Tye-Leigha Hagood: Breaking into Hollywood as a Black, Trans, Queer founder

“We’re trying to break a really hard glass ceiling, and while some people are there to offer help, you have to have that innate belief in yourself and your mission to survive entrepreneurship.”

Tye-Leigha Hagood (they/them) – or Tye for short – is a Black Trans Queer filmmaker, passionate about the revolutionary act of telling LBGTQ+ stories on a mainstream level.

Tye found their passion for film early in childhood, writing their first screenplay in the 6th grade. Searching for representation of LGBTQ+ and POC in a world with few options growing up, Tye grew to love queer foreign and indie films along with a love for theater and performing arts. 

Today, as the President and Chief Content Officer of Maniac Media, Tye and their team are breaking molds as Hollywood’s only Black-and-trans-led production company. And while the road to get there has been filled with highs and lows, the journey to entrepreneurship has given Tye their calling.

Tye, could you explain what the Maniac Group is?

The Maniac Group is the parent company of Maniac Media, a multimedia tech company based in Los Angeles. We are a team of dreamers, storytellers, and technologists, passionate about turning your ideas into stunning visuals and captivating sounds. 

My co-founders and I all represent queer, allied, first-generation Americans who believe in putting underrepresented communities in positions of power both behind the camera and in front of it. We assist from conception to completion and operate completely in house. This year, we’re looking forward to launching our animation studio to expand our capabilities within media production.

What gave you the idea to launch Maniac Media?

I started working on Maniac Media while I was still in film school. Since 2012, I’ve worked in producing, public relations, and event production but always knew that directing and producing was my true calling. 

When I got to film school, I realized that that world was filled with white, cis, transphobic and homophobic men who didn’t offer spaces for people like me to thrive. Additionally, many of these film school people had jobs lined up through family or friends, and I knew that queer kids don’t always have that option. I’ve owned a business before, and I know that for the doors to open, someone has to come in and blast them down. 

In the beginning, it was just myself running the company, but now in 2023, I help manage a team of 20 employees with my co-founders, Juma Ma, Paul Whitcomb, Ruben Ortiz, and Nathan Andurs-Hughes.

What have been some of the challenges you’ve faced since launching?

Access to Capital has always been a big thing to work through, and I know I’m not the only founder who’d say that. But the biggest thing to overcome has been me and my imposter syndrome. It’s hard to imagine that a Black, queer person can interject themself into this world and succeed, and I’ve had so many doubts with Maniac Media.

We’re trying to break a really hard glass ceiling, and while some people are there to offer help, you have to have that innate belief in yourself and your mission to survive entrepreneurship. I’m constantly trying to educate myself further and provide my team with that same opportunity. Education is a pathway to pulling yourself out of that imposter syndrome and finding that you can do what you set out to do.

How did you go about discovering StartOut?

I met with Tony Uceda when we were working together on a project for Pride. After seeing our decks, he recommended that we join the StartOut community to meet other LGBTQ+ founders and utilize their resources. 

I was matched with a mentor through StartOut, and she’s amazing. She understands what it’s like for women in business and fundraising and makes me feel like a superstar when I enter these spaces. We’ve only had a few meetings, but I know she’s a connection that will take Maniac Media and me to the next level.

What advice would you give to a new founder just starting?

Know your worth and understand your product. Don’t take anything less than your worth. Educate yourself daily on becoming a better CEO and understand that you don’t have to do it alone.

Also, you need to know the value of fundraising. Don’t feel like you must pour your life savings into your company to grow. I never thought VC was an option for me as a Black and queer transwoman, but firms have started to prioritize folks like me in the past couple of years.

Your company is only as good as its structure. Your policies, your payroll, your culture, etc., all need to be a 10/10. Set yourself up like you will be the next big thing in five years because you know what? You probably will be.


When not working Tye-Leigha is an avid advocate for reproductive justice and trans rights, being one of the lead organizers of the National Mobilization for reproductive Justice. Tye is passionate about joining with other Trans & Queer creatives of color in increasing Trans, POC, and women’s visibility both in front of and behind the camera.

You can connect with Tye-Leigha on LinkedIn for the latest updates on Maniac Media and follow our blog on Medium for monthly founder stories.

Gold Darr Hood and the path to making the world a FULLer place

“Finding a group of people who understand my experience as a queer founder has also been daunting, which is why I’m so grateful to the StartOut community for congregating people that you really want to have at your table.”

For Gold Darr Hood (she/they), the call to entrepreneurship has always been present.

Coming from a technology background with doctoral work in AI, Gold is a serial entrepreneur with a passion for effecting real change. With their company, FULL, Gold envisions a world where “everyone, everywhere, can have community-grown produce for a healthy life and a healthy planet.” 

A member of our current StartOut Growth Lab cohort, Gold and FULL are truly paving the way forward for LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs all over the world.

Gold, what challenge is FULL taking on?

At FULL, we connect people with land to make gardening easy and accessible. We’re creating community gardens with a social edge to bring everyone the benefit of fruits, veggies, flowers, and fun.

Unlike high-tech vertical gardens, community gardens offer a space for people to come together, which can be extremely helpful for mental health. We even have data that shows community gardens can help lower crime in high-density areas.

Our goal is to put clean air back into major metro areas and help feed people with healthy, fresh, high-nutrient foods.

What gave you the idea to launch?

My co-founder and I wanted to appeal to the new generation of buyers who have a more sophisticated expectation of technological depth and ecological balance. Studies show that the apple you eat today has far less nutritional value than the apple you ate as a child and that’s a frightening realization to have.

We looked at what already existed in the world and how we could expand on that through technology. We’re pretty spread out across the US, with some operations in global cities like London and Paris. 

We incorporated in the Spring of last year and pivoted pretty fast into sustainable developments through our gamified project management app.

What challenges have you encountered over the years as a serial entrepreneur?

Raising capital has always been such a heinous process that I’ve only agreed to do it a handful of times. Pitching to investors can be exhausting, especially when you’re dealing with investors who don’t always see the value in what you’re doing. I’ve had bad enough experiences that I didn’t want to ever work on a startup again. 

But the post-pandemic way of working has opened a ton of new doors. Pitching through Zoom allows me to bring my full and authentic self to every investor and if they don’t like what that is, I can end the conversation with a click of a button.

Finding a group of people who understand my experience as a queer founder has also been daunting, which is why I’m so grateful to the StartOut community for congregating people that you really want to have at your table. 

How did you discover StartOut?

As a serial founder, I haven’t done a good job of finding a community. Being an underrepresented founder, I tend to be closed off and introverted in professional settings, so I was thrilled when a prospective investor recommended I join StartOut. After researching the organization some more, I applied for the StartOut Growth Lab and we were accepted.

Growth Lab has been by far the most helpful accelerator I’ve ever seen and been a part of. The resources and questions posed to us have been genuinely thoughtful and eye-opening. The conversations I’ve had with other founders have helped me be ruthlessly pragmatic and refine my communication. Chris Davidson has also been such a guide as we plan the next five years of FULL.

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

I learned over the course of my career that asking for help is OK and it’s something I would really stress to any new founder as they begin their entrepreneurial journey. Asking for help doesn’t mean you’re not capable of doing something, it just means you can decipher if and when you’re the right person for that job. 

Looking back, I wish I could’ve sat my younger self down and said, ‘please take folks’ help’ but it’s a learning experience that’s made me wiser and helped me move forward one startup at a time.

Follow our blog on Medium for more monthly founder stories, and learn more about the StartOut Growth Lab on our website.

Black Founders Focus: Madilynn Beck’s mission to make wellness an on-demand right

Madilynn A. Beck, MEd AMFT (she/her), is a powerhouse in the health and wellness industry.

As the founder and CEO of The Better Spot, Madilynn’s mission is to create an on-demand wellness marketplace where practitioners and patients alike can get and deliver the care they need on their terms. 

And being the proud Black and queen woman founder, Madilynn is making the StartOut community all the more powerful.

Madilynn, what brought you to the world of wellness?

I became a therapist after having a series of recurring physical and emotional challenges where I felt like I was unraveling. Throughout my life, I’ve always been a huge supporter of advocating for mental health. 

Originally I’m from southeast Los Angeles. I went to school in New York, came out, and discovered that the true meaning of radical wellness means just being OK with who you are. 

While I was a therapist, I was also in therapy. This led me to an experience of sitting in both chairs and realizing that people don’t see therapists as humans – we’re seen as part of the system, and there’s dehumanization in the equity of wellness.

I began working on the in-person aspect of The Better Spot well before 2020, but when the pandemic happened, the bottom fell out. I was spiraling emotionally and deteriorating physically, but I had to pop on the camera for my clients and knew wholeheartedly that I was not the only wellness provider feeling this way. One new idea after another eventually led me to expand my vision of The Better Spot.

What is The Better Spot?

We’re a whole human approach to creating a culture of sustainable wellness. We have a secure online app focused on a safe virtual space for practitioners, a referral network promoting integrative care, and a physical space that acts as our marketplace for B2B practitioners and B2C clients. Instead of waiting months to book time with providers, we offer our clients immediacy, personalization, and diversity.

With our sights set on West Midtown Atlanta and the heart of Chicago, we’ve found  communities that support Black excellence and know The Better Spot will thrive there.

What challenges have you encountered as a founder? 

I’m a non-technical tech founder. I’m a creator and innovator, and it came naturally to me that I needed to pivot to entrepreneurship to make my vision a reality.

The Better Spot isolates the need for integrative care. When I worked for the Department of Mental Health in Los Angeles with kids aged 13 to 18, I realized they weren’t getting the integrative care they needed. These kids needed more than just a one-fits-all option. I had to do a lot of legwork for clients who couldn’t afford it and realized I’d need to leave for the public sector.

What you need doesn’t always stay the same. Most of us are ambiverts – both extroverts and introverts and companies in health and wellness have a responsibility to show up where people exist.

As a Black, queer, woman founder, what’s motivated you to grow in this space? 

My motivation has come from listening to my ancestors, and I’ve learned from them that the key to long-term existence is through our community. As a Black and queer woman in entrepreneurship, I’ve gone through hurdles and code-switched when I knew I needed to present a front. The way I can turn it on or off and be the Southside Chicago girl or flex the degree if need be is an experience unique to folks like me. 

The biggest challenge is the internal battle of wanting to present your authentic self in all situations. But I’ve learned that the need for space can often be solved by creating it yourself.

What advice would you give new founders wanting to begin their startup journey?

Two of the biggest things? Learn how to say no and learn it fast. Find your people – it always comes back to the people. You are the fastest person to discount yourself, so don’t get in your own way.

You can connect with Madilynn on LinkedIn for the latest updates on The Better Spot and follow our blog on Medium for monthly founder stories.

Black Founders Focus: Vinny Williams is eliminating missed connections through AddressMe Inc.

Vinny Williams (he/him) had an unconventional path to becoming an entrepreneur. He grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio until he moved to Atlanta at the age of 17 to pursue a record deal. After a career in music, and then law enforcement, Vinny fell into entrepreneurship. 

Today as the founder and CEO of AddressMe Inc., Vinny’s on a path to helping people connect with each other through a unique mobile app experience that helps introduce new connections in real-time.

Vinny, what led you to launch your own startup?

I’ve always been entrepreneurially spirited but never anticipated engaging in business at this scale. After moving to Atlanta to pursue a music contract, I traveled and performed around the world giving me immense opportunities. I’ve always looked at both artists and entrepreneurs, and other professionals who make money contractually as inspiration. The ability to make money on your own terms and on your own schedule motivated me.

My group music career ended in 2007 and I took a few steps back to figure out my next steps. From 2008 to 2011, I went back to school and got a degree in criminal justice. For about seven years, I worked as a law enforcement officer in Metro Atlanta.

In 2018, I finally decided to do something different as law enforcement wasn’t necessarily agreeing with me, and I started really pursuing entrepreneurship.

What motivated the idea behind AddressMe?

With my experience in music and criminal justice, I’ve always been interested in what moves people. I’d wonder what would happen If I were to try to make a product where I could help spontaneous connections happen with the people around me. Where would I start? 

In 2018, people were making new relationships on social apps and I wanted to use that system to put people into searchable terms to create new connections.

It took about twelve months to develop but we’re finally at a place with our product where we can launch in the Atlanta area.

What differentiates your company from other social networking apps?

We’re not purely focused on creating connections for dating. We’re motivated by all interactions.

What sets AddressMe apart is the in that moment connection you get through our app. Folks often tell me that they wonder about missed opportunities with other people and that it’s not just a problem for the LGBTQ+ audience.

How’d you discover StartOut?

I started scrolling through funding opportunities early on and wanted to reach out to investors who would have a more personal connection with the product.

You hear about founders who have a hard time raising capital, and it’s a genuine experience for the entrepreneur. StartOut was one of those organizations that felt like I could join and benefit from the plethora of resources they offered. I’m looking forward to meeting more members of the community, especially those in the investor space.

How has your journey as a Black founder impacted you and your mission?

I have a particular perspective as an underrepresented founder working on a product with a global view. A lot of people don’t want to see that and I’ve encountered a lot of red tape and roadblocks along the way. Being an entrepreneur is such a lonely experience so I kind of feel like I have to approach it like it’s me against the world. 

It’s made me stronger and it’s made me work harder to prove that my product and idea belong in the market. Sure, it’s hard, but the entrepreneurial journey isn’t made for those afraid to go through the wringer. I’m empowered by the uniqueness my experiences bring.

You can connect with Vinny on LinkedIn for the latest updates on AddressMe and follow our blog on Medium for monthly founder stories.

Black Founders Focus: Elena Givens and Healthcare Dollar are democratizing access to healthcare billing

For folks like Elena Givens (she/her), entrepreneurship is an entryway to unlimited potential.

Elena is a StartOut founder from Atlanta whose company, Healthcare Dollar, is the culmination of a long-term career in healthcare billing and a passion for helping people. Throughout her experiences, Elena’s discovered that patients’ access to information is limited, and through her mobile app, folks can research procedure costs in their area for a better understanding of what they’ll pay.

As an out, Black founder, Elena is paving the way forward for everyone with a startup dream. During Black History Month, we recognize founders – like Elena – that make StartOut the unique community it is. 

Elena, how did Healthcare Dollar come to be?

I started the company in 2019 after about 20 years of working in the revenue cycle. Throughout my work, my biggest concern was patients never knowing how much they’d pay out of pocket for procedures and medical practices.

After having a conversation with someone who was having a planned hysterectomy but didn’t know what her insurance would cover, I knew I wanted to do something. Out of that one conversation, Healthcare Dollar was born.

Did you ever think you would pursue a career in entrepreneurship?

I would’ve never thought to go down the road of entrepreneurship in my earlier years. I always wanted to be in healthcare, and I was good at numbers, so the financial side of things came naturally to me. 

Launching a startup came from the desire to help people struggle less. In finances and healthcare, there’s a structure that’s helpful to entrepreneurship but can be a hindrance. Every day I’m learning new things, and it’s a struggle but also something free and energizing. 

It’s a beautifully validating thing that often gives me peace.

What sets Healthcare Dollar apart?

Healthcare Dollar is consumer-based and consumer-driven to help people be informed.

We launched a mobile app in July of 2021 and are actively working on getting more data and information. Doctors and nurses don’t always know what something will cost on the back end, so we help people make decisions based on information curated by our network of providers. 

I aim to have every CPT code and every procedure readily accessible to give people an understanding of how much their care will cost. Even though I’m based in Atlanta, we have curated data for hospitals across the country. 

What challenges have you encountered since launching?

My biggest struggle was hiring three different developers. I learned about the terminology of application development and IT each time, and I appreciate going through that coding education to understand it for myself and my company better.

Networking has also been challenging. Talking about myself and my app is not something I’m used to as a very self-identified introvert, but it’s crucial as an entrepreneur. I’m the only one who can and will tell my story to people, so it’s an insecurity I’ve had to overcome. 

90% of the company has been bootstrapped, so funding is always something I’m looking for help and advice with. But regardless of the challenges, the reward for launching Healthcare Dollar on a personal and professional level has far outweighed them.

What has it been like navigating entrepreneurship as a Black and queer woman founder? 

I’m aware that in my space, I’m a novelty dealing with the healthcare and finances world. It’s a white, straight, male-dominated arena, and when you speak of a Black woman in this space, the first question I always get is, “well, how did you get the data to develop this?” I’ve often felt like people think I don’t have or shouldn’t have the skill set to be in this space, but here I am. 

It’s been a challenge, but I know that putting myself into this conversation is valid because I have the qualifications and expertise to address this real-world issue. I’m empowered by who I am; no one can tell me otherwise.

You can connect with Elena on LinkedIn for the latest updates on Healthcare Dollar and follow our blog on Medium for more monthly founder stories.

Black Founders Focus: Brianna Flemings and the unlimited possibilities of creator networking

February is a time to celebrate the contributions and achievements of Black history makers. The StartOut community is enriched because of the work Black founders have put in to ensure their seat at the table is longstanding and meaningful.

Over the years, we’ve told the stories of the inspiring Black entrepreneurs that define StartOut, and this year is no different. Brianna Flemings (she/her) is a founder from South Florida who launched Jem last year. Throughout her career, Brianna found that the pathway of a Black female founder enriched her, her company, and the people around her.

Brianna, tell us a little bit about your professional journey.

Professionally, where do I start? I am originally from the Philadelphia and Delaware area. When I moved to Miami, I was a freelance Web Designer and a DJ while supporting myself through college while studying Computer Science at St. Thomas University. I received my Masters in Application Development from Nova Southeastern University and currently work as a Scrum Master for a North Carolina company and the founder of Jem.

When and why did you start Jem? What issue were/are you looking to address? What gap did you notice in the current market?

I officially started Jem in July 2022 and launched in November 2022. We’ve designed a mobile app allowing creators to network directly with others. I noticed early in my career that we have all sorts of platforms for professionals to connect, but not necessarily any way to bridge the gap for creators to network. 

Did you ever think you’d become an entrepreneur?

Yes, I knew I would because it eats me up to sit on an idea and not at least TRY to move forward on it – some, if not most, of these ideas have been monetized. I have always embodied an entrepreneurial mindset since I was a kid.

What are some of the biggest challenges in your startup journey?

My biggest challenge is finding proper funding to move this forward, whether it be grants or angel investments. I’d say because we are not super profitable with a lot of users currently, it is tough to attract investors, however I do enjoy the bootstrapping journey. 

What has it been like navigating your journey as a Black, LGBTQ+ founder?

I use being Black and LGBTQ+ as a superpower because it is. My uniqueness comes from the fact that I am a Black, queer woman founder. I use that to my advantage every day to remind myself that I am the reason other Black and LGBTQ+ folks can continue to build confidence within themselves to become founders.

At times, I felt like nobody is paying attention to what I am building. Has that been a reason I take my time to find my way to push the needle forward? One thousand times, yes.

Why did you join StartOut?

I joined StartOut because I wanted to get to know more LGBTQ+ founders while exploring the resources available to us to push our businesses. I have met a few folks, but this month (February) will be my first time attending a StartOut event. When I was accepted to the program, I, unfortunately, received bad news regarding my father and had to go back to Philadelphia for over a month and just worked from up there.

What advice would you give to founders looking to start their startup this year?

Many people tell founders to rush their ideas to see if they will fail. Take your time, write out your ideas, and figure out what you need to get started. Network, gather opinions, but most importantly, take your time with yourself before you grow to dislike your idea.

You can connect with Brianna on LinkedIn for the latest updates on Jem. Follow our blog on Medium for more monthly founder stories.

Hernan Lopez: A StartOut Trailblazer

On October 20th, we gathered in NYC to celebrate the 11th Annual StartOut Awards honoring leaders of LGBTQ+ entrepreneurship.

Hernan Lopez, our 2022 Trailblazer awardee, has truly lived a life paving the way for others.

From a very early age, Hernan learned the value of working with others. As a college student, Lopez took classes at night and worked during the day to get by, all while getting to know folks with different backgrounds and perspectives.

At 22, Lopez boldly asked for a management position where he led a sales team of people older than him, which taught him how to get the best out of someone.

Hernan moved to the United States to work for FOX International Channels. While working, he earned a Master’s in Business Administration from the University of Miami. He quickly rose through the company, eventually becoming President and CEO. When asked about his leadership philosophy, Hernan acknowledges that a true leader never stops growing:

“There aren’t any innate leadership qualities you can’t learn. People usually think leaders need to be extroverted, but that is not true; many effective leaders are introverted. You never stop learning to be a better leader, just like you never stop learning to be a better human being.”

“I don’t think I would have made it to the C-suite level at FOX if I hadn’t taken those classes. At the same time, I don’t think my superiors would have offered that same advice to me if we were working together today.”

Hernan always thought about entrepreneurship as a means to make a difference. Like so many founders, he found within himself the courage to create something and launched the podcasting company, Wondery in 2016. In four years, the company exploded in the industry, eventually being acquired by Amazon for reportedly more than $300 million. This validated Hernan’s decision to leave FOX and become a founder, which he admits came with some hesitation.

“The first two years were pretty challenging, but when you’re considering starting something on your own, you can get too paralyzed by the fear of failure. Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to work for bosses who encouraged people to try and made it safe to fail. Failure is inevitably part of the building process, and if you don’t fail, you’re not trying hard enough.”

Throughout his career, Hernan’s success as an entrepreneur has always come back to the relationships he fosters.

“The day only has 24 hours, and you only have two hands. The ability to accomplish anything depends on how good of a team you have surrounding you. You can always work with others, inspire, and help them realize their dreams just as they’ve helped you.”

Hernan Lopez’s Favorite Books about Entrepreneurship:

You can follow Hernan on TwitterLinkedIn, and Instagram.

New Year, New Members: Brian Hecht and the path to running an accelerator

Brian Hecht (he/him) always dreamed of becoming a journalist but never let any door stay closed.

After years of working in print and TV news, Brian felt the career path wasn’t an end all be all. With an innate entrepreneurial instinct, he worked on several startups before finding a home at the Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator (ERA) in New York. Eight years later, Brian oversees the accelerator program as a managing director and venture partner, helping to guide 15 companies every six months. 

With the new year ushering in new possibilities and connections, Brian spoke with us about his story, his passion for startups and serving diverse founders, and the power of LGBTQ+ entrepreneurship.

Brian, please give us a little background on your work with ERA.

Of course. The Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator – or ERA – is an early-stage accelerator for tech startups. We’re very different from other accelerator programs because we operate as a New York-centric boutique shop. We host two cohorts a year, 15 companies each, totalling 30 companies a year.

Our 16-week intensive hands-on program goes through everything a founder might need help with: figuring out how to raise money, how to build a business plan, how to tell your story, etc. We facilitate all kinds of structured activities and offer a co-working space for founders who often recognize that the journey can be lonely.

We’ve been around for about 12 years and just launched our 24th cohort this month. We have over 300 companies in our portfolio who have raised about $1.7 billion since beginning our program graduations.

What led you down the path of working for and running an accelerator?

I come at this from 20 years of being a startup founder myself. When I was younger, I thought I wanted to be a journalist. I served as the managing editor of the Harvard Crimson, worked in print and TV, and taught school for a year in England. But as I started looking at the career path ahead of me, I knew I wanted to do something else and eventually worked my way into business.

Thinking through the business side of things, I was an early founder of four companies, all in the tech space. Before the internet was around, I got a call from an investor on behalf of a startup in Williamstown, Massachusetts. They were building a website for the first time and needed someone with an editorial background. I worked there for a few years and eventually transitioned into business.

But being at ERA is a combination of everything I’ve done. I get to be a teacher, a storyteller, and use my experience as a founder to help new founders grow their startups. 

In the mid-2010s, I reconnected with a co-founder of ERA, and I was recruited to be a mentor. I did that for one or two cohorts and realized how much I love doing it. I became a lead mentor for several years and found that to be even more rewarding because you got to really know a company. 

Three years ago, I became a full-time team member, and in the last year, I took over running the accelerator. 

How have accelerator programs changed in the past few years?

Ten years ago, there wasn’t really a huge conception of accelerators. There were no right or wrong patterns to do these things, and every accelerator troubleshot effective and ineffective approaches. The ‘startup grind’ was not a thing at the time. 

When I was starting my businesses, I had to learn a lot of lessons the hard way. I made so many mistakes along the way that could’ve been prevented if I had been part of an accelerator, so I try to help provide that resource today.

I was sold when I realized the value of our ERA and the support network we offer. 

What sets ERA apart from other accelerator programs?

Our program’s biggest benefit is the personalized care and attention we give to every startup, which is partially a function of our small cohort size. We also started focusing on New York rather than Silicon Valley, which wasn’t as common.

In addition, we’re lifelong investors, and I spend a quarter of my time talking to alums. Whether they’re on their last payroll and fighting to stay alive or they’re thriving, we’re here to talk things through – whatever it is and whenever it is. 

What brought you to StartOut?

As a venture partner, one of my passion projects was expanding representation for LGBTQ+ people and other underrepresented folks because the startup world is shockingly white and male. Then when you look at who’s actually receiving funding, the representation percentages are even lower. 

When we were drumming up LGBTQ+ founders to participate in a pitch event we were hosting, StartOut’s name came up. I’ve had several conversations with Kayla DiPilato, StartOut’s Partnerships Manager, and we’ve discussed all the different ways our organizations can support each other. In two days, Kayla helped connect me with four uniformly high-quality founders that were uniformly high quality, and now I’m trying to figure out how to take that to the next level.

This is just the beginning of our relationship with StartOut. I’m excited to get more involved personally and professionally with the Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator.


You can follow @brianhecht on Twitter and connect with Brian on LinkedIn for the latest updates on his work with ERA. Be sure to follow our blog on Medium for more monthly founder stories!

Applications for ERA’s Summer 2023 Accelerator, including a $150k investment and an intensive four-month program, are now open. Learn more and apply here.

New Year, New Members: Erica Crell, DPP, and the expanding opportunities for Delaware’s LGBTQ+ founders

Every year, we leverage hundreds of strategic partnerships with various organizations that seek to do the same because we know that building a more inclusive opportunity for entrepreneurs takes a village.

Erica Crell (she/her) is a brand new StartOut member joining us from the Delaware Prosperity Partnership (DPP). As the lead economic development organization for the state, the DPP’s goal is to build a more inclusive and prosperous entrepreneurial community. As the organization’s Innovation Manager, Erica spearheads the expanding diverse pool of business owners and founders throughout the state.

As one of our newest members this year, Erica spoke with us about her journey, her mission in life, and what she’s looking forward to in 2023.

Erica, could you discuss how you got to your current position at DPP?

I went to school at Rutgers, where I graduated with a degree in English. Early in my career, I spent some time working in the medical publishing and advertising world, working primarily with Fortune 500 pharmaceutical companies. I developed, managed, and implemented managed care-focused programs and was responsible for forecasting and managing projects generating over $1.4 million in annual revenues while assisting management with sales and increasing company profit by over 30% annually.

In 2020, I joined Delaware Sustainable Chemistry Alliance (DESCA) as a marketing and program manager. Being in this role exposed me to work that impacted my entire state and eventually helped me transition into my current role at DPP. I’ve been able to use my science background and entrepreneurial background to help entrepreneurs across Delaware.

Aside from my day job, I’ve been lucky enough to spend more than two decades coaching field hockey across Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. Through my coaching experience, I’ve gotten to know my community, what it takes to work as a team, and what motivation certain folks need to succeed.

What brought you to StartOut?

StartOut’s partnerships manager, Kayla DiPilato (she/her), serves on the steering committee for an initiative of ours called Startup 302. A StartOut Growth Lab alum, Carbon Reform, is an active member and has participated in our program.

After connecting early on with Kayla, we’ve tried to make an effort to leverage our resources, local and national, to have a greater reach within the entire LGBTQ+ entrepreneurial community.

She’s been a great resource, and we’ve spoken multiple times about how DPP can help StartOut and vice versa. It truly has been such a meaningful partnership, and I’m excited to see where we can go this year

What is Startup 302?

Startup 302 is a community-organized pitch competition based in Delaware but open to companies from around the country, focused on startups led by founders from underestimated groups. The competition, which offers non-dilutive cash grants as prizes, is open to early-stage, venture scalable companies led by founding teams, including women, Black, Latinx, Native-American, and LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs. The competition’s application and first two rounds of review will be virtual, and the finals will be held in person in Wilmington, DE, on April 27th.

StartOut is one of a handful of organizations that have helped us put this pitch competition together, and we’re incredibly grateful for their support.

How has Delaware helped level the playing field for diverse founders and startups?

Generally speaking, Delaware is one of the most inclusive communities in the country. We have a very large Queer scene and offer hundreds of resources, opportunities, and support services to help lift and empower LGBTQ+ Delawareans.

Not many states prioritize underserved communities’ economic potential, and I’m proud to say we do so. We want everyone in Delaware, and we want everyone to feel like they have a voice in our world.

When you look at the stats and see how less than 1% of VC dollars back LGBTQ+ startups, it’s alarming. We try our best to help lead the change forward by doing it in one of the most diverse states in the country.

You can connect with Erica on LinkedIn for the latest updates on her work with DPP, and follow our blog on Medium for monthly member stories.

Checking in with Growth Lab Grads: Maca Baigorria and Avocademy

Cohort 8 graduate Maca Baigorria (she/her) took Avocademy to the next level in 2022.

The company is a career education program that helps people transition to the UX/UI design field. Since launching the UX/UI Foundations Program in 2020, Maca and her team have helped mentor hundreds of students, added new course offerings, and grown their team exponentially.

“It’s our goal to create an affordable way for newcomers from all backgrounds to join the next generation of UX designers. Our learn-by-doing approach helps students build portfolios and gain real-world experience,” Maca said. “We also offer a Career Jumpstart program which provides students with tailored job search assistance to ensure their long-term success.”

With Cohort 11 applications for the StartOut Growth Lab in full gear, Maca spoke with us about her experience. Founders who’ve graduated from the StartOut Growth Lab have helped raise $763M+ in funding and created over 3,650+ new jobs – a true testament to the impact of LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs.

Maca, how’s it been since graduating from the Growth Lab?

It’s been a full year since graduating but it feels like a lifetime. Numbers-wise, in October, we had like $130k a month in revenue, up from the average $30k we raised each month during Growth Lab. Today we’re averaging $700k a month, and I think a lot of that is based on how much growth we’ve achieved in a year.

We have a full-time team of 10 people now. I hired my first employee during Growth Lab after crunching the numbers with Chris Davidson.

What skills did the cohort provide you with?

Growth Lab gave me the community I needed. I grew up with little money and no experience with other founders. There wasn’t a network for me, so I didn’t know what success looked like.

I needed that consistent check-in with others telling me that “I could do this” every week. Growth Lab helped push me and push my company forward.

It also helped me learn about running a company I hadn’t thought about, like fundraising and legal advice. Ironically, but not by accident, my accountant and lawyer are references I received from other alums.

How did your experience help shape your future trajectory with Avocademy?

I feel more empowered to pursue whatever future I want with the company. I’ve spent time elevating employees, handing off responsibilities, and training people so that I can pursue more free time in life.

The outcome of Growth Lab is much greater than I thought it would be. I was scared of the time commitment, but it’s worth it and nothing to worry about. I didn’t understand the impact, but it’s crazy how much you can learn and grow in six months.

What advice would you give to folks wanting to apply?

Do it. Don’t hesitate to apply and when you get in, really prioritize the accelerator and the exercises you go through. Cherish the connections you make because some will last a very long time.

I think connections feel stronger when we bond over being part of the LBGTQ+ community – and it’s no different in the startup world. The founders and investors you meet through Growth Lab have a stronger connection because that personal connection bonds us.