The mission of an incubator is to make sure deserving entrepreneurs get a real chance to succeed.
Entrepreneurship is such a privileged term. I know we don’t often think about it in that way, but it really is. There’s usually a price you have to pay to become an entrepreneur. Be it family responsibilities, not enough access to resources or living in an underserved market, you have to climb that barrier just to get into the club.
For me, that’s where incubator programs can do the most good. By removing the barriers to entry, providing tangible resources and democratizing the environment so that the very best ideas and entrepreneurs are allowed to flourish — that’s the real aim of an incubator.
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This is the what we push for every day at Alley. What we’ve been able to do is subsidize the experience of growing a business so that founders and thinkers with really great ideas are afforded the full scope of what it takes to carry their business to the next level. We do this because we believe wholeheartedly that the future of the world is sitting in a coworking desk right now. We don’t want to get in their way. Instead, we want to clear the way so they can step into their success.
I think incubators are realizing more and more that they really need to step up their services. They need to be thinking about what value they bring to the table and what tools can they share with the people they bring into their space to help move the needle. And when I say tools, I don’t just mean WiFi and a few guest speakers throughout the month. That’s not nearly enough. One of the greatest values of an incubator is in its community. This is really where diversity should start; in the idea phase. And that can only happen if you build a community of people who are like minded in their ambition, but completely unique in their experiences. That’s when the magic happens.
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Taking things a step further, incubators need to see the bigger picture. It’s called an incubator for a reason. They’re supposed to nurture ideas and the entrepreneurs behind them. But if we’re so caught up on tying the success of an idea to a dollar sign, then the only thing we’re really incubating is money. That’s narrow thinking, and it diminishes the full potential of what an incubator can be.
If you’re running an incubator right now, you better be able to tap into a larger pool of resources. Partnering with companies who are willing to do more than just throw their logo up on the wall is key. These partners need to be invested financially and be ready to form an intimate relationship with entrepreneurs who can be an asset to their organizations in some way. By building an intimate relationship, I mean by directly investing in these ideas, hiring these entrepreneurs, or simply bridging the gap so they can get closer to their dreams of building a viable business on their own.
I think it’s important to move the needle on the way we approach innovation. If incubators are currently the hub for innovation, we need to constantly be asking ourselves what we can do to improve these environments that, in turn, create better entrepreneurs and better outcomes. Are we offering the right tools? Are we partnering these entrepreneurs with the right mentors? Are we exposing them to the organizations that can take their idea to the next level? Are we making sure not to look at these ideas simply as dollar signs? Are we nurturing the people behind these ideas to become better leaders?
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For me, the future of incubators is finding the right blend of autonomy and support. We need to identify the people who are truly passionate about their pursuits and give them the freedom to express their ideas without boundaries. But then we need to pair that with the right amount of direction, guidance, resources and connections so that their ideas have a chance to make an impact. Part of it is definitely throwing young entrepreneurs into the deep end and letting them figure out how to swim. But when they do come up to take a breath, are we filling them with the right amount of air they’ll need to keep swimming?
You know, when I look at companies and see a connection between somebody that I know or a company that I know, I don’t just think about how that company has been affected. I think about how that person’s life has been affected. Entrepreneurship can change people’s lives, and incubators impact entrepreneurship on a deep level. If we continue to transform that relationship, we’ll continue to transform lives for decades to come.
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