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