Contemporaneous with my writing of this article, there are 17 teams of startups congregated on the first floor of my State Street building for the kickoff weekend of the Delta I-Fund summer cohort, an annual program funded by grants from the Winrock Foundation and the Delta Regional Authority.
The mission of the Delta I-Fund is to positively impact low-to-moderate income communities throughout the Delta Regional Authority territory, which include areas in Mississippi. The program seeks to provide a platform for the creation and launch of high-growth companies, spurring economic development and job creation in the region.
The types of ideas and startups targeted by the Delta I-Fund are those based on innovative business models, including patented university research, such as medical, biomedical, science, and engineering applications; software and other IT-based platform solutions; and any other patented or proprietary technology or innovation that provides a competitive advantage.
The 17 teams that descended on Jackson over this past weekend hail from the eight-state Delta Region and embarked on a two-day onboarding process into this early-stage, proof of concept accelerator.
Each team, which is made up of two or three entrepreneurs, will set out on a 12-week rigorous training program focused on customer validation using the lean business canvas model. The teams also receive technical assistance and access to seed stage capital as part of this accelerator program.
Teams are also matched with a mentor who has correlating industry experience and skillsets. Mentorship is a tactical component of the Delta I-Fund’s strategy, as each mentor will guide from his or her own experience and serve as a “coach.” I have enjoyed the distinct privilege of serving as a mentor for the Delta I-Fund on two occasions, first mentoring an Arkansas-based consumer food product startup and currently an Arkansas-based ed-tech startup that wants to gamify certain aspects of elementary education.
Mississippi is well represented in this summer cohort, with two companies in particular that I am interested in observing through this process.
One of these Mississippi startups is EasyKale, a consumer food product business that seeks to provide customers with kale products that are easier-to-use, have a longer shelf life, taste better, and retain the bioactivity of traditional leaf kale without the use of pesticides. EasyKale was founded by Bilal Quizilbash and is being supported by veteran startup junkie Richard Sun, the entrepreneur in residence with Innovate Mississippi, and marketing guru, Todd Stauffer, owner and publisher of the Jackson Free Press and BOOM Jackson.
Another Mississippi entrepreneurial venture participating in the Delta I-Fund, and one to keep an eye on, is OutFirm. This company’s goal is to provide startup founders with much-needed legal services from ideation to series A through a fixed-price, affordable subscription services. OutFirm was founded by startup and emerging company lawyer, Anne Turner. OutFirm’s product seeks to disrupt the legal service industry, a conservative industry that has resisted change in light of the democratization of legal knowledge through robust search engines such as Google.
Where the Delta I-Fund excels for Mississippi is that it is reaching and making an impact in many of our lower income communities. There is great value in this mission, because by exposing these bright minds and their innovative ideas to the appropriate resources and guidance, we are investing in their futures as well as our state’s future. In fact, there are plenty of inspiring stories of highly successful entrepreneurs that came from even abject poverty before finding success. Jay-Z is one of those. He was selling crack in a Brooklyn housing project long before he became one of the most successful – and innovative – music moguls in the United States.
For me, it is not only a privilege, but it is also fascinating to work with these types of entrepreneurial minded individuals and watch as they follow their dreams and often grow their ideas into viable businesses. I have been immeasurably blessed with the good fortune of working with hundreds of entrepreneurs throughout Mississippi and the Southeastern United States over the span of my career as an attorney.
Supporting startups through programs such as the Delta I-Fund that offer Mississippians in our Delta region valuable opportunities for personal and professional growth is greatly needed. After all, entrepreneurial success is not – and should not be – dictated exclusively by educational, financial, or social status. Instead, it is the exposure to opportunities for learning. It is the culmination of the training and grooming of characteristics, such as vision, passion, adaptability, and resilience. These are the intangible traits that high achieving entrepreneurs possess and what will ultimately set these innovators apart and position them for success.
Matthew P. McLaughlin is an attorney with McLaughlin, PC in Jackson, Mississippi, and serves as the executive director of the Mississippi Brewers Guild. Matthew’s passion is working with creative and entrepreneurial-minded people and organizations, having worked with and advised hundreds of entrepreneurs, startups, and social innovators throughout the Southeastern United States. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 601-487-4550, or you may visit www.mclaughlinpc.com for more information.
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