The application to the second cohort of ICA’s early-stage accelerator, The Lab at ICA, is open now. As we get ready to welcome our newest companies, we’re sharing an interview with ICA’s Director of Programs, Caron Gugssa-Howard. Earlier this year we sat down with Caron to learn more about her work and to talk about how she and the ICA programs team developed The Lab.
The Lab at ICA, which launched this year, is designed to support high-potential early-stage businesses by helping them stabilize, grow, and become capital-ready. It pairs our proven advising model with eligibility for investment of seed equity from ICA’s Growth Fund. This program partners with companies earlier in their growth trajectories than those in our flagship Accelerator program, helping them establish a runway for resilience and scale.
Caron joined ICA first as an MBA fellow in 2017. It is through her work and research as a fellow that the vision for the The Lab was born. Read our interview with Caron below and how she envisions the growth of the accelerator program.
How is The Lab at ICA different than ICA’s other accelerator programs?
The Lab is designed for earlier stage scalable businesses that need tactical support. Over one month, we work with entrepreneurs to strengthen business fundamentals. We cover topics like legal business structures, understanding your business model better, developing a solid growth vision, creating a path toward profitability and preparing for capital. In ICA’s flagship accelerator, later stage businesses are matched with a strategic advisor and work toward a holistic understanding and alignment of their growth, people, capital and investment strategies.
What was the impetus for creating The Lab at ICA?
Early on, we identified a gap in access to capital and capital-readiness for early stage businesses. Even more urgently, we were seeing a gap in participation by entrepreneurs of color in the Accelerator at ICA, our flagship program. This reality led to researching tactical and strategic methods to better serve the needs of these entrepreneurs.
What was your process for creating The Lab?
We started with a clear goal: to increase participation by People of Color in both the Accelerator at ICA and the investment portfolio—period.
We quickly realized our existing programs were not aligned with the needs of entrepreneurs we aimed to serve. After researching the most effective tactical and strategic methods, we determined it was best to focus on businesses that:
1. Desire to scale but face fundamental challenges
2. Lack access to traditional funding sources
3. Need support in capacity building
4. Wish to attract equity growth capital
So, to best reach our goal we decided to create a cohort of businesses at similar stages and developed a customized “Strategies to Scale” framework to strictly serve entrepreneurs who experience barriers to growth.
How do the systemic inequities that drive ICA’s mission play a role in the design of The Lab?
We always knew there were more entrepreneurs to serve and through our work in the community, it was clear we weren’t reaching them all. The Lab is designed to be part of the solution to this need. People of Color entrepreneurs need to be engaged over time, with dedicated programming that helps to generate mission and market returns. And ultimately, we knew we had to create dedicated offerings that fast tracks POC to Accelerator and investment.
How do you see The Lab in relation to ICA’s mission of closing the racial and gender wealth gaps?
The Lab helps ICA close the racial and gender wealth gaps faster by investing in more businesses at earlier points in their growth trajectories. To me, with the inaugural cohort of 11 companies, we effectively forged 11 attempts to close the racial and gender gaps. And by designing a program specifically for emerging companies, we’re increasing the reach of our programs, and lengthening the growth runway for entrepreneurs we are here to serve.
What is the reasoning behind tying The Lab closely to ICA’s seed capital?
When developing The Lab curriculum it became evident that no matter how inspiring our programming was, it was just that… “programming.” Entrepreneurs who traditionally suffer from barriers to entry, on multiple levels, often lack access to proper capital infusions to implement tools and learnings from any program. We needed a clear and untethered line between ICA programs and its investments—particularly for Lab companies. Pairing capital with the accelerator just made sense.
Thinking holistically, what other needs do entrepreneurs have that The Lab is designed to meet?
Yes, especially for businesses run by People of Color, it’s not always and only money that creates barriers. Often, we are left out of necessary conversations (or don’t know people having them) that help to shape, grow and scale businesses. For some it could be business jargon or lack of social capital, for others it may be, poor or no financial recording keeping and a lack of business collateral. The Lab, and all our programming, is designed to progressively address these barriers over the course of a company’s engagement with ICA.
What are you looking forward to through the end of 2021?
Supporting all 11 inaugural Lab Accelerator companies through ICA’s seed equity investment, watching the companies grow and prepare to join ICA in the future for our flagship program, the Accelerator at ICA.
Applications to The Lab at ICA are open now. Bay Area companies can apply until August 15th.