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