City Fintech, Carolina Fintech Hub, the Joules Accelerator and City Startup Labs offer training, mentorship and overall startup development for founders from different backgrounds and industries.

And university-based programs such as the SBTDC’s Business Launch program and Ventureprise, which provides resources to help startups commercialize their innovations and scale their ventures, offer platforms for free or low-cost education — critical in the development of a business.


The goal for many startups is to seek funding, and the opportunities to do that within the Charlotte community are growing.

There are networks of angel and venture investors, such as Charlotte Angel Fund and VentureSouth. But there are also other avenues entrepreneurs can explore: NC IDEA, for instance, is a private foundation that provides grants and other programs for eligible startups. Charlotte Venture Challenge gives UNC Charlotte students a chance to compete for startup funding. And the Carolina Small Business Development Fund provides loans to help entrepreneurs start or grow their businesses. There are also active venture capital organizations such as CVF Ventures, Task Force Capital and Idea Fund Partners.

For Barugel, all of that is a sign that Charlotte is headed in the right direction when it comes to entrepreneurship.

“There’s a real grassroots feel to the startup scene here. In some ways, it still feels a little disjointed, and in other ways, it’s starting to come together,” he said. “There are meetup groups happening everywhere. The coworking spaces are doing a great job giving folks a platform. Sometimes I forget that we’re lucky.”

Startups play a role in that growth, too, particularly in supporting the community as a whole. RMCSoft, for one, has pledged its support to help INCLT spread the word about what’s new in Charlotte’s entrepreneurial community. If you’re a startup who would like to give back to the community at large, let us know. We’ve got ideas for how everyone can get involved.


For more on the startup resources available in the Queen City, check out the StartCharlotte guide here.

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

Want to learn more about how to support INCLT? Contact Igor Gorlatov at [email protected].

The transformation of Keith Luedeman: from entrepreneur to entrepreneurial leader

A lot has changed for Keith Luedeman since he sold his startup,, back in 2016 and stepped away from the day-to-day.

Contrary to what you might think about life post-startup, he wakes up earlier these days than he did when he was running his company. Some mornings, his first meeting kicks off at 7:30 a.m. Perhaps less surprising, he’s picked up the pace on exercise, opting to bike to as many meetings as possible, weather and attire expectations permitting.


His work is considerably different, too. He became the interim executive director of Innovate Charlotte (INCLT) in August of last year and plunged headlong into the long, hard and gratifying work of strengthening the Queen City’s startup ecosystem. He has tacked on to that a slew of other commitments as investor, mentor, advisor and connector. As a result, the number of hours he works in a given week hasn’t changed all that much, but the purpose of his work, the timeline and the goals have shifted dramatically.

“When you’re running a business, you become very focused on results: today, this week, this month, this quarter and this year,” Luedeman explained. “The problems I’m working on now are more long-term problems. There are areas where we can make an impact in a year, but the problems aren’t going to be fixed in a year. So you have to think about how you can keep the flywheel turning a bit faster each day, and we’ve got to start now to make that impact.”

When Luedeman first exited his company, other entrepreneurs who had gone through the process cautioned him against overcommitting. And on the surface, it seems as though Luedeman hasn’t heeded their advice.

These days, an average month for Luedeman in divided between the following:

  • He’s the chair of the Entrepreneurial Leadership Circle at Queens University’s McColl School of Business, which encourages entrepreneurial ventures of all sizes to stimulate economic growth.
  • He’s a venture partner with the Carolina Fintech Venture Fund, where he invests in and mentors companies.
  • He’s one of the Charlotte operating partners with IDEA Fund Partners, a seed and early-stage venture capital firm.
  • He recently joined the board of Venture For America, a fellowship program for recent college graduates who want to become startup leaders and entrepreneurs.
  • He has invested privately in a handful of companies.
  • He takes meetings with local startups several times a week, to offer advice and mentorship as needed.
  • He holds office hours once a month at Packard Place for anyone who wants to meet and pick his brain.
  • He’s actively recruiting mentors and startups to take part in the INCLT Venture Mentoring Service, a mentorship program that gives founders access to teams of successful business and startup leaders as they grow their companies.
  • And he’s actively building partnerships with other ecosystem builders across the state.

Some weeks, that comes to 30 hours of work. Others, it’s more like 60. But he keeps going, keeps working, for one simple reason.

“It’s still an awful lot of fun,” he said. “It’s using different mind muscles than I was using when I ran my company. I’m working with a nonprofit, which I haven’t done before. I’m working with the city, which I haven’t done before. I barely see any days that have any resemblance to the other. And if I can make a positive impact, then it’s good for the ecosystem and I’m enjoying it.”

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. The same problems have plagued Charlotte’s startup scene for years, and transforming an entire community is an art, not a science.

“When it comes to ecosystems and all the partners, it is strictly influence. You can’t order something to change. All you can do is enable it and nurture it and help it. And developing those skills is probably making me a better leader at the end of the day,” Luedeman said.

But he can see changes taking shape that are good for the community as a whole — something as simple as the sheer number of events geared toward startups.


“I remember years ago, you’d be lucky if you had two startup-focused events in a month. Now you have two or three in a night,” Luedeman said.

There are more concrete improvements, too. For instance, Luedeman recently shared with the city’s Economic Development Committee the number of jobs startups in the Charlotte region have created in recent years. Back in 2014, local startups were responsible for 10,803 net new jobs. Last year, that number was 13,134.

INCLT, as an organization, is working to drive those numbers up. But again, it involves playing a long game, not a short one, he said.

“INCLT probably won’t be a big driver of job growth in the next year, but over the next two or three years, we will be,” he said.

Whether or not Luedeman will still be at the helm of the organization at that point remains to be seen.

“I haven’t set an agenda,” he explained. “At some point, I’m hoping to get the organization up to the point where it’s funded, and we can hire a full-time person, and I can still remain active and volunteer and be on the board. Here we are, a year in, and we’re not there. And that’s OK.”

It’s taken some getting used to, but these days, Luedeman really is OK with progress taking time.

“I’m still as driven. I’m just learning how to drive in a different way,” he said.

This article was made possible thanks to support of RMCSoft. It’s a local custom software and hardware company that does not invest heavily in sophisticated branding or fancy offices. What they are passionate about is hiring the best PHP, .NET, and JavaScript developers they can get to solve customers’ problems.

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.

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Want to learn more about how to support INCLT? Contact Igor Gorlatov at [email protected]