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 


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




  • 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

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



CBI Mission

Promote diversity, inclusion, and business opportunities in the City’s contracting and procurement process for Minority Women Small Business Enterprises (MWSBEs) located in the Charlotte region.

Key Program Objectives

  • Process SBE Certifications and MWSBE Registrations
  • Establish Citywide MWSBE Prime Spend Goals
  • Establish Project Specific MWSBE Subcontracting Goals
  • Monitor CBI Policy and MWSBE Contract Compliance
  • Track Citywide MWSBE Spending and Publish Spend Reports
  • Conduct MWSBE Education and Outreach Initiatives
  • Support the City Council appointed CBI Advisory Committee (CBIAC)
  • Access to Capital/Financial Resources

Program Success

For a fourth straight year, the city surpassed its prior year spending with MWSBEs and Disadvantaged Business Enterprises (DBEs) for a new record of $110.4 million in FY18.

The powerhouse women coaching the next generation of Queen City entrepreneurs

Women are a vital force in Charlotte’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

They are starting companies and building businesses and growing successful careers. And now, thanks to the  Innovate Charlotte’s Venture Mentoring Service, they are giving back, becoming mentors to other entrepreneurs in the Queen City.

In honor of Women’s History Month, we spoke with the seven powerful, accomplished women mentors in the INCLT program about why they’ve decided to give their time and expertise to help others in the community. In the process, we learned they each bring a unique perspective and background, with a few common threads running between them: They are current and former entrepreneurs. They are corporate veterans and industry innovators. And they all understand the true value of the mentorship relationship — that it cuts both ways, providing as much wisdom, insight and perspective to the mentor as it does to the mentee.


They’ve been there, done that


Julie Bouhuys is a relatively new addition to the INCLT mentorship program, but she has deep experience as an entrepreneur. For 10 years, Bouhuys ran her own investment management company for institutional investors.

“I founded my own company, and I did it around my kitchen table. I had to figure it out as I went along, and it took longer than it would have if we’d known what we were doing,” she recalled.

That’s where a mentor could have filled a void in her business, she said.

“I could see how people would get discouraged. Let’s say someone has a great idea: They’re not in the business of launching a business, and so there’s a great possibility for those ideas to die on the vine or for those founders to run out of money, without help,” Bouhuys said.

Cindy Calhoun was that kind of entrepreneur: a food scientist by trade who decided to open a bakery and deli, with no background in business.

She became involved in the INCLT program because she knows the value of mentorship in pulling you through those challenges. She’s had many mentors throughout her career, but one in particular who was “invaluable” during her stint as an entrepreneur.  

“The most important qualities of a mentor are to listen, to lead and to give someone the feeling that they can go to you for guidance,” Calhoun said. “Really, I think it’s an invaluable experience for both parties. It helps me learn and be a better person, to be a better listener and to lead by example. And I always learn something from it myself.”

They’re down in the trenches, too.  


Diona Kidd is the managing partner of Knowmad Digital Marketing, an Internet marketing agency here in Charlotte, and an entrepreneur in the Queen City going back to 2002.

For the most part, Knowmad has grown and adapted by learning from experience, she explained. In fact, every clause in the company’s contract has a story behind it except one — the one added in on the advice of a particularly powerful mentor.

It was advice that stuck and saved her the heartache of having to learn yet another business lesson the hard way, she said.

“It’s like that old saying: Smart people learn from experience. Wise people learn from the experience of others,” she said.

A lot of times, entrepreneurs struggle to find those people to learn from, that's why the INCLT program is so valuable, Kidd said.

“It really creates a pathway for entrepreneurs to not have to do that extra work. Instead, they can create space for growth,” she said. 

Mic Alexander, founder of Image Wealth Management and business advisor for Mecklenberg County through the Carolina Small Business Development Fund, agreed: Had the INCLT program existed when she first started her family business 35 years ago, it could have been a game-changer. And she believes a core element of the program is ensuring that the mentors include entrepreneurs — those who have been there, done that.

“I really think it’s important to have more than just representation from corporate America. Those professionals are important, too, but you have to have someone in there who has been through the journey of entrepreneurism,” Alexander said. “Mentoring is hard. It’s time, and that’s the most valuable commodity. But I enjoy it, and there’s nothing better than when they show true, genuine appreciation for what you’ve helped them with.”

There’s also a lot to be learned on the mentor side, particularly as part of the INCLT Venture Mentoring Service, said Joanna Beck, founder and CEO of Beck Insights. Mentors are pulled together into teams to offer advice and information, and Beck said the insight she’s gained as a result of listening in on those conversations has been vital to her and her business.

“Anyone who has mentored understands that you’re bringing a lot of value, but you’re getting so much more out of it personally,” Beck said.

It’s also opening up opportunities throughout the Charlotte business community, she said.

“There so much here in Charlotte. I liken it to a rainforest: We have the tall trees that provide a huge canopy — Duke, Wells Fargo, Avid Xchange — but there’s a whole ecosystem underneath, at the ground level, that doesn’t have a lot of support. And there isn’t a lot of connection between the two.”


They’re good at navigating traditional systems — and disrupting them.


Judith Jeffries spent her career at Carolinas HealthCare System, a huge company where she held a number of different roles — the most important of which being “mentor.”

“Not only am I happy to do that, but I’m always happy to ask and find out where the resources are, where you can get help,” Jeffries said. 

That particular skill set has proven valuable as Jeffries has taken on a mentorship role through INCLT. She can provide insight into how entrepreneurs can tap into larger corporate relationships and grow their businesses within the framework of Charlotte’s heavy hitters.

“The politics can be almost heartbreaking, and trying to wade through who you need to talk with and how you need to talk with them can push you to your breaking point,” Jeffries said. “Somehow we have to help them navigate those roadblocks, and I’m happy to do that — because the roadblocks can be ridiculous.”

Lisa Tweardy is familiar with roadblocks. She’s the principal of Kemo Sabe, a consulting firm that helps health care companies embrace innovation and transformation, faster. She’s also the the VP of orthopaedics for UNYQ, a company using emerging technologies to reimagine orthopaedics.

She’s seen firsthand that the key to accomplishing big goals is having the right people in your corner. That’s part of why she was drawn to the INCLT mentorship program: It’s not about working on your business in isolation.

“The team mentoring and the structured approach to both the mentor role as well as the company role is helpful and connecting the right proposects with the right support — and also bringing people together. It’s always better than when you have one individual voice working on it,” she said.

Tweardy has seen a lot of disconnects in the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Charlotte. She joined the program to do her part in bringing people together to solve our common problems.

Olga Ryzhikova, professional services consultant at RMCSoft, feels that her company also helps to bring people together by supporting Innovate Charlotte’s monthly publications.

“I am proud that we helped create an additional spotlight for these amazing women mentors,” Ryzhikova said.


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.


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

Then and now: Inside the evolution of INCLT’s mentorship program

Fabio Ayala is an entrepreneur on track for growth in the Queen City.

Fabio Ayala, VizlaTech

The founder of VizlaTech, a tech startup building a platform that makes construction plans accessible to workers on site and in the field, recently won a $50,000 grant from NC IDEA — an influx of cash that will allow him to develop phase 2 of his product and grow the company faster than he has to date.

But Ayala is quick to point out he hasn’t gotten to this point all on his own. Earlier this year, he applied to take part in Innovate Charlotte’s Venture Mentoring Service, a mentorship program pioneered at MIT in Boston and now being put to work here in Charlotte. He was accepted and started having regular meetings with his group of mentors. During one of those meetings, someone suggested Ayala go for the NC Idea grant.

It wasn’t the only thing he’s gotten out of the mentorship program, but it’s a big one.

“Most founders don’t know what to ask for. They don’t know what help they need until they start discussing it,” Ayala said. “That’s why the biggest takeaway from the program is action; it’s someone other than yourself holding you accountable to make things happen.”

Innovate Charlotte (INCLT) launched the Venture Mentoring Service earlier this year as a pilot program. The organization assembled a team of mentors — all successful members of the local entrepreneurial community — and issued an open call for mentees.

The program operates under a group mentorship model, and each mentee was assigned two or three mentors. Then, those groups started meeting once a month, talking through the entrepreneurs’ businesses and dissecting problem areas.

T.J. Eberle

“We’re flexible enough that we’re meeting these founders where they are in the process,” said T.J. Eberle, a serial entrepreneur and investor and a mentor in the program. “We can help these founders get some outside perspective and encourage them that, while the road’s not easy, they can do it. We can also give them the ideas and tools to get there.”

Eberle has been involved in informal mentoring relationships for years. He knows the needs of the community. One of those was a more structured mentorship program that actively engages the entrepreneurial community in Charlotte.

“The Innovate Charlotte program fills a void in the Charlotte ecosystem,” Eberle said. “There’s nothing else that’s really meeting the founders where they are and trying to help them move forward.”

Caleb Musser, Musser&Co.

To that end, each company taking part in the program is moving forward — just in very different ways. For instance, Caleb Musser, founder of Musser & Co., which uses innovative custom gifts to help companies prospect for clients, decided to part ways with his previous financial support team soon after he started meeting with his mentors, who helped him realize his specific needs weren’t being met.

Musser is also getting help on how to become more well-rounded as a leader.        “I’m a marketing guy who has been running my company like a marketing company,” Musser said. “My mentors have really helped drive down on the nuts and bolts of trying to get more efficient, where we’re saving money and concentrating our resources. They do a really good job of helping me stay focused.”

For Anu Mantha, founder of Hourz, her participation in the program has kickstarted several promising impact investment conversations. Her company connects people in crisis or from underserved communities with job opportunities, and being a social good company, it was important to have the right set of mentors. Now that’s paying off, with conversations that could go a long way toward growing the company, she said.

Anu Mantha, Hourz

“The most important thing is, what you invest into it is what you’ll get back out of it. You have to invest in that relationship and be open to feedback and collaboration and partnering because a lot of good can come out of it,” Mantha said.

The same is true for the team behind Innovate Charlotte, who have been collecting feedback and iterating on the mentorship program since it launched earlier this year. The goal is not only to attract more companies looking for mentorship and more mentors looking to give back, but to ensure the experience is valuable across the board, said Keith Luedeman, interim executive director at INCLT.

Keith Luedeman

“We learned a lot during the pilot phase, and based on those learnings, we’re becoming more intentional about the types of companies we bring in. We also gained valuable experience matching companies with our mentor set. To fill gaps in experience, we’re being more intentional about recruiting mentors for company needs,” Luedeman said. “We want to make sure that the companies are getting what they need from mentoring, because in the end they are who we’re here to help grow and succeed.”



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