From the Wizarding World to the Startup World: Harry Potter’s Editor on Taking the Leap into Entrepreneurship

Arthur A. Levine is a highly acclaimed editor-turned-entrepreneur known for his pivotal role in bringing the Harry Potter series to the world. He served as the editor for this iconic series, which has captivated millions of readers worldwide and is considered one of the most successful and beloved book franchises in literary history. Levine’s editorial contributions were crucial to the series’ immense popularity and enduring cultural impact. 

Books he has published have earned the highest honors in the field of young people’s literature: the Newbery, Caldecott, Printz, National Book Award, Stonewall, Pura Belpré, New York Times Best Illustrated, Golden Kite, American Indian Library Award, Coretta Scott King, Batchelder, Boston Globe/Horn Book, International Hans Christian Andersen Award, and more.

Today, Arthur pursues a new path with Levine Querido, a publishing company with a mission to produce books that center Indigenous Writers, People of Color, Queer creators, and those with disabilities or who practice minority religions. Within its first year, LQ was named Best Publisher in North America at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. It was named Independent Publisher of the Year by Foreward Magazine this year.

Arthur, after a tremendous career in the editing and publishing industry, could you share more about your current work with Levine Querido?

Arthur Levine, President and Editor-in-Chief at Levine Querido.

I’m putting all my passion and energy into Levine Querido to ensure it thrives as a publisher that centers on creators who have long been marginalized. In these books, many kids have seen themselves in a way that had been denied for much of publishing history. And through our mission, a far richer variety of stories and cultures have been presented for ALL to see as expressions of the human condition. It’s our way of healing the world, one book at a time. 

How does working in editing compare with your founder’s experience? 

I think one has greatly informed the other.  I worked for thirty-five years as an editor, where I increasingly felt that corporate structures and procedures were leaching the creative lifeblood out of bookmaking. In addition, I felt that the industry was too slow to rid itself of heterocentric and racist assumptions that imagined a white, straight, Christian audience (and market.)  

Founding my own company was necessary to break free and reach for the kind of equity and excellence readers deserve.

What challenges have you faced throughout your career, professionally or personally, that impact what you do today?

As a gay child in the seventies, I believed I was alone in my feelings and that my ability to love was nothing but a curse.  I certainly never saw or read a book (or a movie or a TV show, for that matter) that would provide me with a vision of happiness, an image of where I might fit.  (Nor did I read any books about contemporary Jewish kids or kids with any of my disabilities.)  In my adult life, I became determined to change that for the young people growing up behind me and others who never made it into the presentation of what was “normal.”

Yet, I remember sitting at a meeting in the mid-nineties and listening to people in power joking about A.I.D.S. At my next job, I was warned by a frightened Lesbian coworker against trying to publish anything with Queer Content.  I have been told that a mystery set in a Jewish summer camp would only appeal to Jews, and there weren’t enough of them to support even a tiny print run. I have brought up a book by a Chinese-American author and been asked by a corporate committee member, “Don’t we already have one of those?”

All of this leads to what I do today: publishing Diverse books with unencumbered optimism and passion. Building a bridge to a place where ALL kids can feel “normal” with who they are, a HELP to forming the beautiful complexity possible for us all. 

What advice would you give to the next generation of editors or those looking to work in publishing? 

Working at a large corporation is only one of their many options. Working with a company motivated by something more than the pursuit of past successes is completely possible…and may lead to more job satisfaction.

What do you consider to be the biggest highlight of your career? 

That’s so hard for a person in my field to pick. Do I choose the moment a book I’ve worked on wins a huge award or hits a bestseller list? Is it when a young reader writes that a book of mine comforted them when they felt utterly alone? Is it hearing an author say that I truly helped them do their best work? It’s all of these things, and knowing that one doesn’t preclude the others has helped reinforce my sense of true north in publishing decisions.

How did you discover StartOut?

One thing about launching a new business is that you sometimes feel like you’re on a small raft in the sea of the business world, with provisions that will only last a few days. I was looking for folks traveling in the same direction who might be willing to share a coconut or two. I discovered StartOut and its mission to support Queer Founders and companies. “That’s us!” I thought. I very much hope that the access to potential investors and the accumulated expertise at StartOut will help my company to survive and thrive!

You can connect with Arthur on LinkedIn for more information on Levine Querido and follow our blog on Medium for monthly founder stories.

Legendary Drag Queen Jackie Cox to Emcee the 12th Annual StartOut Awards

Roll Call! She’s Jackie! We’re gagged to announce that Drag Race icon Jackie Cox will host the upcoming StartOut Awards in New York City on October 12th!

Jackie is best known as one of the top 4 contestants from Season 12 of RuPaul’s Drag Race. She was the first queen of Iranian descent to appear on the show, making history when she appeared in a hijab on the runway. In her hometown of NYC, Jackie has long been a feature of the theatrical cabaret scene and recently completed a world tour of her show JackieVision, which featured her take on the hit song “Agatha All Along” and was showcased on the Disney+ show “This is Me: A Pride Celebration Spectacular.” She also recently was part of the workshop for “DRAG: The Musical” in Hollywood and was seen as Miss Lynch & Teen Angel in “Grease” at the Carpenter Center in Long Beach.

“The fabulous StartOut Awards will now be even more fabulous thanks to Jackie Cox joining the party.” StartOut CEO Brian Richardson spilled the tea, saying, “Drag Queens are the quintessential LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs, so we’re thrilled to have an icon like Jackie Cox honor today’s top queer trailblazers. In a world where drag performers face a new level of shade, it is our time to shine with love, unity, and unwavering support for every part of our diverse community.”

In addition to Drag Race, Jackie has appeared in a recurring role on NBC’s “Days of Our Lives” & Peacock’s “Days of Our Lives: Beyond Salem,” in ABC’s “What Would You Do?”, in Fusion’s “Shade: Queens of NYC,” as well as numerous appearances on Bravo’s “Watch What Happens Live,” winning the title of “Real Queen of Beverly Hills” for her impersonation of TV personality and Depends undergarment spokeswoman, Lisa Rinna. 

For more information on the 12th StartOut Awards and our 2023 awardees, visit our website.
Are you interested in attending in person? Purchase tickets for October 12th here!

6 Inspiring Quotes from StartOut Awards Recipients

This October, we’ll gather together in lower Manhattan for a second year as we celebrate the 12th Annual StartOut Awards at Tribeca 360. 

The premier gala honoring our nation’s LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs, the StartOut Awards recognizes exceptional queer founders and leaders and creates space for future generations to see themselves in our community.

Since 2012, we’ve presented 45 individuals and organizations with our Leadership, Advocate, Trailblazer, Innovator, and Next Generation awards and listened as they shared their stories of perseverance in the face of adversity. As we prepare to add more names to that remarkable list this year, we’re reminded of some of the inspiring messages from throughout the years.

Are you interested in attending the 2023 StartOut Awards? Purchase tickets here and help support the future of queer entrepreneurship!

Angelica Ross, 2021 Trailblazer Award recipient. Credit: Steven Simione

“You can start the entrepreneur process while working that 9-5 job or while working for someone else when you recognize that you are your own boss.”

Angelica Ross

Transgender Activist, Actress, and Advocate

2021 Trailblazer Award

 

Angelica Ross is the President of Miss Ross, Inc., star of Ryan Murphy’s FX hits American Horror Story: 1984 and Pose, and the founder of TransTech Social Enterprises, a program that helps people lift themselves out of poverty through technical training, digital work creating a social impact, and bringing economic empowerment to marginalized communities. 

From the board room to film and TV sets to Capitol Hill, Angelica Ross is a leading figure of success and strength in the movement for Transgender and racial equality. “Your body is your business, and once you learn the value of placing your body in certain environments – especially to Black and Brown, queer and trans folks – understanding your experience, your body, your entity, and your skills have value and that you just need to start out somewhere.”

Listen to Angelica’s full acceptance speech here.

 

Joey Gonzalez, 2022 Leadership Award recipient.

“When members of a marginalized community come together and support one another, we are unstoppable.”

Joey Gonzalez

Global CEO, Barry’s

2022 Leadership Award

 

Joey Gonzalez is a change agent, a global strategist, an entrepreneur, a son of a Cuban refugee, a gay parent, and the Global CEO of Barry’s, the original cardio and strength interval workout that revolutionized fitness and began the boutique movement. 

In 2018, Gonzalez was named to Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business list and received the CEO Award of the Year from North Castle Partners. In 2020, Gonzalez was named EY Of The Year and Greater Los Angeles’ Entrepreneur of the Year, and in 2021 moved his HQ from Los Angeles to Miami. ”A Cuban refugee – my Dad escaped to Spain to pursue his medical degree, eventually following his dreams to the United States. As his son, what I had the privilege of witnessing wasn’t only that hard work, dedication, and perseverance pay off, but that when members of a marginalized community come together and support one another, we are unstoppable.” 

 

Kandi Burruss, 2022 Advocate Award recipient.

“An advocate fights for what they believe in even when that belief may not align with popular opinion. 

Kandi Burruss

Singer, Songwriter, Producer, TV Personality

2022 Advocate Award

 

When thinking of Kandi Burruss, one word comes to mind: ambition. The Atlanta-born star has catapulted from singer and hit songwriter to businesswoman, entrepreneur, actress, TV personality, and proud mother — and she effortlessly balances it all. Since 2009 she’s starred in 12 seasons of Bravo’s pop culture juggernaut The Real Housewives of Atlanta, where she used the reality TV franchise to transform into a household name and as a platform to launch an ever-growing empire. 

“When I think of black queer icons, like Martha P. John, Sir Lady Java, and Bayard Rustin, I think of the determination and tenacity it took to fight against homophobia, transphobia, and racism. A fight that created a more equitable future for everyone sitting in this room tonight.”

Listen to Kandi’s full acceptance speech here.

 

Melissa Bradley, 2018 Leadership Award recipient.

“When you hear the statistics that say entrepreneurship is declining, let me remind you that people who look like me are on fire.”

Melissa Bradley

Managing Partner, 1863 Ventures

2018 Leadership Award

 

Melissa L. Bradley is a co-founder of venture-backed Ureeka, a community where small businesses gain unprecedented access to the expertise needed to grow their business. She is also the founder and Managing Partner of 1863 Ventures, a business development program that accelerates New Majority entrepreneurs from high potential to high growth. In this role she created a community of over 10,000 New Majority entrepreneurs in three years. Melissa serves as board chair for My Way to Credit (MWTC) and board member for AEO. She is a Founding Advisor to the Dell Center for Entrepreneurs and a Senator on the Board of Governors at Georgetown University.

“African American women are starting businesses six times the rate of everyone else, so the next time you look around and you say entrepreneurship is dead, go find a Black woman and say it is the means of our survival, it is a means of our economic wealth, and it is a means of our power.

Listen to Melissa’s full acceptance speech here.

 

 

Patrick Chung, 2015 Trailblazer Award recipient.

“The real trailblazers, the real mavericks, the real radicals, are the people who dare to start a new cause or company, often at great personal expense to themselves. These are the people who push us forward.”

Patrick Chung 

General Partner, Xfund

2015 Trailblazer Award

 

Patrick is the Managing General Partner of Xfund. Before Xfund, Patrick was a partner at NEA and led the firm’s consumer and seed investment practices. He is a director of 23andMe (NASDAQ: ME) and Philo and led investments in Guideline, IFTTT, NewtonX, ThirdLove, and Zumper. “The real trailblazers, the real mavericks, the real radicals, are the people who dare to start a new cause or company, often at great personal expense to themselves. These are the people who push us forward.”

Listen to Patrick’s full acceptance speech here.

 

Meg Columbia-Walsh, 2017 Innovator Award recipient.

“So it’s up to every one of us in this room to make sure that financially – which is how you get them – that we are the most successful startups and VCs.”

Meg Columbia-Walsh

Co-Founder and CEO, Wylei

2017 Innovator Award

 

Columbia-Walsh is one of the country’s most successfully exited female tech entrepreneurs and CEOs, building and selling four companies to the Fortune 200 and an IPO. Those include: HealthTech Digital, Founder and CEO – Sold to Interpublic Group (IPG); CBSHealthWatch, Founder and CEO, the first commercial website for consumers – Sold 33% to CBS Corp. and then led an IPO; Oncology.com, CEO – Sold to Pharmacia and Upjohn and Inverse Mobile, Founder, and CEO – Sold to Ernst & Young. 

She is also a co-founder and investor in Wylei Inc., a Marketing Automation, Artificial Intelligence, and Machine Learning company. “The checks aren’t enough, and the organizations aren’t enough. We have to walk the talk.”

Listen to Meg’s full acceptance speech here.

AANHPI Founder Feature: Long Nguyen

Long Nguyen (he/him) started Everfit.io five years ago in San Francisco. His SaaS fitness platform helps transform how gyms and fitness coaches launch and run their businesses online. As a serial entrepreneur from Vietnam, Long is helping to revolutionize what it means to be a founder in 2023.

As part of our focus on Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander founders, Long agreed to speak with StartOut about his journey, passion for education, and what motivates him in the era of online learning.

Long, what motivated you to launch Everfit?

Five years ago, when I found my co-founder, Jonathan Wang, was working with an online personal trainer for $200 a month, I was genuinely surprised. However, that same trainer also worked with another friend of mine, who was paying $1200 a month for in-person training. A staggering 6-fold difference! This aha moment made me realize the enormous potential of fitness going online!

Even though not having a background in professional fitness, I am super passionate about health and fitness. I play tennis, enjoy skiing and surfing, train at the gym, and care a lot about nutrition and eating healthily. For me, the motivation has always been about inspiring and spreading the values of health and wellness to anyone looking to kickstart their fitness journey! 

Did you go to school for entrepreneurship?

In college, I was part of an Entrepreneurship program, which kickstarted my first startup during my sophomore year – a mobile app platform that helped connect schools and students. After graduating, I sold the platform to my college, and it became the university’s official app. 

After graduation, I booked a one-way ticket to San Francisco to live the Silicon Valley dream. I joined a CEO Advisory firm, where I had the opportunity to assist B2B SaaS startups with $5M-100M in funding. It was an educational experience. I started a development shop with an engineering team in Vietnam to help entrepreneurs build MVPs. 

I always think I am a startup guy because I’ve always loved solving problems. After working on various other startup ideas, I realized many of my startup ventures were about education going online, and Everfit is just wellness education online! 

What sets Evertfit apart from the competition?

Early on, we saw a big education trend going online, and it seemed like a no-brainer when we considered personal training and fitness on a virtual marketplace. Before COVID, most folks didn’t share that same belief in our business model.

With my background in Marketing Automation from my previous role, I wanted to make it easy for any fitness coach and gym to automate every aspect of their training business without any technical background. Everfit is known for our Automation system that helps our customers win back time, train more clients, and 10x their revenue.

We help gyms and fitness coaches worldwide launch their businesses online. Everfit goes beyond workouts and includes nutrition and habit coaching features while streamlining business operations through automation. We strive to be the catalyst for the future of fitness and help make personalized fitness more accessible and affordable to millions worldwide.

We have over 50,000 trainers signed up in more than 140 countries and look forward to expanding more. Our goal is to become the main player in the industry for fitness coaches, bringing personalized training to millions. We also want to build a network ecosystem to help bring more clients to our customers and get more people to know about our platform.

What challenges have you encountered since launching? 

As a product company, we love receiving user feedback and incorporating ideas into our product pipeline. But as we expanded to customers from diverse backgrounds (from sports coaches to military training to cancer rehab), we received all kinds of feature requests. Balancing these requests while maintaining a clear product vision has proven to be a significant challenge. It has been crucial to prioritize wisely and stay focused on our roadmap, avoiding getting pulled off track by lucrative enterprise deals. 

We’re also very passionate about AI, and we have so much data to leverage ML/AI to help coaches be more productive, build better programs, and help more people reach their fitness goals faster. Being able to hire the right team as we grow and the ability to keep costs in check with growth has been a challenge and a superpower we’ve honed over the past few years.

You can connect with Long on LinkedIn for the latest updates on Everfit and follow our blog on Medium for more founder stories.

AANHPI Founder Feature: Amrei Dizon

Amrei Dizon is a proud 42-year-old lesbian from Quezon City, Manila, Philippines. Growing up in the 80s and 90s, Amrei often felt different in a society that lacked representation for people like her. The journey of self-discovery wasn’t easy amidst societal norms and a lack of role models in the LGBTQ+ community. 

As the founder of Vitalstrats Creative Solutions, a creative marketing agency specializing in end-to-end digital content production, Amrei helps clients ideate and strategize their campaigns, working closely with them, from understanding their objectives and market landscape to crafting tailored communication strategies that meet their KPIs. 

Amrei, could you please give me some insight into your founder’s journey? 

Growing up, I always gravitated toward arts and performance, and my involvement in various art clubs and theater groups allowed me to express my creativity. At the University of the Philippines, my engagement with The UP Repertory Company gave me my first taste of leadership and management.

However, during my J. Walter Thompson Philippines internship, I discovered my true passion. Despite my anxiety and discomfort with the corporate setup, I fell in love with the dynamism of the advertising world, a space where creativity, performance, and impact intersect. After a brief stint in freelance graphic design, I landed a job as a Production Assistant at a small events and video production company. Though I started with little experience, I quickly learned various skills and took on multiple roles out of sheer curiosity and desire for novelty.

Running my company, Vitalstrats Creative Solutions, was initially a trial-and-error process. I voraciously read books and sought advice from fellow entrepreneurs. This learning journey and desire for freedom eventually led me to start my venture. With a small fund of 20k and a room at my parent’s house as an office, I began my entrepreneurial journey.

The arrival of my life partner and current business partner, TJ, in 2011 brought more structure and growth to our business. Her input helped put systems in place and streamline operations, leading to an expansion of our clientele. This organized structure later allowed me to pursue a Masters’s in Entrepreneurship at the Ateneo Graduate School of Business. 

Being part of the LGBTQ+ community gave me an additional drive to succeed. The challenges of being different fueled my determination to prove my worth to the world and show my parents that I could thrive and make them proud.

Talk to me about Vitalstrats Creative Solutions. What is your mission, and who do you serve? 

Our mission is to foster growth through Strategic Creativity, aiding our clients in building their brand and community, communicating their value, and significantly impacting the people they serve. In parallel, we are committed to developing our team members, providing them with opportunities for learning and growth, and making VCS a safe space for exploration and innovation.

In the last 20 years, VCS has evolved from a bohemian-style startup to a professional creative agency. We started by executing small projects and have since grown to strategize and implement large campaigns for globally renowned brands. As our reach in the industry expanded, we were able to support the causes close to our hearts, contributing to organizations and advocacy groups that we support.

Today, we work across different sectors, serving multinational corporations like Sun Life Financial, Bank of the Philippine Islands, BDO, FedEx, and many others, along with Non-Government Organizations and micro-to-small businesses.

What is it like being an out founder in the Philippines? 

Being a founder in the Philippines in the early 2000s was a unique journey, marked by the lack of easily accessible resources and the challenge of navigating the business world as an LGBTQ+ entrepreneur. The internet was in its infancy, limiting its use as a resource for finding clients and accessing entrepreneurial support. Much of what I learned was from hands-on experience, client feedback, and observing other small business practices. Being part of the LGBTQ+ community and experiencing insecurity and rejection motivated me to create a welcoming and inclusive environment at Vitalstrats.

In our early years, the team at Vitalstrats, mainly made up of LGBTQ+ individuals, enjoyed a relaxed, creative, and liberating atmosphere. However, as we evolved, I realized the need for professional processes and a balanced culture to sustain our creativity, cater to those different from us, and build trust with our clients.

The road to establishing Vitalstrats was paved with numerous challenges. Financial difficulties were a significant hurdle, requiring resourcefulness and tenacity to overcome. The lack of access to industry networks and entrepreneurs for advice and support made it particularly challenging. We faced periods of work overload followed by lean seasons, posing challenges in financial management and human resources. Our resilience and problem-solving spirit pulled us through these challenging times. The support and advice of my parents and professional contacts within the LGBTQ+ community were instrumental in these early years.

The landscape has improved for entrepreneurs in the Philippines, with organizations like The Philippine LGBT Chamber of Commerce offering resources and programs to LGBTQ+ professionals and entrepreneurs. Recognizing the struggles I faced as an LGBTQ+ founder, I am driven to contribute to these initiatives, guiding aspiring entrepreneurs to navigate their journey more smoothly.

Being an LGBTQ+ entrepreneur has given me unique insights into creating an inclusive workplace where everyone can express their creativity without fear of judgment. I foster a leadership style that values each team member’s opinions, encourages understanding, and promotes transparent communication. This approach is rooted in my LGBTQ+ identity, promoting inclusivity, respect, and acceptance as core values of our company culture.

As a Board Director of the Philippine LGBT Chamber of Commerce, the first LGBT Chamber in Asia, I’ve had the opportunity to connect with international organizations like NGLCC and StartOut. The experiences and best practices shared in these global interactions have enriched my understanding of diversity and inclusion in business. They have also allowed me to advocate for inclusivity in the marketing and advertising industry. All these experiences contribute to my mission of creating an inclusive and welcoming environment for everyone, aligning with the values of StartOut.

How did you connect with StartOut? 

I was first introduced to StartOut through the late Founding Chair of the Philippine LGBT Chamber of Commerce, Brian Tenorio, during my visit to San Francisco in 2018. Since then, I’ve had the incredible opportunity to connect with and mentor fellow LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs worldwide, including in Africa, Ukraine, and the US. This has allowed me to share best practices and broaden my understanding of diverse cultures and business landscapes.

Given the impact of StartOut’s mentor-mentee programs, I’m eager to bring a similar framework to the Philippines. This would be made possible through our local chamber of commerce, as we aim to create an even more expansive and robust network for our LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs, both locally and globally.

I believe that the visibility of LGBTQ+ leaders is paramount. Up-and-coming entrepreneurs and professionals in our community should have role models in various fields to look up to, and I strive to be one of those role models.

Despite existing support systems in the Philippines for women, youth, and disabled groups, there is a noticeable absence of support specifically for LGBTQ+ professionals and entrepreneurs. I envision a future where we can accurately quantify the economic contributions of LGBTQ+ businesses, further enhance these contributions, and continuously provide mentorship, financial support, and other necessary resources to our community.

Unfortunately, workplace discrimination remains a persistent issue, and the government has deemed the long-proposed SOGIE Bill a non-priority. However, we continue to advocate for inclusivity and equal rights by working with local governments and private businesses to empower LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs. We’re also planning a certification program for businesses to endorse them as LGBTQ+ friendly and inclusive. With organizations like StartOut, we can create a future in which the Philippine business landscape is diverse, inclusive, and thriving.

What are you looking forward to in the next year?

In the next year, I eagerly look forward to the 20th Anniversary of Vitalstrats Creative Solutions (VCS), the company I founded. We’re focused on understanding our ever-evolving consumer base and market, striving to be more data-driven in our decision-making processes. My partner TJ and I are also conscientiously working on succession planning, aiming to cultivate the next generation of leaders at VCS.

What advice would you give to a founder looking to launch their startup?

To founders preparing to launch their startup, here are my key pieces of advice:

  1. Foster the right mindset. Resilience and patience are invaluable in navigating business challenges. View failures as learning opportunities, not setbacks. Remain a lifelong learner, open to new ideas and continuous improvement.
  2. Understand your market. A great product can only fall flat with market relevance. Continually adapt and tailor your offerings to meet market needs and provide value to your consumers.
  3. Build a strong team. Surround yourself with individuals who complement your skills, share your vision, and can contribute to realizing your company’s purpose.
  4. Seek support and mentorship. Connect with experienced entrepreneurs, and join relevant networks or organizations, like StartOut, which offer invaluable resources to aid your growth. Remember, you are not alone in this journey!

In conclusion, my journey as an entrepreneur, particularly as an LGBTQ+ entrepreneur in the Philippines, has been a voyage of continuous learning, resilience, and adaptability. I’ve navigated challenges and celebrated triumphs while striving to create a safe, inclusive, and vibrant space for everyone in our company.

Throughout these experiences, I’ve recognized the tremendous power and value in networks and support groups like StartOut. They foster growth and empower individuals in the LGBTQ+ community to break barriers and rise to their potential.

As we forge ahead, I remain committed to driving our company forward and contributing to the growth of the LGBTQ+ entrepreneurial community in the Philippines. I hope to foster more role models, help develop small businesses, and progress our inclusion advocacy. In partnership with organizations like StartOut, we can continue to create a more diverse, inclusive, and equal world. After all, a society that celebrates all its members, regardless of who they are or who they love, is not just a fairer society but a more prosperous one.

Thank you for this opportunity to share my journey and vision. Together, we can and will make a difference.

AANHPI Founder Feature: Dyllen Nellis

Dyllen Nellis (she/her) is a current member of the StartOut Growth Lab’s 11th cohort with her company, Dyllen’s College Essay Advice. She always wanted to pursue an entrepreneurial path and manages to do so as a full-time college student at Stanford.

Dyllen’s College Essay Advice empowers students to discover their sense of self and effectively communicate their personal values, experiences, and potential in well-crafted college essays. They offer college essay editing, private coaching, educational videos, and an award-winning, comprehensive online course to craft a successful college essay.

Dyllen, how did your College Essay Advice business begin?

Right off the bat, it was never intentional. I never set out to create a business, but in 2018, when I was applying to colleges, I didn’t know how to write a college essay with strategy. I had strong goals to get into top universities, but my school didn’t offer much guidance with the essay writing component.

I researched independently and looked at articles, videos, and everything I could to develop my strategy to stand out in admissions. And the results spoke for themselves! I was accepted into every school I applied to, including top universities like Stanford, UCLA, USC, and NYU. 

I gained incredible insights about myself while writing these essays and wanted to help other students experience their journey of self-discovery. Too often, I watched the well-being of my friends crumble during the application process, and I wanted to prevent that.

I started making videos on YouTube to share what I learned, and rather quickly, they blew up online. More and more people wanted advice, and by this point, as a freshman in college, I needed to figure out a way to scale.

How did you develop the curriculum for College Essay Advice?

Shortly after COVID hit, I took a gap year because I was over online school. I had more free time and wanted to earn an income, so little by little, I started developing the business side. I created my website to share my resources and allow students to submit their essays for me to review. I posted about three videos weekly and had regular Zoom meetings with students to help craft their essays.

After researching different approaches to college essay strategy, I developed my own that felt more intuitive and designed for Gen Z students like myself. I brainstormed in a sketchbook, created a framework, created an entire online course, and launched it in September 2020. The course, The Ultimate Guide to Craft Your Story, has undergone several iterations over the years. I’m happy to share that students who went through my program have been accepted to top schools such as Stanford, Harvard, Columbia, Cornell, and UCLA! 

What helped you with developing the business strategy and plan?

Most of everything in this business, I learned on the fly. I only had an official business mentor this year through StartOut. But before that, I researched online and connected with others who worked in the college admissions space. I am grateful for my friend, Janae Young, who was in my freshman dorm and ran her own business focused on SAT and ACT prep. She had been studying business since she was young, and we’d get on calls and collaborate. I would learn so much from those conversations. She taught me the basics of running a webinar, pricing, and how to communicate your value. 

With the course itself, I had to create a unique framework and develop a cohesive skeleton that would be tailored for Gen Z students. In 2021, I hired a team to help me with the essay editing. After returning to school that year, I had a series of moments where I felt overwhelmed, so I’ve been learning how to automate and continue to expand my team. 

How do you balance being an entrepreneur and a full-time college student?

I’m fortunate that Stanford let me create my major – Human Centered Design and Engineering – which incorporates business, product design, and computer science principles. My schoolwork complements the stuff I already do with my company.

When people ask how I manage everything, I keep a detailed calendar for every hour of the day. I love making lists and logging my to-dos. I’m very organized, so having a clear idea of what needs to get done and when helps me manage. 

Being at Stanford is hard. The culture is very grind, grind, grind, but you must take care of yourself simultaneously, or things will go south. My girlfriend has stressed the importance of prioritizing well-being, which has helped me better care for myself. After all, I’m a college student, so I need time to unwind, decompress, and just exist as a human being.  Sometimes I just want to lie down and watch some TV, and that’s okay!

How did you discover StartOut?

My girlfriend told me about StartOut. When we were creating a separate startup, she found the organization online. I felt my company could benefit from StartOut’s program offerings and applied for the Growth Lab. 

I applied for Cohort 10 and didn’t get in, which made sense for where I was at the time. But after implementing an evergreen sales system for my course and skyrocketing my sales, I applied again and was accepted into Cohort 11. 

It’s been a great experience, and I’m happy to have these one-on-one meetings with folks. The most valuable part has been talking with Maca Baigorria from Avocademy because our business models are similar. I’ve also benefitted from conversations with Chris Davidson about predictive analytics, how to predict your revenue, and then how to map out your plan to get there.

Growth Lab has helped me realize the true potential of my company. I’m fully committed to pursuing this beyond college to continue to help thousands of students worldwide gain access to higher education. 

AANHPI Founder Feature: Pete Zheng

Pete Zheng (he/him) grew up in Pittsburgh, where his parents owned and operated a Chinese restaurant. In these formative years helping his family business, Pete got the spirit of entrepreneurship instilled in him.

After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh, he moved to New York for grad school, where Pete earned a degree in Public Administration. Soon after, the pandemic came crashing down, disrupting everyday life and allowing Pete the opportunity to pursue a new path.

Today, Pete is a first-time founder and CEO working on a stealth-mode retail technology startup. He aims to create new opportunities for brick-and-mortar businesses to earn income through a specialized technology service.

As a gay, Chinese-American entrepreneur, Pete is helping change the future of the startup world. In recognition of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month, Pete offered to speak with StartOut about his lived experiences, past and present, and the pathway forward for a founder on the rise.

Pete, what was it like growing up in your family’s restaurant business?

If you’ve ever visited a Chinese restaurant and seen kids working there, that could summarize my growing up. I have parents who don’t speak English. I learned a lot from reading to them whenever we had manuals or mail to go through.

The restaurant business is extremely grueling; it takes a ton of manual labor and mental stamina to survive. In a way, I think that taught me a lot about the grit it takes to become an entrepreneur. It also taught me how people like my parents who immigrated to the United States end up choosing to own a small business as a necessity to survive. In contrast, I’ve always viewed entrepreneurship as my passion. 

I studied business, among many other things, in school, but I’ve always viewed my experience in the restaurant as my main classroom.

When did you decide to pursue launching a startup?

I started this company in an informal way in June of last year. The whole brick-and-mortar industry doesn’t have a ton of leeway in terms of revenue, and we really saw that come to a boiling point in the early months of the pandemic when small businesses had to shut down. This made me want to think of a way to take that challenge on. 

More details will be coming as we exit stealth mode middle of summer and end of this year!

How did you discover StartOut?

At the end of last year, we were figuring out what kind of investors to bring in. We wanted to ensure that the dollars we were getting truly believed in us as people and our mission. Through a few different people, StartOut came up, and I was immediately interested in seeing how we could engage with the organization. I connected with a wonderful mentor, and we chat once or twice a week in a super productive and personal way. That’s the thing about StartOut that struck me – you really do facilitate a great connection between people with a shared commonality. 

How does the significance of AANHPI month affect you?

All of us as humans like to reflect. We’re a composition of our life experiences; I’m always thinking about my parents in all my work. I’m proud of them for their resilience and how they came from China and made it in America without having access to resources, let alone the language or money. 

At the end of the day, I know that being gay and Asian in the startup ecosystem is an interesting combination. And while our fragmented identities can give us a sense of where we come from, finding the shared humanity in all of us helps push us forward into the future.

Follow our blog on Medium for more monthly founder stories.

StartOut Investor Spotlights: Alla Adam’s Pathway to VC

Alla Adam (she/her) is a European-born investor and Lean Startup and VC Coach. The author of “Million Dollar Coach Playbook,” “Million Dollar Investor Playbook,” and “Million Dollar Negotiator Playbook,” Alla provides her coaching & mentoring expertise to founders, investors, and VC firms all across the world.

A self-made investor, Alla first got involved by investing in startups before building a global portfolio spanning the Americas, Europe, and parts of Africa and Asia. As a champion for queer, international women in VC, Alla’s journey inspires our entire StartOut community. Continuing our investor spotlight, Alla graciously spoke with us about her worldview and advice for anyone entering the ecosystem.

How did you first get involved in the VC world?

I got involved in VC in 2003. I was introduced to these interesting startups and began investing in them. I also became one of the early investors in Bitcoin. It all started with small checks before it grew.

What do you like most about supporting startups?

Well, purely financially, it’s high risk and high return. I am a curious human and like learning what motivates a founder. I’m less interested in index funds, where you wire the capital, wait for ten years, and then get a return. In startups, I have an opportunity to get involved in the process; everything happens much faster, I thrive in controlled chaos, and the opportunity to work in close connection with founders is irreplaceable.

I’m highly interested in the Australian, African, and LatAm markets. Traditionally, I started with early-stage startups before working into Series A, providing the same interest & inspiration. My areas of investment focus include but are not limited to Non-Violent Agriculture + Biomanufacturing + Vertical farms; Psychedelics; EdTech; AI; Clean Energy; HealthTech; Blockchain; Smart City Solutions; SpaceTech.

What does it mean to be a VC coach?

It’s commonly thought that startups need more coaching than VC firms, but I would disagree because I think that VCs also need a lot of support. How can we evaluate startups better? How do we reach outside our usual home base and expand to new markets? How can we negotiate better? How do we create an inclusive, diverse culture within the funds? What new models can we use to support our portfolio companies? Etc. These are the questions many VC firms have that I do my best to help with. There are also many cultural differences. 

There’s a strong GP-LP dynamic in VC firms, and the relationship between the two is often an area of growth that doesn’t come without conflicts and misunderstanding. I help navigate those issues by providing executive coaching & mentoring. 

How did you learn about StartOut?

It happened at the pandemic’s beginning when we all were suddenly locked down. I started looking for more ways to engage in the community. As a bisexual woman, I sought LGBTQ+ engagement and decided to talk to my community. From there, I was introduced to StartOut, and shortly after, I became a mentor. I’ve had such beautiful experiences with an entrepreneur in Los Angeles and one in Singapore.

What do you think of the current investment in the LGBTQ+ community?

I wish the level of investment were higher. At the moment, I see a rising trend with interest from VC funds. We experience the rise of involvement and raise of capital, but VCs need to be more inclusive and proactive. I hope that by 2025, we will see at least 25% of investment going to LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs in America.

America, Canada, and Latin America are more proactive in promoting LGBTQ+ founders, so these parts of the world need to help lead the way. We have a lot of issues in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. Asia is a little better, but the market is so closed that it’s hard to analyze what reliable data exists. This is why it’s critical for these markets that support LGBTQ+ equality to spearhead the change.

How would you recommend a new investor get involved?

Well, if we’re talking about the interest in investing in startups, it’s very useful to visit Demo Days. As an aspiring startup investor, you can listen to founders’ pitch decks and learn how to evaluate them. You should acquire experienced VC mentors and ask them thoughtful questions like, ‘What shall I pay attention to when I negotiate a potential deal?’ or ‘What are the main blind spots of investors?’

What would you say to Queer and women investors?

Indeed, it’s generally a male world, but as a woman, you learn how to swim in a red ocean. You are initially overlooked, and there’s a huge stereotype. But when they see your expertise, skills, and portfolio and understand your strategy, there’s a huge shift in respect.

I also would love to see more investors with an immigrant background. I was not born in the United States, so I was considered an outsider for a certain period. I went to two Ivy League schools to better understand the legacy of the American venture capitalist. Continue to put yourself into the conversation. Be assertive. Execute courage. Have skin in the game. 

Every human can make it in VC or startup. You might face significant obstacles, but that’s ok because it’s how you learn and gain experience. Choose yourself. Start today. It will be hard. You can do hard.

Connect with Alla on LinkedIn to learn more about her investments and strategies, and follow our blog on Medium for more monthly stories.

StartOut Investor Spotlights: Sam Sugarman and Fearless Fund

Sam Sugarman (he/him) is an Investor at Fearless Fund, a venture capital fund focused on pre-seed, seed, and series A-stage investments founded by women of color. In his role, Sam focuses on new investment opportunities, working with existing portfolio companies, and supporting Fearless Fund’s fundraising efforts. 

Sam spent two years in investment banking across the healthcare and restructuring sectors and two years in a private equity fund and co-investing at Hamilton Lane. Before these experiences, Sam completed venture capital and investment banking internships at Fortune 500 and startup technology companies. Sam attended Brandeis University and majored in Economics and Psychology.

As part of our Investor Focus series, Sam discussed his journey to VC and the pathway forward for underserved founders in 2023.

Sam, how did you get involved with Fearless Fund?

I started in the investment world with a limited partner and saw the whole landscape of the investment market. Early in my career, I was more interested in impacting and constantly seeking opportunities to help people.

I discovered Fearless Fund when the firm was relatively new on the scene and offered to help pro bono because I valued the mission immensely. I volunteered as a part-time analyst for a year before accepting a full-time position I’ve been in for over a year.

Could you tell me more about Fearless Fund’s beginnings? 

Of course! Fearless Fund was founded by two extraordinary women of color, Arian Simone and Ayana Parsons, in 2018. Both come from distinguished backgrounds; Arian has started multiple businesses, including brick & mortar and public relations companies. Ayana has worked with leading consumer companies, including P&G and Kimberly-Clark. Both partners have known each other for 20 years, and they’re incredibly invested in bettering their communities.

We fund everywhere, from pre-seed to Series A, and have invested in marketplaces, fintech, enterprise solutions, and more. We never want women of color to feel excluded because of their industry, and we offer an open door for all founders.

What’s best about working for an initiative-centric firm like Fearless Fund?

Seeing our impact on women of color entrepreneurs, a vastly underrecognized and undersupported sector of the startup ecosystem, is worth everything. We’ve had folks literally say that they wouldn’t have been able to get funding without Fearless Fund, which motivates me daily.

Aside from that, we’re focused on the community aspect of the founders we serve. We host a VC summit, an investor day, and a pitch competition, allowing us to get together and uplift the community.

My first VC summit was memorable because over 500 women of color came together to hear leading speakers. We believe in educating and providing holistic support for the founders, not just money.

How do you view the current state of VC investing in underrepresented founders, and where do you see it heading?

We’re posting an impact report about this very soon. As the funding environment tightens, we are particularly focused on making sure all underrepresented founders have access to financing opportunities, even if Fearless Fund is not the right investor. 

While we observed a positive trajectory in funding for underrepresented founders in 2020-2021, there needed to be a backstep in 2022. Many firms have continued to allocate capital to underrepresented founders, and JP Morgan, Amazon, Bank of America, and Mastercard have kept their word regardless of social or economic climate change.

I’d also like to give a shout-out to StartOut. I discovered the organization when looking for different accelerator opportunities for underserved founders, and I connected with some folks on the team. I say this without exaggeration, but the StartOut folks are some of the nicest people I’ve met in the startup world. I’ve never had a bad experience with anyone at the organization, and I’m in awe of the mission you lead and the founders you serve — big kudos to all the folks at StartOut.

You can connect with Sam on LinkedIn for the latest Fearless Fund updates and follow our Medium blog for more monthly stories.

StartOut Investor Spotlights: Bill Burckart and Colorful Capital

Time and time again, when we ask founders what they need help with the most as they build out their innovative startups, access to capital comes back as the number one answer. While getting funding as an out entrepreneur has never been easy, VC firms and angel investors focusing on uplifting the LGBTQ+ community are becoming increasingly present in the startup ecosystem.

Bill Burckart (he/him) is the co-founder of Colorful Capital, an investment firm bringing capital support and scaffolding to enterprises founded and led by members of the LGBTQIA+ community. As such, he’s one of StartOut’s most active investment supporters.

With a proven history in utilizing private capital to help change lives and create meaningful impact, Bill’s passion for helping our diverse community is longstanding.

Bill, how did you first get involved in the investment world?

From the beginning, I’ve been obsessed with how private capital can be harnessed to improve the world. My initial work was focused on the intersection of civil society, business, and government, where I sought to bring those sectors together to drive meaningful change. After working in venture philanthropy for a few years, that passion evolved into using investment capital to drive transformative change. 

These experiences positioned me to meet that challenge for the LGBTQ+ community. That’s when the idea for Colorful Capital came to be.

Tell me more about Colorful Capital. How did you start?

My work in the last 8 years was about how to invest in a way that drives systemic change, with a particular focus on inequality. How do you tackle that as an investor? Megan Kashner, my co-founder, had similar thoughts. What quickly went from being a conversation one day ended with launching Colorful Capital.

LGBTQ+ founders and leaders have been habitually overlooked and are routinely underestimated by mainstream capital providers. By filling financing gaps and overcoming detrimental heuristics, Colorful Capital bridges divides and strengthens economic opportunity. Diverse gender and sexual identity and expression are too often a barrier to access to capital and inclusion in traditional financial market flows. By investing in ventures led by members of our communities, Colorful Capital helps provide a pathway to success for promising ventures and their fabulous leaders.

What do you think about the current state of investment in LGBTQ-led startups?

This year, Gallup reported that 7.1% of the US population identify as LGBTQ+. From an investment standpoint, less than 1% of VC dollars go to supporting LGBTQ+ founders. Then you consider that the primary recipients of those limited dollars are white, cisgender, gay men and realize the disparities are astonishing. We have a long way to go still.

Despite this, there is a promising shift in the air. Even with all of the debate and dialogue regarding ESG considerations in investing, the trends are going upward. 90% of millennials want their dollars to back their values, and we certainly see that in the investment world.

With the current state of the economy, the next 12 months will be tricky. In periods of uncertainty, investors will be more conservative, but plenty of them will also look for nontraditional opportunities and unrecognized value. Because we’ve been so overlooked and undervalued, LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs present investors with a new opportunity to explore.

How can people learn more and get involved?

Megan and I write a regular column for NASDAQ that focuses in on the state of capital as it pertains to the LGBTQ+ community and illuminates new ways forward. I recommend checking that out if you’re interested in learning more about the stats and data behind LGBTQ+ enterprises, economics, and investment.

Of course, StartOut is the place for LGBTQ+ founders to start. With StartOut, founders find community, support, and access to capital providers like Colorful Capital. We also encourage founding teams to visit the Colorful Capital website and reach out to us to see if there’s a fit. 

For those interested in learning more about how Colorful Capital invests or in getting involved on that front, we’re always eager to expand the circle and welcome new capital into the growing community of investors focusing on LGBTQ+ talent and the companies they represent. 

You can connect with Bill on LinkedIn for the latest updates on Colorful Capital and follow our blog on Medium for more monthly stories.