INCLT’s Keith Luedeman on how COVID-19 is transforming startup life as we knew it 

Less than a week before the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered Charlotte Mecklenburg schools and pushed much of the Queen City into a new and uncertain normal, Keith Luedeman and I met for coffee at Amelie’s in Park Road Shopping Center. 

Signs of the crisis were already beginning to show. Amelie’s had forsaken reusable cups in favor of more hygienic disposable ones. The server behind the counter expressed concern over her daughter, who was off at college and had shared an ER with someone who had tested positive for coronavirus. But no one really knew how dramatically it was going to transform our lives just a few days later. 

So Keith and I talked about what he’d been up to over the past 18 months, since he took over as executive director of Innovate Charlotte. His list was full.


He was serving as a judge for the Charlotte Area Technology Collaborative’s Blue Diamond Awards, celebrating the city’s best in technology. The event was meant to be held April 7 and is now postponed until fall. 

He’s chair of the Entrepreneurial Leadership Circle at Queens University and is heavily involved in the Queens Pitch Competition, which gives undergraduate students from all majors the opportunity to compete for up to $5,000 in prize money for their innovative business ideas. That was meant to take place March 19. Now, that’s postponed, too.  

He’s been working with Bunker Labs, an organization dedicated to helping members of the military community start businesses. Keith served in the National Guard. The organization struck a personal chord, and as Bunker Labs set up shop in Charlotte earlier this year, he helped them find speakers and set up event locations. Now, any upcoming events are on hold.  

He won the Finsiders’ Dan Roselli Community Organizer Award for his work building the FinTech community in Charlotte, and now he’s faced with an interesting question: How do you build community when that community is quarantined, at least until the end of April?

But in many ways, Keith is prepared for this. For one, INCLT is strong — much stronger than it was when he took the helm. 

“Eighteen months ago, we were looking at whether we were going to survive. We had no sources of funding. The mentorship program was still very much in the pilot stage, and we had little diversity represented,” he said. “Now, our program is over 50 percent female and non-white among our founders and over 30 percent among our mentors. We have funding from NC IDEA and the city’s Economic Development group for the next three years. We’re stabilized, and now we’re at the stage where we’re figuring out what our path forward is going to be.” 

Keith is hard at work charting that path, even now, from his home office, which is saving him a ton on travel time and turning him from an amateur Zoom user to a power one. 

“I had a camera that I bought for my PC and never got around to hooking it up. Now I’m on my camera probably more than I’m on my phone during the day,” he said. 

He’s taken the current reality and restrictions and pivoted, not changing the work he does just shifting it to accommodate new needs in a new environment. 

He wakes up these days earlier than he did when he was running his business,, which he exited from back in 2016. When we reconnected by phone recently, he had virtual meetings booked all day, from first thing in the morning until 4:30 in the afternoon. All INCLT mentorship meetings are continuing online, rather than in person, so the organization is now up and running virtually. The city’s startup ecosystem meetings, which Keith is a part of, have moved from quarterly to weekly so community leaders can brainstorm resources and ways they can support local founders.   

Keith has also seen a significant increase in requests for his time and counsel. The dot com crash hit a year after he started his company. He shepherded GoodMortgage through the Great Recession of 2008. He hasn’t experienced this kind of crisis — none of us have — but he’s had his share. 

“By no means does that make me an expert, but at least I’ve got experience dealing with brutal things that can happen to a business,” Keith said. “All these crises are different, so the one thing I can help with is making sure our founders go back to the entrepreneurial mindset. No idea is a bad idea. Keep your head down and fight like hell. In these moments, when you’re making decisions on expedited timelines and dealing with the stress of the world, you need somebody to talk to. I want to be that person, as much as I can.”

Even in these first few weeks, he’s been impressed — but not surprised — by how quickly Queen City startups have adapted in the face of COVID-19. One of the founders he’s mentored over the past few years — Aru Anavekar of the AI conversation tool botsplash — acted fast in the face of the pandemic. Her platform was already working with mortgage lenders, allowing them to communicate via chat or text, but over the past few weeks, she’s implemented video, too. 

“Now, those lenders dealing with the crush of people trying to refinance can talk to their customers face to face through the botsplash app,” Keith explained. 

Bustld, a local company that is taking part in the INCLT mentorship program, is another example. Founders Ryan and Samie Roberts built the platform to connect engaged couples with vetted wedding vendors. Now, with weddings at a standstill, they are selling products through their platform and using the proceeds to support their vendors, who are feeling the pain of the crisis acutely. 

“I’m seeing a lot of people helping other people. As a result, they will have customers for life,” Keith said. 

It can be hard to find good news in hard times, but in the case of Charlotte’s entrepreneurial community and INCLT, it could be this: The past 18 months were about laying a strong foundation, getting stable. Now, our entire community is being tested.  

And, as Keith will tell you, we’re ready.  

Thanks, as always, to the Kepler Team for continuing to support our outreach to the Charlotte startup community. Their commitment makes it possible for us to share our work and the work of others in the ecosystem. 

Whether you’re a seasoned leader interested in supporting local startups or a startup in need of advice and guidance, consider taking part in the INCLT mentorship program. We are currently accepting new mentors and founders. You can learn more here.