Conversation with Innovate Charlotte’s New Executive Director

Back in November, Innovate Charlotte got a new executive director. You’re just hearing from him now because, for the past four months, Juan Garzón has been hard at work. 

In a non-pandemic world, he would likely have been running from one coffee meeting to the next, adding in a few lunches, drinks and events throughout the week. In our current reality, he’s spent a lot of time on the phone and Zoom, asking local founders, leaders, and investors what works well at Innovate Charlotte — an organization founded to serve entrepreneurs and the entrepreneurial community in the Queen City — and what more there is to be done. 

It’s the kind of work that has driven Garzón for years. He is the founder of the consulting firm The Garzón Company, and he has long begun client engagements with a needs assessment. The process is designed to understand the most pressing issues a company is facing so that Garzón can get to work on a solution. Now he’s doing the same at Innovate Charlotte: For the past few months, he’s been asking members of the entrepreneurial community what they need, and how Innovate Charlotte can help. 

“We are in the process of finding opportunities and gaps and trying to turn the ship slowly in a direction that better serves our community,” Garzón said in a phone interview from his home, where he also serves as headmaster, lunch chef, and truant officer for his four children as they navigate the new homeschool normal. “The next step is to incorporate some of these changes and updates, and then we’ll start rolling out new programming and initiatives that I think will be very exciting for the community.” 


A resume rich in ecosystem experience

Garzón’s involvement in Charlotte’s entrepreneurial community extends well beyond his role as founder of his own company. He is also the executive director of PitchBreakfast, a nonprofit organization that gives founders an opportunity to practice pitching their startups before an audience of investors and community leaders. He is also the founder of StartCharlotte, the predecessor publication to Charlotte Inno. When Charlotte Inno’s parent company acquired StartCharlotte, Garzón became general manager for Charlotte Inno and head of ecosystem development for Inno publications across the country. 

He’s also no stranger to the work of Innovate Charlotte, particularly its signature program, the Venture Mentoring Service. He joined the cohort of leaders who traveled to MIT back in 2018 to learn the VMS methodology, and he’s been involved in various other ways throughout the history of the organization. 

All that history and all that potential are coming together at the perfect time for Garzón and for Innovate Charlotte. 

“Founders need a lot of support these days, with everything going on in the world, and it’s not just the usual connections to potential clients and investors and access to resources,” Garzón said. “It’s the emotional support of having someone who will listen to them. That could be connecting them to other founders or just listening to the challenges they’re having.” 

It could also involve creating programs built around their most pressing needs, which is the inspiration behind the first three initiatives Garzón is planning for Innovate Charlotte. 


A plan designed for ecosystem transformation

The first is an initiative he created back when he ran StartCharlotte. It’s called Intro to the Startup Community, and it will offer entrepreneurs and those interested in taking the plunge with a crash course in what Charlotte has to offer startups and their founders, from accelerator programs and coworking spaces to investment and networking opportunities. 

The second initiative is to create a formalized navigator program, which would give entrepreneurs access to Garzón and other ecosystem leaders for 30-minute meetings designed to understand their needs and introduce them to the right resources within the community. 

“It’s the kind of thing I’ve been doing over coffee meetings for years. Now, I want to formalize it and get more people involved,” Garzón said. 

Other focus areas will include expanding the current office hours program, offering new educational opportunities to founders, and engaging corporate and other partners in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. 


A goal centered on maximum impact 

Just a few months into his role, Garzón has already come to understand the potential impact of that work. 

“I spoke with one founder recently who expressed lots of stress and concern because of everything going on in the world and in the community, and just in that conversation, I realized how a few pieces of advice and connections to other people made a big difference to her,” Garzón said. “Those are the conversations I’ve always enjoyed throughout my career.” 

And there is much more of that to come. Garzón hints at several recent conversations with ecosystem partners that could yield exciting new opportunities for local founders, in addition to what he has planned specifically for Innovate Charlotte. At the same time, the mentorship program will continue to be a powerful resource for the community. 

“If you’re a founder, check us out. Apply to be part of our mentorship program on the Innovate Charlotte website, and sign up for our emails. If you’re an ecosystem support organization, let’s talk about how we can work together for the community,” Garzón said. “The need for connection, resources, help, and advice is higher now than it has been in a long time, which makes an organization like Innovate Charlotte that much more important.”

Kepler Team, a local software development startup, understands that need firsthand. “This past year has challenged all companies, but startups in particular,” said Olga Muller, CEO of Kepler Team. “We are already running lean, working toward the next big milestone, and any external challenge deals a significant blow. Having organizations like Innovate Charlotte that offer resources specifically designed for this community and our needs helps us feel supported and gives us a place to turn when we need it.” 


If you’d like to get involved with Innovate Charlotte — as a mentor, a mentee or as an ecosystem partner — visit the Innovate Charlotte website today.