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JA Interview: Building a pipeline for minority journalist entrepreneurs

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Journalism Accelerator

Doug Mitchell brings ideas to angels. He is co-director of the UNITY New U Entrepreneur Fellowship program. Funded by the Ford Foundation, the program aims to help minority journalists get the business training, support and connections they need to launch businesses. The initiative offers $10,000 grants, training and mentorships.

Last year, New U launched a new partnership with the National Minority Angel Network to provide fellows further mentoring and pitch opportunities.

The JA’s Emily Harris talked with Doug about the business landscape minority journalists face, the particulars of this journalism business training program and how to get involved in 2013. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Doug Mitchell

UNITY New U co-director Doug Mitchell

Journalism Accelerator: Would you describe the program?

Doug Mitchell, co-director, Unity New U Entrepreneur Fellowship program: I call it a version of a Google scrape. We go through the minority journalist associations, Asian, black, Hispanic, Native American, lesbian and gay, and look for journalists, whether current or former, who have started their own company or have the idea that they want to start their own company. We identify who they are, have them apply through a somewhat rigorous process, select them as fellows, and then we have a startup camp. Last year, for example, we did a two and a half day startup camp in Las Vegas and out of that the participants, all 14 of them, pitched for grants of $10,000. There were three individual grants of $10,000. They had to get judged by investors and people who have successful startup companies, and there was a crowdsourced vote.

JA: What do you look for in the fellows that you accept?

DM: Well, first of all, we believe that we’re solving a problem. If you look on the covers of almost all magazines, you rarely see people of color. We’re looking for people to be CEOs, founders. People who have ideas, who want to start companies, but don’t know how. We provide educational opportunities, support, community building, relationship building, and creating an ecosystem in which the people that want to do something, and lead the company, are at least around other people who have done such.

JA: Do people have to have a lot of experience or no experience at all? What works?

DM: The first year, if you had no experience, that was fine. But we learned we can’t do that. It’s not money well spent. So we made it harder to get in the program, and found people who had actually started a company, were in the process of trying to grow their company, had relationships with people who were investors, etc., but still didn’t quite really understand what it is they needed to be saying and who’s out there they should be pitching to. The second year we raised the bar. Going into 2013, our fourth year, we’re looking at three startup camps. One at NABJ, one at NAHA and the other at the Online News Association conference, We’re going to charge $30 pre-registration fee, and we’re actually going to have participants build something in front of us. Hands on, actually creating something on the spot. Get them judged, get them set, and then we’ll have people competing for money.

“Look out, 2013!”

Cynthia LiuK-12 News Network founder and CEO Cynthia Liu still has half of the $10,000 New U 2012 seed grant she won; she’s been bringing in revenue by selling advocacy and social media services to education-focused clients. Liu says developing that business gives her a double payback. “I’ll be able to take everything I’ve road-tested and learned about my clients’ use of online organizing and plow it back into the prototype. As a result, I’ve pulled back a bit from pitching VCs as right now I’m income self-funded, though the VC route could be a path for me further down the road. Look out, 2013!”

JA: What are they going to build?

DM: They can build their company. They could come with an idea. Another part of what we’re going to rollout in 2013 is a monthly webinar series. We’ll start with the mentors that we’ve been working with pretty much since day one, a guy named Kaizar Campwala, who now works for Stitcher Radio. He’s worked on the business side of a couple of startups. He’ll talk about how to put a pitch deck together. Another guy runs digital news ventures through the Media Development Loan Fund. His name is Syed Karim. He came up to me at the Online News Conference in San Francisco and said I have money. I’m looking to invest. I figured if he has money he’s looking to invest, we should be the conduit to helping him find those people who are looking for money. He’ll do a webinar. And Harry Lin, who is the executive in residence at Idealab, will talk about entrepreneurship and such. By doing this from January into the summer, those who are truly interested in what we’re doing will be the ones who want to pay the $30, build something in front of us and compete for a seed grant. We need people who are committed to put their own skin in the game. We provide an opportunity for them to get identified. The judges decide who moves to the next round, and then there’s the competition for the money.

JA: What’s the fellowship part this year?

DM: This is all sort of preliminary, but if the fellows are selected during the camp or toward the end of the camp, they’ll also have a mentor.  They’ll get coaching through the process of competition for the seed grant money. The three fellows that were awarded $10,000 this past year have now moved into a business accelerator called the National Minority Angel Network. It’s like handing a baton to the next runner in the relay. We found them, groomed them, got them awarded, got them set into a particular position in business development. Now they’re handed over to the next person who’s running the race, which is a higher level of business development and coaching. That’s also part of what we’re looking at doing this year; once people get identified and they’re awarded seed grant money, we hand them to the National Minority Angel Network. And they move on to another part of the scale.

“Test the idea”

Jason Frazer

Journalist entrepreneur Jason Frazer founded the Wealth Empowerment Network to help news organizations connect with and educate audiences about building wealth. He told the JA that New U 2012 helped him ask the right questions. “How scalable and profitable is your business, how many months or years will it take for you to get there and who are your customers? New U provides time to outline, research and test the idea among peers and media executives. This is crucial for any business to succeed.” The seed grant money he’s spent so far went to marketing and promotion, including launching test products.

JA: Does the startup have to have any relationship to journalism?

DM: They’re journalists, but they’re not necessarily journalism startups. The requirement is that they are either a current or former journalist. Mostly they’re members of the minority journalist associations. Some of them are pitching content; some of them are pitching technology. Ultimately it always does relate to journalism. Because if you go into an ecosystem that is full of journalists, guess what you’re going to get? But what we’re looking for is scalable business. Most investors do not want to spend money on journalism. We all know this. They think it’s an expensive hobby. And so they’re not going to put any money into it because they won’t get any return on their investment; they don’t think so anyway. I’ve managed to convince a couple of people to have a process in which we develop people who maybe have an arm that is content and it’s not for profit, and then they have a section that is maybe online education or it’s an app. We’re still trying to figure out how we get people to fund content.

JA: What are the big specific obstacles that people that you see face?

DM: We are not business people. You know, back in the siloed days, which were not that long ago, we were the journalists, we told the stories. However they paid for it is however those people paid for it. Now we have to think: how much does that really cost? Where do we spend our money? While the cost to entry has come down a lot, it still costs money to do something. So we all have to become better educated in how businesses work. We don’t have to go all-in. But I think it’s very important for journalists today going forward to have a real understanding of how you take an idea from conception to development to public. And second, the big problem is the percent of investment money that goes to people of color. Why are we not in the mix? Why are we not in the network? Do we need to develop our own networks? Where are the people of color who have access to capital and do they know about the journalists trying to start companies? It’s a large, festering issue that we’re trying to take a section of it and solve.

JA: Do you do market assessments?

DM: That’s another problem, everybody thinks their idea is the only idea that ever existed. But chances are somebody else is doing that too. Most people in this realm have never done any market assessment. They don’t know who their competition is. They don’t know who’s out there. They don’t know what other people are doing. We want to demystify the process to entrepreneurship.

“I found MY tribe”

Ashley Cisneros

Ashley Cisneros used her New U 2012 seed grant to do many things: get office space, attend conferences and secure a range of contractors (designers, journalists, videographers) to help build Chatter Buzz Media, her new digital marketing firm. Coaching through the National Minority Angel Network starts in January. She called the training so far a game-changer. “I kept joking that I found MY tribe … finally. Without the the New U program, I would have never had access to insider knowledge about what new media ventures need in order to attract necessary capital investments.”

JA: What’s the rough calendar for people who are interested?

DM: Webinars launching next month, January. We’ll do a series of five, six webinars, as part of the runway to the first startup camp, which I think is the last week of July. Before that, we will use every opportunity to say we’re going to be doing these projects, if you’re members of the association, or not, because we’re going to sprinkle it around everywhere, come to the conference, $30 registration fee, that way we know you’re serious. And here’s what we’re going to offer and we’ll have some bullet points on coaching, mentoring, pitching, product development, you’ll do all that and more over a two-day period. And then, toward the end, you’ll get an opportunity to pitch to judges to be part of a competition for $10,000.

JA: What do you expect people to do with $10,000?

DM: Most of them don’t have $10. So $10,000 means they can probably use it to get a very nicely designed website. When they move to the next round of business development, that’s not free. So they can use that to defray the costs of their next round. After $10,000 it moves to six- and seven-figure competition. These people are different in some way from the regular journalists who are trying to get a job in a newsroom. These are people who left, who are not going back. And they want to do their own thing. And especially people of color need to be supported in this area.