NSU incubator program levels playing field for minority entrepreneurs

Posted at 10:18 PM, Sep 24, 2020

NORFOLK, Va. - Ed and Ann-Marie Stephens have been married for more than 34 years, and for about eight of those years, they’ve been business partners.

“To be an entrepreneur, you have to be courageous,” said Ed Stephens. “The reason is, you have to be resilient because when you hit the wall, that you bounce back and if you try to do it by yourself, it’s extremely difficult.”

Being a Black small business owner is even more challenging.

NSU’s Innovation Center Director Akosua Acheamponmaa said African Americans receive only about 0.2% of Angel and Venture Capital dollars for startup companies and small businesses. Women get about 2.2% of Venture Capital dollars compared to 98% of funding going to their white male counterparts.

“This is a huge problem that we’re taking the real steps to do something about it,” Acheamponmaa said.

NSU created the NSUIC Fall ’20 Cohort: Innovative Entrepreneur Incubator Program. The pilot program, launched last week, levels the playing field for minority entrepreneurs.

“We jumped on it,” said Ann-Marie Stephens. “We were like, 'This is what we needed; this is what we were looking for.'"

During the 12-week program, the Stephenses will get expert guidance they need to grow their nutrition business Precise Portions. The kits are a visual guide to healthy eating, especially for diabetics.

“What we learned was that if we could provide a visual aid that would reinforce the guidance they're getting from health professionals, this would be an easier thing to do,” Ann-Marie Stephens said.

By December, the couple, along with three other participants, will pitch their ideas to potential investors.

“They challenge us, and they do it in a very effective way,” Ann-Marie Stephens said. “They’re able to help us see opportunities we’ve been missing.”

Electrical engineer Ryan Saavedra was also selected for the pilot program for his creation of a low-cost robotic hand for amputees called G.A.R.A. (Globally Available Robotic Arm).

Saavedra is the founder/CEO of Alt-Bionics. He said prosthetic hands can cost up to $150,000 per person, but Alt-Bionics’ prototype cost less than $600 to develop.

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Saavedra is also hoping for an investment opportunity for the startup company, because as a Hispanic, statistically, he also has less access to funding.

“If you have a great idea, it doesn’t matter who it comes from,” Saavedra said. “As an engineer, that’s kind of what we live by. We don’t care about all that. We just care about the idea of making the world a better place through engineering.”

A team at NSU selected five participants to be a part of the pilot program. They’re hoping to have 10 participants in the future.