Venturing Forth

“We believe building a business is much more non-linear [and] far more complex” than the usual business plan suggests, Caroline Smith tells an audience of 12 New Haven-area entrepreneurs representing seven ventures. It’s week four of Collab’s training program for would-be business owners, and it’s time to drill down into who their potential customers are and what they really want.

The group has gathered in an upstairs room at Agora (formerly The Grove) on Chapel Street. Oversized windows present a view of pink-tinted clouds as the sun sets at the end of what, for many, has already been a long work day. Participants have just settled into their seats at a U-shaped array of tables, their laptops and notebooks and paper plates of panini sandwiches at the ready. Co-founders and -directors Smith and Margaret Lee stand in front of a large presentation screen and open the session with a chance for entrepreneurs to share news on their developing businesses.

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Since customers are the topic of the evening, Smith and Lee ask the group to consider the questions they might use to perform customer research. If, say, you wanted to open a new pizza place in New Haven—the scenario feels canonical in a city famous for its beloved pizza—what kinds of things might you ask customers about their pizza-buying and -eating habits? “It’s really easy to fall into the trap of asking questions that lead you to the answers you want to hear,” Lee warns the group, advising them to keep their questions “open.”

Around the table, participants take notes and brainstorm their own questions, then share some with the group. Marisol Credle of Sol Music and Media is creating a “starter kit” for “at-home musicians to create their business online.” She comes up with 10 questions, homing in on what artists and songwriters need to help them advance their careers. She wonders how much they’ll be willing to pay for it, and someone across the table mumbles their assent. The same question seems to be on other minds.

This is the third “cohort” of trainees for Collab, a small business incubator that began as an event series for Yale students and members of the community “centered around community problem-solving,” as Lee describes it. “We learned that there are incredible people in this city from all different neighborhoods, and we learned that those people have incredible ideas for businesses, for nonprofits, for projects, and a lot of the people were coming back asking for more.”

Lee and Smith both graduated from Yale in 2014. Lee went on to work with the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute (now the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale), “running venture acceleration for student-faculty ventures.” Smith cut her teeth doing community organizing and working in marketing for local software company SeeClickFix, which routes citizen work requests to the correct city departments. Both were passionate about building community through local entrepreneurship. Lee says their market research turned up a lot of short-term workshops and some later-stage funding. “But right in the middle, when somebody just has an idea, and maybe they don’t consider themselves an entrepreneur,” Lee says, “there wasn’t a whole lot.”

So, with the support of a 2017 CTNext Innovation Places grant won by the city, Collab pivoted to serving Connecticut entrepreneurs starting small businesses, both for- and non-profit. Their first cohort came together last winter and their second in the spring, with a total of 13 ventures supported so far.

One of those was Pascale’s Body Care, an “organic skin care line that centralizes black women and self-care,” owned by Sade Jean-Jacques. She had started making body butters and lip balm for herself about five years earlier and giving them away, but her mother, Pascale, told her she should charge for the products. “She just put a price on it, and we’ve sort of gone from there,” Jean-Jacques says. Even though her Collab experience ended last spring, she says “the relationships that I built through Collab still continue now.”

Collab has done a lot for individuals like Jean-Jacques, but there’s also a bigger vision here. “Our main theory of change and driving force is that we ought to and need to prioritize the talent that’s already here, that wants to be here, that wants to build something here,” Smith says. “Entrepreneurship excites us because it’s an opportunity for an individual to contribute to their own livelihood, the livelihood of their family but also, potentially, make a deep impact on their surrounding neighborhood.”

Businesses represented in this newest Collab cohort include Credle’s project and six others. Educator Kaseem Johnson is creating Kamili’s Kids Youth Development Program, a nonprofit youth development organization focusing on emotional wellness, physical fitness and entrepreneurship ideals for inner city youth aged 10 to 14 with social/emotional needs. “Overall, it’s a character development program,” he explains.

Firefighter Kevin Coyner “perceived a need” and, with partner Nick Freeman, created Firetek, a text-based app designed to give firefighters helpful information more efficiently and thoroughly when a call comes through from dispatch. Other Collab projects involve creating citywide community collaborations beginning in Newhallville; manufacturing portable martial arts training equipment; employing refugee chefs to create high-quality snacks; and designing a network to “direct excess food to individuals and families instead of landfills.”

“Really, all of us just want to have everything today,” one woman at the table says to Smith and Lee. But she adds that Collab is helping budding entrepreneurs focus their energy on the details they need to get right along the way—on the reality, not just the dream.

Collab
www.collabnewhaven.org

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Imag 1 depicts Margaret Lee and Caroline Smith leading a session. Image 2 depicts Lee. Image 3 depicts Collab participants Jesica Springer and Bart Rondelli.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter at KathyLeonardCzepiel.com. Her favorite New Haven scene is a packed summer concert on the Green with dinner from the food trucks, and she loves that there’s always something new to discover here.

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