Something Ventured, Something Gained
Stefano Rivera (left) and Kris Hergert (right)
Something Ventured, Something Gained
The 1789 Venture Lab launches student enterprises into the Chapel Hill startup community
The 1789 Venture Lab -- bright windows, high ceilings, brick walls and gleaming countertops -- feels more like the ideal 21st century workspace than the bar it used to be. But, as Lab Director Kris Hergert is quick to point out, great watering holes, labs and classrooms share a key virtue: “The space is what you make of it.”
Hergert and Program Director Stefano Rivera, both UNC alumni, are guiding the Lab toward its fifth year as a learning space and incubator for student- and UNC graduate-owned businesses. The services they offer are free for students and Carolina grads, with two tracks — “member” for people with a casual interest in entrepreneurship or a pre-enterprise idea, leading to a “venture” track for teams that are actively building a business. With that arc in mind, the space on Franklin Street is just far enough off campus to keep an aura of real-world independence , while maintaining tight lines to UNC’s Entrepreneurship minor, the non-profit seedbed of the Campus Y, and Carolina Challenge’s $40,000 annual business competition. Although it gets no direct funding from the town, 1789’s alumni have a clear path to Launch Chapel Hill, the business accelerator that cultivates and supports local start-ups.
On a sunny summer morning, reporter Davis Rhodes joined Hergert and Rivera for a tour and a conversation. The resulting interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Davis Rhodes: What is the 1789 Venture Lab?
Kris Hergert: This (space) was was opened with really no functional agenda. And that’s the cool part about innovation and entrepreneurship; both are very much crowdsourced. We don’t try to set it up as “this space is only for this, or not this”; it’s what you want it to be.
DR: How does a student or millennial go about capitalizing on an idea and taking the next step to becoming an entrepreneur?
KH: If you ask 10 people on the street, “Hey are you an entrepreneur?” maybe one person would say yes because it’s such a black-and-white term — an entrepreneur is supposed to be someone who starts a company.
DR: It’s a daunting word.
Stefano Rivera: Exactly. Forming a team is important. Especially as an undergrad, you’re not going to have all the skills you need. So whether it’s forming a team of advisers around you, which is something we can help teams with, or finding some student in another department on campus that has the tech skills you don’t — or vice versa if you don’t have any business classes yet — I think that's really key.
Signing up with a mentor, scheduling meetings and really trying to get feedback with each stage you're on is important. And with a mentor, set up a regular check-in you can do once a month because it puts a little more pressure on you to accomplish things.
KH: We have three major activities that happen here. First, the entrepreneurship minor and the business school teach classes here. Number two, it is the headquarters for Carolina Think, which is our undergraduate innovation club. Carolina Think meets here pretty much weekly and will often invite speakers in. And the last thing is: Students are here with their teams, working on ideas. And with that, we have two tracks: a venture track and a member track.
SR: The member track is basically anyone who uses the space but isn’t doing a venture.
KH: The member track is more exploratory, and that’s the whole point — we don’t want to say, “This is the space if you have an idea and you’re fully vetted.” This is the place where, “Hey, I just like innovation. I may have a career or internship in Teach for America, or Cisco, or I may start my own company but I don’t know.”
SR: When I was a student here, it was before 1789 was around, but I didn't really know about what innovation or entrepreneurship opportunities there were. Just exposing students to that is really good. The venture track is great because starting a business as an undergrad is a difficult thing. There have been a lot of great companies started by students while they were in college because you have this amazing time in your life where you’re not faced with all the real-world responsibilities yet.
I think the venture track is really important in creating that pipeline of good new businesses that are forming in Chapel Hill, keeping students here after they graduate and creating a positive downtown as well.
DR: So do a lot of people move on from the member to the venture track?
KH: Exactly. The thinking is that there’s a graduated ecosystem so people come in starting with the member track and think, “Oh, this is cool,” and they meet some other people and together realize, “Hey, there’s a problem. Let’s come up with a solution for it.” They now say, “We need a little more rigor, a little more structure to what we’re doing, maybe it’s time we move into the venture track.”
So now we have an idea and we’re trying to get funding. So they’ll put themselves in the mix for Carolina Challenge, which is the business venture competition where we give away about $40,000 or so in cash to various teams. They obviously then can say, “Hey let’s try to really accelerate this and grow — try to find revenue and customers.”
Then, if successful, they can apply to be a cohort, or a team, over at Launch Chapel Hill. So basically start them off really early here, (then) they can try to get some seed money through Carolina Challenge and just grow their venture, and then apply to Launch.
DR: So Launch Chapel Hill is the graduation point from 1789 Venture Lab?
KH: It is. Launch is expanding, and they’re opening a coworking space.
SR: Right now we have one space, but in the same building we are going to open up a second, and that space is where the accelerator will be run out of, and the original space will be open to startups and community members to lease as office space. There’ll be some assigned offices that are for rent and there’ll be some general areas where people can rent a table or rent a seat and you just come in and find wherever you can. We hope to be there by the end of June.
DR: So is the 1789 Venture Lab focusing on not for-profit and nonprofit startups exclusively?
KH: I think every business has a philanthropic lens. I think there’s going to be more companies like Tom’s that will be coming out of here that have a social mission along with making money. But we do have a very structured program with the Campus Y for all of our social ventures. So if Stefano sees a team come in that’s not for profit, we’re immediately connecting them with Campus Y.
SR: We’re trying to make sure that all the programs across campuses are working together.
DR: What would you say is the big benefit of having this incubator for UNC students and graduate students — what can this space and the mentorship provide them?
KH: Thinking about the top three reasons for millennials to come to Chapel Hill, I think number one is just the region. UNC, Duke, NC State — there are just a lot of young, energized individuals. Number two, this is a very safe place to fail. I think that’s important because you don’t want to make big bets and have big tragic failures.
DR: Especially if it’s your first entrepreneurial venture.
KH: Exactly. There’s a lot of guidance in this area with people that have retired here, that have spent years as entrepreneurs, investors, executives from companies — there is likely someone in Chapel Hill that is an experienced expert in that space, so you can really find awesome mentors to help build your team. You’re not just going in alone.
KH: What a career is has changed. Nobody has a job for 20 years anymore. Everybody is really thinking, “What are the skills and what are the tools I need,” and innovation is always up there. If you don’t innovate, you’re out of business and there’s no other way around it. Everybody today seems to be doing something on the side, whether they’re on Etsy, driving for Uber, using AirBnB — that’s where we’re going and so I think when you can encourage that type of behavior and create a space for that to flourish, that’s very forward-thinking and innovative.
DR: So how would a young entrepreneur go about approaching the 1789 Venture Lab and what are the first steps in making contact?
SR: If they had a venture already, we’d get them into the venture track, which would then expose them to the Launch program as well. If they’re a social venture, we might send them over to Campus Y and they can be in our program and theirs at the same time. If they’re just a student interested in entrepreneurship, then the nice thing is our member track is partnered with Carolina Think and so they would just go to their weekly program and that would give them more exposure to what is happening in the entrepreneurial area.
KH: We like to think of ourselves as a crossroads. Somebody coming in here, we can help them find where they want to be.