Mason School’s Entrepreneurship Center Prepares Student and Local Start-Up Businesses for Launch

There are three critical components that an entrepreneur must figure out before launching a new company: a validated business model, the right team to execute, and a compelling pitch.

At the Raymond A. Mason School of Business, student and local-area entrepreneuers gain access to resources in all three of these areas through programs offered through the Alan B. Miller Entrepreneur Center (EC).

The center was established in 2010 thanks to a generous contribution by Alan B. Miller, ’58 and has grown into a collaborative team made up of over 50 dedicated students, coaches, and faculty. Among the many programs the center offers, there are two in particular that have produced some award-winning ventures – Tribe Ventures and Launchpad.

Tribe Ventures is for current William & Mary students who are looking to bring together the pieces to launch a new company with expert guidance and support from EC staff and coaches among other added benefits.

“Students are awarded a small amount of funding and they get access to a physical space where they can actually meet. Most importantly, they’re able to work alongside other founders. Everybody learns from each other and they don’t have to reinvent the wheel as they grow. That’s the most exciting part of the program,” said Rachel Frazier, Associate Director of the EC.

Tribe Ventures is located in the 7,000-square foot Entrepreneurship Hub at Tribe Square, which was established in fall 2019 and is also home to the EC. Also located in the Entrepreneurship Hub is Launchpad, a program that supports regional entrepreneurs as they grow and scale their businesses. Launchpad currently has 10 member companies and is a program offered to regional entrepreneuers to support them as they grow and scale.

“Co-locating all of these resources was one of the most compelling parts of the expansion plan. We realized that the elements we had assembled to develop entrepreneurial thinkers at William & Mary could be made available to regional entrepreneurs in a way that created non-linear impact,” said Graham Henshaw, Executive Director of the EC. “It’s not just that our regional entrepreneurs can meet with the same coaches or participate in the same workshops. It’s that they all engage with those resources side-by-side and those connections and collaborations are extremely valuable. They lead to better solutions, jobs for students, and more compelling programming driven by a more diverse set of perspectives.”

Developing a Rocket Pitch

It starts with a concept. Student entrepreneurs apply to be a part of a Student Ventures cohort, and local entrepreneurs may access Launchpad through three tiers of membership levels. Both programs, however, gain access to a coach network of 12 highly engaged William & Mary affiliated mentors, and a dedicated team composed of student fellows, program coordinators, EC staff, and William & Mary faculty.

The goal? Leverage the resources of the incubator to help the start-ups prepare to go out and seek funding for their ventures using hands-on, direct application of tools and skills to build entrepreneurial thinking competence.

Those resources include mentorship and advisory services, challenges that award cash prizes, seed funding opportunities, and Rocket Pitch, a competition held every Friday during which ventures have two minutes to convince the crowd they’ve spotted a meaningful problem worth solving.

“These activities are going on in support of these new companies at crucial times where it is pivotal to their success,” said Frazier.

Show Them the Money

Once companies have nailed down their concept and pitch, they’re encouraged to enter into regional competitions for grants and other monetary awards. Tribe Ventures and Launchpad members have gone on to win grants such as the Rise Resilience Challenge, state contracts with Virginia and Maryland, and contests such as Start Peninsula, which began in 2012 and is the region’s premier pitch competition.

Since 2016, there have been five Start Peninsula winners from Williamsburg who are affiliated with Launchpad or EC-related entrepreneurial activities. Last fall, two out of the three winners were Student Ventures or Launchpad companies.

Bonilla Pet Studio is a Launchpad member company and was founded by Erin Bonilla at the beginning of 2020. In the first 12 months since opening, she recognized the opportunity to expand to Williamsburg based on increasing demand for her pet photo services. She received support through Launchpad and its coaches, and she also gained experience during Rocket Pitch before going on to compete in Start Peninsula. Bonilla Pet Studio opened its new Williamsburg location in December 2021.

Pocket Properties was the other Williamsburg-based winner of Start Peninsula 2021. Co-founder Stanley Glover, BA ’21 participated in the 2020 Tribe Ventures program. He says he and his business partner, Josh Rufalo, gained a lot of experience and critical feedback on their pitch through EC resources.

“We had never participated in an event like Start Peninsula before,” Glover said. “The EC, especially the mentors, drastically influenced the pitch and how we describe the company. The ultimate goal for our start-up is to change the way that people invest in real estate. We are working to create solutions not only for the everyday person to start participating in the real estate market, but also for more traditional institutions by providing them the technology to better democratize their investment opportunities. The mentors gave us exactly what we needed to develop the idea from a foggy vision to an executable company.”

Accessing a Professional Network

Each winner of Start Peninsula received $5,000 in seed funding, a one-year spot at Growth University, one-year memberships to several area business alliances and chambers of commerce, 20 hours of consulting from the Hampton Roads Small Business Development Center and William & Mary affiliated CrimDell Small Business Network, and a six-month membership to Launchpad.

“Start Peninsula serves as an entrepreneur's starting point to validate if an idea is worth pursuing. Our network of judges and mentors will ask the right questions to help founders make more informed decisions about their ideas, ideally before someone decides to leave their career or max out their credit cards,” said Tim Ryan, MBA ‘11, former Director of Launchpad, and current President of Arcphor and Executive Director of StartWheel. “Winners of Start Peninsula have proved their business concept to our judges but in reality, that's just the beginning. They are then exposed to the next steps of building their business. Resources like incubators, accelerators, and Virginia's ICAP program are all designed to help founders move towards running a healthy and successful business. To see so many prior Start Peninsula business still in operation proves our program really works.”

Frazier says, she hopes these past startups and their demonstrated growth will inspire other entrepreneurs to seek out these resources and launch successful companies.

“The ventures we’re working with through the EC and Launchpad could have a huge impact. When people see success and all of these different types of people coming together through our programs, we are confident others will feel they have a place that is safe and supportive as they look to grow their companies. We bring all of the pieces together under one umbrella and we are incredibly proud of what all of our entrepreneurs have, and will continue, to accomplish,” she said.