Checking in with Growth Lab Grads: Bastiaan Ellen and Mr. Hudson

When Bastiaan Ellen and his co-founder decided to apply their company, Mr. Hudson, for the StartOut Growth Lab’s 9th cohort, they were hesitant.

Bastiaan (he/him) was nervous that the accelerator would pull the pair away from the business they were increasingly busy with. But after being accepted and spending a few weeks with their new cohort, Bastiaan realized that the program was wealth worth the time.

Their company comprises a team of expert trip designers who “inspire and help book unique and luxurious vacations for sophisticated travelers that prioritize style and beautiful design.”

With Cohort 11 applications for the StartOut Growth Lab in full gear, we’re catching up with founders like Bastiaan, who collectively have helped raise $763M+ in funding and created over 3,650+ new jobs – a true testament to the impact of LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs.

Bastiaan, what brought you and your co-founder to StartOut and applying for the Growth Lab?
At the time, my co-founder was based in NYC, and we were actively talking about applying for accelerators and incubators to help Mr. Hudson grow better. He came across StartOut, and we thought it was pretty cool that the organization focused exclusively on LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs – especially because our entire startup is Gay owned-and-operated. He spoke with Ryan, and we decided to apply.

What qualities of an accelerator were you looking for?
Our main objective was to find more access to funding. And once we discovered that being in a cohort with other like-minded LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs was possible, we wanted to be part of it.

The kind of accelerator we didn’t want was where we’d get groomed for specific investments. We wanted a program in tune to what we wanted and needed as a startup. Growth Lab offered flexibility and didn’t pressure us to raise certain amounts of money as other accelerators do.

What was one of your favorite parts of Cohort 9?
The best experience for us was the bi-weekly office hours, where we spent about three to four hours talking through where we were in our startup journey. We’d discuss the successes we had, the challenges we had, and what we wanted to keep doing.

It was so valuable to know what other founders were going through at the same time as us. We built a community and helped each other through our challenges and ups and downs.

Do you still keep in touch with your cohort?
Yes! We’re still in close contact with two other founders. We like to meet up virtually every month just to talk about our businesses and what we have going on. One is actually a client of ours as well.

What advice do you have for founders launching their startups in 2023?
Always take a step back and consider if there is truly a market for your product. When you’re a founder, you’re passionate about something but don’t always consider who you’re building for. You should ensure you’re having the right conversations with the right audiences before doing anything.

The odds are stacked against any founder, especially if you’re a minority. Always do your homework and get involved with organizations like StartOut that could help you navigate the process and foster connections.

What advice would you give to folks wanting to apply for Growth Lab?
If you’re a founder like me and you find it difficult to ask for help, get over it. Being a founder is lonely and keeping your sanity and mental health in line is hard. But there are organizations like StartOut that exist purely to support you, so you should take advantage of that!

Talk to people and go for it. You’ll thank yourself later.

Checking in with Growth Lab Grads: Paige Williams and AudPop

With Cohort 11 applications for the StartOut Growth Lab in full gear, we’re catching up with our alums. 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.

Paige Williams (she/her) is the CEO and founder of AudPop, a social impact video submissions platform that activates diverse storytellers to create video content for all business needs.

“We make getting video at scale simple and affordable,” the Montana-based founder says.

AudPop’s technology and community-driven ecosystem connects creators, brands and agencies. AudPop has a diversified business model that includes video and content submissions software, events, video library, subscriptions, and original content.

Last year, Paige and AudPop graduated from Cohort 8 and participated in our 2021 StartOut Demo Day.

Paige, what motivated you to launch AudPop back in 2013?

I’m a documentary filmmaker by trade, and I found a passion for connecting creators to brands and getting their videos out. I believe a story well told can change the world, so why not do it one thousand stories at a time?

We want to democratize entertainment and create a world without gatekeepers saying who can or can’t show up and tell stories.

How did your experience in filmmaking help you in your beginnings as an entrepreneur?

Every film is a business; you have to raise money, find a crew, find distributors, and work cross-collaboratively to make your film come to life. That experience helped me as an entrepreneur because I led with that team-focused mindset in everything I did, launching AudPop. I also taught a business of film and entertainment course at the University of Montana and understood business plans, management, etc., as it related to filmmaking.

What was your experience like with the StartOut Growth Lab?

The mentorship was critical, but the community aspect stood out to me in the StartOut Growth Lab. I got to know some great LGBTQ+ founders, and there aren’t many ways to meet like-minded queer entrepreneurs nationally. StartOut is original in this way. It’s a place where we can gather as a cohort and get support for our startups and celebrate pride. The community is everything.

What has AudPop been up to since graduating?

We’re continuing to grow and scale our platform. We’ve signed two strategic partnership deals that will be pretty significant for the company – but more on that to come. We’ve continued to provide filmmakers and creators with jobs, and we’re about to launch a series of live events. A big win this quarter, we just screened the top videos from our Verizon and Kindness Video contest in NYC in Times Square on the NASDAQ jumbotron for World Kindness Day. It was amazing to provide such a grand stage for our creator community.

We’re also planning to run a Pride Film challenge in June to bring together brands, businesses, content creators, and all folks interested in supporting LGBTQ+ filmmakers.

If your business needs great video, get in touch at paige@audpop.com.

What advice would you give to a queer founder planning on launching a startup?

Make sure you’re fulfilling a need in the marketplace and that people will pay for your product or service. LGBTQ+ founders should join StartOut and connect within the community. It’s a great hive mind to share resources and ideas and have great conversations with like-minded people in your circle.

Bring on exceptional talent. Have a vision but keep it super simple at first; find one product or service that serves the need and tell that story extremely well. That ability to tell your story will make or break your business.

Ascending the Silicon Hills: Relaunching the Austin Chapter with Lindsay Powell

Members of StartOut Programming Boards come from all backgrounds, industries, and life experiences, but all are bound together by one common goal: helping LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs to succeed.

Lindsay Powell (he/him) is one of them.

Lindsay is the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) of Tech Ranch – an award-winning, Texas-based accelerator that works to position startups for long-term growth – and CEO of Lindsay Powell and Associates LLC – a startup business consultancy and angel investing company. He is also the co-chair of our Austin chapter. He shares our mission of leveling the playing field for queer founders and is personally leading the fight to bring underrepresented entrepreneurs in the South of the USA to the main stage.

According to our StartOut Pride Economic Impact Index (SPEII), “43% of the major metropolitan areas in the United States have no LGBTQ+ entrepreneur, where less than half are in the South.”

For this reason, Lindsay’s goal is to make Austin, Texas (ATX) the entryway for queer founders to entrepreneurship through in-person events, community building, and global impact in the South.

Lindsay, could you share what brought you to the world of entrepreneurship?

I’m originally from Cardiff, Wales, and graduated from Aston University in Birmingham, England with a bachelor of science degree in Managerial and Administrative studies. That educational background, and working in retail in my spare time, introduced me to sales and marketing, which is where I made my career.

Early in my career, I worked for 3M Company, where I held various positions of increasing seniority. I learned about many technology-based markets, their competitive landscapes, supply chains, and distribution channels. 3M ingrained in me a deep passion for customers, market research, new product development, and marketing communications in different countries.

Eventually, I moved to the United States, settling in Austin. My best friend here, Sonia St James, was a serial entrepreneur. She opened my eyes to startups and startup ecosystems. Together we set up an ebook training company: it was only partially successful and, in a case study of “fail fast,” we took the agonizing decision to shut it down within the year, but it was fun, and I was now hooked on entrepreneurship.

Later I became a mentor to early-stage entrepreneurs through TarmacTX, a joint venture between 3M and Inco Group. I had the fantastic opportunity for a career pivot when I myself became the program manager for TarmacTX and ran the Fourth Cohort in 2019. I co-developed the curriculum, set up our Demo Day, and kept members engaged with the program, which was an immensely fulfilling experience.

Through TarmacTX, I met Sarah Burgaud, who told me about StartOut. At her suggestion, I applied to become a mentor, and I have been involved in StartOut ever since.

What are some of the most common misconceptions of entrepreneurship today?

Many believe that you can only succeed in entrepreneurship if you run a tech-based startup, one offering a mobile app, a SaaS application, or an electronic device. The programming board of StartOut Austin discussed this at length and decided that our target client just has to be an LGBTQ+ business founder embarking on the entrepreneurial journey. Your product or service doesn’t need to be technological to join StartOut. So many incredible new LGBTQ+-owned and operated companies – in business services, creative, education, hospitality, media, or retail – have nothing to do with the tech industry. Yet they face the same challenges – validating product/market fit, assembling a founder team, getting orders, raising seed capital, and all the rest. The need for hard work, the ability to deal with rejection, grappling with the pains of scaling up, and the willingness to learn from mistakes and move on – all entrepreneurs face the same issues, regardless of the type of business or market space.

Economic equity is the new frontier for our community. We’ve made so much progress with social justice issues, and, while we still need to fight to maintain those hard-won rights, the significant lag is growing the ‘gay dollar’ and valuing all that LGBTQ+ business leaders can bring to the table if just given a chance.

Indeed, I take it personally. Through my own company, Lindsay Powell and Associates LLC, I invest in LGBTQ+ companies. I am an active member of StartOut’s investor community and of Gaingels, a syndicate of LGBTQ+ angels that “co-invests with select venture capital leads in companies resolved on building diverse and inclusive teams.” The amount of deal flow I see is incredible, proving that there are really talented LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs with great ideas out there!

How did your experiences lead you to Tech Ranch?

After TarmacTX, I joined the team at Tech Ranch as CMO. We focus on international startups looking to break into the US market. Coming from another country myself, there’s something about American startups that’s quite different from those raised in foreign lands; we help founder teams from overseas to understand and master that American approach. In my role at Tech Ranch, I get to leverage my experience in marketing with my love for education and entrepreneurship in my adopted city.

How has Austin emerged as a leading city for startups and queer culture?

There was a lot of talk in 2019, in those far-off pre-pandemic days, about Austin giving Silicon Valley a serious run for its money. Compared to San Francisco or San Jose, there was such an incredibly welcoming, laid-back quality about this city. Post-pandemic, there are a lot of new people and new money coming in – ironically from California – that has driven change in the community. One direct consequence is it is getting more expensive to set up and live in ATX.

But the essential character of Austin remains: collaboration rather than competition defines the entrepreneur community in the Silicon Hills. Having a relatively younger population, and being a major center for education, we’ve always been a bit more progressive – ‘Weird’ as the city’s tagline goes – than the larger cities in the Lone Star State. There’s not as much old money in Austin as in, say, Dallas, Fort Worth, or Houston, yet we have what a lot of startups are looking for. First and foremost, we have a tremendous, forward-looking community here. This bodes well for us over the next decade.

How has it been working with the Austin chapter of the programming board?

The current board inherited an active chapter. The pandemic completely shut us down: face-to-face events ceased, most notably HackOut, which was the chapter’s best known. We tried virtual events with limited success. With the gradual return to the new normal, StartOut Austin is now working on relaunching the chapter.

With the exception of myself, our programming board is entirely new. My co-chairs, Natalie Demary (CryptoFemme) and Kory Kelly (LegalKarma), are both entrepreneurs. We’re all volunteers who bring new ideas and energy to the project. It is exciting because we get to craft our chapter’s program for the needs of the LGBTQ+ startup community today.

As the only StartOut chapter in the South, it feels great knowing that we’re helping to lead the change in our business community. We are working closely with partners, like Sputnik, on collaborative events. Early indications are that people value our mission and what we’re doing, and that is extremely encouraging.

As we plan for 2023, we’re looking for people to join our board, and for partners and sponsors to collaborate on events. I’d encourage anyone in ATX who’s interested in getting involved to reach out to Natalie, Kory, or myself and talk about joining us.

Being an entrepreneur is a challenging life choice. The odds are particularly stacked against any startup founder when you add in the LGBTQ+ factor. Our mission is to help any gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer entrepreneur to improve their chances of success through our activities right here in Austin, Texas.

Level Up Ventures’ Iyke Iwotor is Making Sure VC Backs Diverse Founders in 2023

Iyke Iwotor (he/him) is a Venture Analyst with Level Up Ventures, “a mission-driven investment vehicle created to close the wealth gap through investment in high-growth startups led by Black and Latino founders.” He’s an up-and-coming leader in the investment community determined to address the issues that keep VC dollars from backing aspiring entrepreneurs.

As a co-founder himself, Iyke knows the value of the startup journey and uses his expertise in VC and entrepreneurship to help others build their businesses.

As part of our New Year, New Members campaign, we welcomed Iyke into the StartOut community and spoke to him about his experience, what brought him to StartOut, and what he’s looking forward to in 2023.

Iyke, how did you start getting involved in venture capital?

Well, it wasn’t always something I thought I’d be doing with my career path. I graduated from the University of Georgia in 2021 with a BBA in economics. While I was in my junior year of school, a group of friends and I started our own online boutique apparel store called Elevate Thrifts. We did pretty well, scaling nationally after launching, and the experience gave me a sense of the entrepreneurial lifestyle. It’s so touching to take something you’re passionate about and turn it into something others can enjoy.

During my last semester at UGA, I applied for a data analyst internship with Hearstlab, a Hearst backed sister investment vehicle providing capital and services to early-stage, Womxn-led startups in North America.

I didn’t know what venture capital was at the time; I just knew the people at the company were focused on funding underrepresented founders, and that was a mission that aligned with my personal interests.

That 8-month internship helped me learn an abundance about the startup world, and I eventually moved into a full-time role with Level Up Ventures as a Venture Analyst. In my current role, I focus on investing in underrepresented founders, particularly Black and Latinx.

How does your personal experience as a Black founder help you in the work you do with Level Up?

Growing up, my family always said I was good with money, so I have some innate entrepreneurial instincts. I saved up for my first car by selling some old clothes in my closet.

As a Black African-American male, I recognize that not many people from my neighbourhood can attend a school like UGA. As a primarily white institution (PWI), I often felt inadequate or like I didn’t belong on campus. This led to serious feelings of imposter syndrome early on in my undergrad until I finally decided I had just as much of a right to be there. When that lightbulb switched and I made that adjustment, I began approaching everything from that mindset. Today I’ve been transitioning those same feelings to founders building something great!

I know what it’s like to feel undeserved because you look a certain way, come from a certain place, or didn’t grow up a certain way, you shouldn’t have certain opportunities. But it’s just not true.

What’s been a memorable or rewarding experience since joining Level Up?

One of my favorite moments has been working with Daniela Blanco, the CEO of Sunthetics – a chemical software company. She’s a brilliant Latina founder whom I met early in her journey. She was still beginning to bring in revenue, but we had a gut feeling that she and her company had what it takes to succeed with a great, focused idea and a strong, well-minded leader.

Seeing Daniela go from where she started to where she is now – getting featured on the front page of the USPTO – makes me feel so validated by the work we do every day.

Less than 3% of VC funding goes to Black and Latinx founders. Our goal is to increase that percentage as much as possible and as quickly as possible.

What brought you to join StartOut?

Obviously, through my work, I see how underserved womxn, Black, and Latinx-led founders are, so I naturally wondered what the LGBTQ+ community looked like. After some research, I realized how shockingly underfunded LGBTQ+ founders were, even when compared to Black and Latinx communities, as less than 1% of funds were allocated to the community.

StartOut is a leading face of this movement, so I knew I had to get involved. I reached out to Sarah Burgaud and asked how I could be of aid. She immediately introduced me to a couple of founders and plugged me into the StartOut investor community. It’s been a great conversation, and I’m happy to be going into 2023 with this connection.

I’d also love to give a special kudos to the VC firms that support LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs – Gaingels, Backstage Capital, Colorful Capital; they’re putting in the work every single day.

This year, I look forward to continuing our shared mission to diversify the startup world. The more people we get involved with, the better off we’ll be in the long run.


You can connect with Iyke on LinkedIn for the latest updates on his work with Level Up Ventures. Be sure to follow our blog on Medium for monthly member stories.

StartOut Education Founders: Sheena Macrae and the Power of Storytelling for Kids

Sheena Macrae (she/her) is an artist-turned-entrepreneur with a passion for educating children. For nearly eight years, Sheena’s worked on a storybook brand called Ollie Club that inspires and motivates young kids on their journeys with food wellness.

When beginning, Sheena didn’t think her brand would expand past the book. But today, Ollie Club has entered the homes of millions of families and is sold globally from Canada to Australia. And as the brand’s founder and CEO, Sheena is leveraging the power of community to take her company even further.

Sheena, could you talk a little about your film and art background?

I studied as a filmmaker and contemporary artist for years, and that cemented how I look at things. In art, you’re trying to make things that people can see in not-so-obvious ways and have them develop conversations. That grounding as an artist let me see projects in different ways. Out of that, I had the opportunity to start making films in the educational space that focused on kids learning.

Once you make a film for someone and translate that into visuals, you’ve become the translator of someone’s vision. You gain insights into that field by doing so.

How did your background in art help spark the beginning of Ollie Club?

I ended up running an educational company making videos, books, websites, etc., and that’s how I started. One of the projects that begat Ollie involved working with educators that focused on children’s health in one of the poorest areas in Europe. We realized we needed to make this material more appealing to people. We had to get the kids, parents, and teachers involved, and I thought writing a storybook would be the most accessible way.

The brand revolves around Ollie, the world’s pickiest eater – and with the help of his magic spoon gets hilarious food superpowers. The storybook was commissioned into a TV series, and now we’ve got 52 episodes, over 13 hours of broadcast TV animation grounded in educational best practices.

My strategy has always been about getting kids engaged with the conversation. People love Ollie the character and can use him to motivate their children to try new foods.

Why do you think the story of Ollie has taken off so well?

I think it’s done well in part because of our accessibility. My impetus is always trying to see something from a different point of view. We had all this amazing content in a book, so why not make it into a broadcast program? And once that takes off, why don’t we try to bring Ollie into the family kitchen and gamify the kitchen? Ollie takes shape in many forms and is available to anyone at any time.

My strength has been in seeing educational content from the point-of-view of ‘who needs to change and why would they?’ What would make a child want to eat something? Well, a magic spoon is a fun and playful way for kids to get into imaginary play.

We’ve been able to tap into places where people can free their imaginations and become something else. We create a space where moments can be made and we’re trying to create new opportunities for loving things to happen within families.

When starting out, did you think Ollie would develop from a children’s book into this full-blown media brand?

I had no idea we would explode like this. When we launched in 2016, we were purely focused on providing educational content that we couldn’t see the rate at which we were expanding. In fact, it wasn’t even on the radar because I remember a woman in publishing who once said to me, “there is no way this is going to work; you have a one-in-a-million chance.”

It took years, but we had a tipping point where people started to validate it. I realized that you don’t do anything alone. There are a thousand fingerprints on the Ollie brand. I worked hard, but there were many, many people who came and lent a hand and believed in Ollie as much as I did.

What kept you going through the difficult times?

Since starting with Ollie, I’ve struggled and had loads of doubt, but it always felt like the right thing to do. It felt like something that needed to exist in the world, and we had an idea to bring it there. I think part of it is being comfortable with the discomfort of failing. It validates every tough day when you’re at a low point but still know that what you’re doing is the right thing.

The other component was acknowledging that we’re all in this together. Artwork and entrepreneurship are all about the communities you build and lean back on when you go through setbacks.

What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered? 

There have been a million ups and downs throughout our journey. Creating educational content for children is unique because you’re trying to get everyone involved – the children, their parents, and their teachers.

We’ve had to be OK with adapting and changing. First, we were an education company trying to sell to educators, but then we became a TV company. Now, we’re a digital subscription, direct-to-consumer company, and we need new skills to support our next chapter.

If there’s anything I’m good at, it’s that I’m innately curious, and I’m OK with feeling disappointed. I don’t have all the answers or ideas but I know how to surround myself with people who believe in what we’re doing and can brainstorm solutions with me.

How did you first get involved with StartOut?

I learned no hard skills about entrepreneurship through my art training. When I began working at my first educational company, I learned as I went. I would reach out to people who knew a little bit more than I did, and I’d ask questions over and over again.

Since the beginning, I’ve pursued ongoing education, constantly taking online courses to better my entrepreneurship skills. During that time period, I found out about StartOut through Lorenzo Thione. I’ve learned so much through the organization; they’ve helped me build an entire support system. You can feel isolated starting your new thing and need a community to get through it.

I’m so thankful for everyone who’s had a hand in making Ollie this global initiative. We’re constantly thinking ahead, and the future of Ollie and his magic spoon feels brighter than ever.

As part of our Educational Founders campaign, Sheena and Ollie Club will offer free subscriptions for parents with kids 6 and under this month. Connect with Sheena on LinkedIn to learn more and get the latest updates on Ollie Club. Follow our blog on Medium for monthly founder features.

StartOut Education Founders: Oscar Pedroso and Thimble’s Investment in EdTech Education

In Oscar Pedroso’s (he/him) eyes, education is disruptive.

As such, educators are tasked with constantly finding new and better ways to teach when societal needs and interests inevitably change. Oscar is the founder and CEO of Thimble.io, a StartOut Growth Lab graduate, and a passionate LGBTQ+ entrepreneur from Buffalo with a palpable dedication to teaching.

As part of our continued spotlight on founders in the education industry, we’re proud to spotlight someone like Oscar, whose sole mission is to improve the lives of our next generations and leave a lasting legacy.

How did you first start working in education, Oscar?

My whole professional career has been in education. I started as a college admissions officer at the University of Rochester when I was an undergrad. Once I graduated, the position became full-time working in the College of Engineering’s office.

After that, I started my application consulting and tutoring business. I did that for some time before eventually taking the leap into teaching where I worked at inner-city schools as a math teacher. As a teacher, I helped lead the robotics club which helped lay the foundation for Thimble.

How did you venture into entrepreneurship?

Being at such a poor school district, we didn’t have a ton of resources or academic programs. What I observed as a teacher is what led me to the early beginnings of Thimble.

I spent about three years in the school districts. We had general sciences, but there was such a disconnect between what’s taught in school and what’s needed in the workforce today—things like advanced robotics and coding, cybersecurity, Metaverse, and AI – kids showed interest in these subjects, but we didn’t have the resources to help them.

I was spending a lot of my own money and not getting support from my district, so I decided to take matters into my own hands.

When I started the tutoring business, I did it for a year and a half before realizing that I didn’t like working solo. I wanted to work on a bigger problem, affecting more people in a larger setting. That was the biggest draw to launching Thimble.

What is your mission with Thimble?

Thimble is a tech curriculum that teaches robotics and programming skills to elementary and middle school students. We sell reusable kits that teach kids how to build robots, drones, etc. and how to program those projects to show them how these skills can be fun and useful. We also provide teachers training so they can implement this type of education successfully.

Our biggest goal is to get kids interested in robotics and programming. We want to offer an alternative style of learning that shows students at an early age how impactful these skills are.

I went to public school and paid a lot for college degrees. I have a lot of friends who got degrees that they didn’t use at all. Education in practice is disruptive, and I want to show students that they can learn real, tangible skills without worrying if they can afford increasingly high tuition. Many tech jobs are opening up that care more about your skillset than your degree, so we think by starting to generate interest at a young age, we’ll have a greater impact in the future.

Where are you currently making an impact?

At present, we’ve sold to 2,000 customers in all 50 states and 30 countries. We’re in contracts with just over 300 schools in 37 districts, mostly in Texas, the Southeast, and New York. Our goal is to keep expanding into as many schools and districts as possible. It’s still hard at times because schools aren’t the easiest to work with but we’ve been pretty successful at it.

In addition to K-12 schools, we’re talking to a few organizations outside of the US that are interested in bringing Thimble to their companies. Many corporations here at home have reached out to buy our kits and donate them to nearby districts. Recently, Capital One purchased our program and gave them away to schools in DC. So it’s really about getting as many entities involved as possible.

What are the biggest challenges facing education today?

It’s tough working in K-12 because everything moves so slowly, and it’s very relationship-based. Superintendents don’t typically respond well to cold calls and you need to have that face-to-face interaction to get your point across well.

To build a business in our space, you have to have a good system. We have a channel of about 10,000 schools which is great for our small team. But if you don’t set up that kind of structure it’s really hard to generate any sales.

Was it a challenge to make the transition from educator to entrepreneur?

It was certainly a transition. I’ve always had an entrepreneurial attitude that I couldn’t act on as a student. I read all that I could and it took some time. I realized the best thing I could do was surround myself with people from all backgrounds to really make a product that could work. My co-founder is a computer engineer who brings a wealth of knowledge in hardware and programming, whereas I bring a curriculum and teaching background.

When I left K-12, I was ready. I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy, and I’ll learn all that I need to know or find someone who knows more than I do. Running Thimble is less about managing and more about finding the right people to do the job.

How has StartOut helped you develop your entrepreneurial skills as an LGBTQ+ founder?

I first found StartOut from a mentor I had in NYC through an event. A few weeks later, I found out about the Growth Lab through a newsletter. We applied twice before we got in and it was one of the best growth opportunities for our company.

I loved getting to know Ryan and Chris and I’ll still pester them from time to time about something, even after graduating. I got to be close with Maca from Avocademy and Cory Kelly from Legal Karma. We talk every week and Slack constantly about some problem or opportunity we’re facing. The community aspect is irreplaceable. It’s so great to meet founders in the LGBTQ+ space which I wouldn’t really get in Buffalo. StartOut does a great job of connecting us in this unique space, no matter how far apart we are.

You can connect with Oscar on LinkedIn for the latest updates on Thimble, and be sure to follow our blog on Medium for more monthly founder stories!

StartOut Education Founders: Devon Saliga and Beepboop Are Putting Teachers Front and Center

Educators are defined by their ability to take something they love and share it with the masses. Whether in music, business, medicine, or any other specialized field, educators take their passions and make them easily accessible to all.

Such is the case for Devon Saliga, the founder and CEO of Beepboop.

Devon (he/him) is a lover of language and has spent his entire life finding new meaning through different cultures and their languages. His company, a recent StartOut Growth Lab graduate, isn’t your typical language-learning platform. Instead, Beepboop is on a mission to empower teachers and learners alike through a specially crafted curriculum and method as unique as the languages themselves.

Devon recently spoke with StartOut about his professional and personal journeys and his lifelong affection for education.

Devon, when did you first become interested in learning foreign languages?

Growing up as a closeted gay kid, I was looking for an escape from my reality. Learning different languages and cultures gave me that and filled me with the hope that there was something more to the world than my conservative surroundings. When I was older, I had the privilege of studying Japanese at Dartmouth College. At Dartmouth, I was exposed to this highly effective teaching method referred to on campus as “drill,” where a single instructor could engage a whole classroom in these interactive rapid-paced speaking exercises. I witnessed my peers going from being super embarrassed uttering a single word in a new language to confidently forming sentences on the fly after just a few weeks of drill.

What did you do after you graduated?

My Japanese abilities were critical for landing my job at Goldman Sachs. Working on global teams made it clear that I was fortunate to be born with English as my first language. If you didn’t speak English well, you were left behind. Languages are the pathway to a more enriching life.

Throughout my eight years in investment banking, I kept studying languages as a hobby, but I couldn’t find any programs, apps, or classes that came close to the effectiveness of the education I received at Dartmouth. I was so frustrated knowing that great teaching methods existed, but almost no one had access to learn from them.

Is that what sparked the decision to launch a company?

Correct. Knowing you have a unique insight into a global learning problem is quite motivating, and I didn’t see why these exceptional teaching methods weren’t more widespread. This led me back to Dartmouth after my finance career to study language teaching methods.

I learned that excellent pedagogy is hard to understand and implement, lesson planning is tons of work, and being a compassionate and charismatic teacher is draining. It’s not surprising that only the most well-funded institutions have the resources to implement the most effective teaching methods.

At Beepboop, we’re taking these proven teaching methods, extracting the difficult parts to implement with our tech, to free up the teachers’ minds so they can focus more on what humans do best, like delivering compassionate feedback.

How can we make teaching so easy and fun that almost anybody can become a superstar educator? Our value is provided to the teachers. We want to help them create these engaging classroom settings in-person and online with our technology and inspire their students to actually speak the language they’re learning.

It’s our vision to be in all schools and a critical tool depended on by all language teachers. Still, for now, we focus on selling to US-based companies facing labor shortages that want to recruit and retain a non-English speaking workforce. Our live instructors guide these students through speaking exercises proven to help them rapidly learn the English needed to succeed in their jobs.

Did you always want to be an entrepreneur?

My dad and his siblings run a machine shop together, so I grew up in an entrepreneurial house. I think it’s always been in my blood. I knew being an entrepreneur would be a complicated life, but I also saw how fulfilling it could be.

When you have an entrepreneurial itch, you can’t stop thinking about or working towards it. While I loved what I was learning in banking, I felt if I didn’t start building my own company, I would live to regret it. Even the founders I spoke with who failed once or twice said they stood by their decisions to leap into entrepreneurship.

What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced?

The hardest thing for me was improving my storytelling abilities related to fundraising. Nobody’s in entrepreneurship because they want to build a product that will change the world. Your ability to tell a compelling story is what unlocks the capital to develop your product. Spending time practicing your account comes at the cost of not extinguishing fires.

How’d you first discover StartOut?

I learned about the organization through an in-person event in New York City, and I applied twice before we got into the Growth Lab. The accelerator was a game-changer for us, and I’m so grateful for the program. If I had StartOut when I first started Beepboop, our trajectory would have been very different. I didn’t realize the power of community early on, and it led me to try to do too much by myself. It takes a whole village to build a successful company and StartOut is that village for me.

You can connect with Devon on LinkedIn for the latest updates on Beepboop and follow our blog on Medium for monthly founder stories!

Mariah Barber and the conscious practices of DE(A)I

To Mariah Barber (they/them/she/her), a vital part of the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) conversation often goes overlooked – accessibility.

Creating more inclusive spaces available to all people, regardless of their condition or ability, has driven Mariah to their entire professional life. And recognizing that those conditions aren’t always apparent, Mariah co-founded Invisible Strengths LLC early last year to help intersectional job-seekers navigate the search regardless of their disability.

Invisible Strengths is a full-spectrum support network for candidates and employers alike. Sparked from their own experiences as a disabled, BIPOC, LGBTQ+ jobseeker, Mariah’s dream of creating this infrastructure to address disparities in the disability space is finally taking shape.

Mariah, could you walk us through your journey with your disability?

I have worked in Public Health for the last ten years in the global health and international development fields. I spent time in the Caribbean and Latin America, even volunteering with the Peace Corps in Nicaragua for a few years.

After volunteering, I had a health examination and I realized I had developed a rare vision disorder called Keratoconus, which causes blurry vision as the corneas cone and sensitivity to light. Back in the states, I started looking for resources for my condition. I had two emergency eye surgeries and realized how cumbersome the process of getting support was. Going between doctors and HR departments/management was both arduous and depleting.

In addition, I realized there was a genuine lack of intersectionality in these spaces. There were some support services for disabled folks, some for those with invisible disabilities,  some for LGBTQ+ folks, some for BIPOC people, etc. but nothing that supported all of these groups.

I wanted the next person in my shoes to feel less isolated. My own lived experience supported diversified recruitment, and I knew I could help people get equitable jobs without being stigmatized. That’s when I decided to venture into my startup.

Why did you decide to get into entrepreneurship?

I remember reading “It’s About Damn Time” by Arlan Hamilton, and it resonated with me hearing from a Black Lesbian on her journey to entrepreneurship. It was the first time I heard the term “venture capital”; for once, I could see myself with these other Silicon Valley business leaders. I’ve always worked in the small business space, but when I discovered that less than 1% of venture capital dollars go to Black women, I decided to put myself in that statistic.

What does Invisible Strengths do differently?

When you’re part of a marginalized group and have a disability, you’re more likely to be underemployed or unemployed. We’re focused on those with invisible disabilities because they’re often overlooked. We don’t turn people away, but we’re focused on those individuals because we know they need a loud voice.

Particularly with our mobile app, we connect inclusive employers and intersectional members. We show a list of the top 82 accommodations being looked for in an employer and can match employers with their top five candidates. Through our customer discovery, people have access to our diverse candidate pool which can help an organization build on their talent.

Invisible Strengths establishes a unique pipeline so that we can streamline the DEAI hiring process.

How’d you first get involved with StartOut?

Throughout my life, I’ve searched for groups that I identified with. Places for queer folks, BIPOC folks, disabled ones – and along the way I discovered StartOut.

I started going to StartOut trainings to educate myself on VC, network with other queer founders, and just generally put myself out in that world. I’ve met people on the executive team and could ask them directly, ‘what resources do you provide?’

StartOut was so pivotal for Invisible Strengths when they started recommending and referring us to different accelerator and incubator programs like those from DivIncHalcyon, and Techstars. That, and the opportunity to participate in the D.C. programming board and meet other LGBTQ+ founders have made the whole experience so life-changing. I’m so grateful to StartOut for their continued support.

Where do you see the future of DEAI heading?

I think there’s a lot that still needs to be done in the world of DEAI. There are a lot of disconnections within organizations where they’ll bring in a trainer to talk about LGBTQ+ issues, Black issues, etc. but never address the intersectionality of what it means to be Black and queer or Trans and disabled. We need to improve here greatly.

DEAI holds people accountable and it might have to get a little uncomfortable before we start to see real, long-lasting change. We need to welcome diversity of thought in everything we do and it starts with putting peoples’ lived experiences first.

As we age, we all enter a minority group. We may not be born Black, trans, Latinx, etc. but we will all enter the underrepresented elderly group. The sooner we realize we have more in common than we realize, the clearer the path forward becomes.

You can connect with Mariah on LinkedIn for the latest updates on Invisible Strengths and follow our blog on Medium for more monthly founder stories.