Founders Spark wins national skysthelimit.org competition
By Doug LeDuc | Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly
Founders Spark is all about building and strengthening connections in the entrepreneurial community, and it was a personal connection that convinced the Fort Wayne company’s young owner to enter a new nationwide business plan competition he recently won.
The Oakland, Calif.-based Youth Business USA entrepreneurial support nonprofit group, which operates as skysthelimit.org, had launched a Friends & Family Fund last month to provide individual donors an opportunity to back the people and projects they believe in.
Danee Pye, president of the Common People United internet marketing service in Fort Wayne, also works as member experience director for skysthelimit, and she knew Founders Spark’s founder, Aaron Robles.
For that reason, when skysthelimit was preparing to launch the business plan competition, “I got an email asking me to join this,” Robles said. Of 10 entrepreneurs entering the first round of the fund’s competition, two in addition to Robles were from Fort Wayne.
The fund awards up to $2,500 to the competition’s winner, depending on the amount they request, and Robles won $2,000 to offset the costs of his free Founders Spark Origins meet-up events.
Friends & Family donors select the competition’s startup grant winner by voting for their favorite project. They cast ballots via tokens and receive two tokens for each dollar they contribute to the fund. The winner gets the grant; the donations stay with skysthelimit.org.
Entries that don’t win a particular round can keep the tokens their project attracted for tabulation in a later round, should they choose to re-enter the competition, Robles said.
Skysthelimit specializes in helping underrepresented and underestimated entrepreneurs ages 18 to 29. Because they often lack connections in a position to put seed money into their ventures, skysthelimit said it began the business plan competition as an alternative source of help with the startup’s earliest expenses.
In his entry to the competition, Robles described Founders Spark as “an organization dedicated to introducing new and aspiring entrepreneurs, hustlers, and go-getters into the startup community as well as providing them the tools they need to succeed.”
He is on Start Fort Wayne’s board and created Founders Spark with the nonprofit’s encouragement in response to a Techstars analysis of the city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, which said it needed more community-building activities.
“Initially, Founders Spark was a program of Start Fort Wayne, but it morphed into its own thing,” Robles said. “It was Start Fort Wayne that approached me; it was very supportive and actually pushed me to go out and do it. It was a sponsor for a long time and they promote our events.”
A Founders Spark Origins event takes place on the third Wednesday of every month. The events schedule for Start Fort Wayne’s Atrium co-working space says Origins introduces new and aspiring entrepreneurs to the startup community.
Founders Spark has a goal of providing education, mentorship, peers and resources, it says, to cultivate aspirations, increase opportunities to succeed, and help grow entrepreneurship and small business in the community.
The Origins events are free to attend, but the more-structured Build workshops charge admission.
Groups of 15 to 20 entrepreneurs attending the workshops come away with new business skills they can put to use the next day, Robles said.
The Build events cover an important topic in depth and are designed “for entrepreneurs who need to learn to do something very quickly and efficiently because they can’t afford to hire it out,” he said.
The first Brand event covered marketing and brand development with Facebook.
“It is especially inspiring and fitting to award our first Friends & Family grant to a business so aligned with the mission of skysthelimit.org,” Bo Ghirardelli, co-founder and CEO of skysthelimit.org, said in a statement. “Aaron is an impressive founder, and it is a true pleasure to support his work. We can’t wait to see what he does in the years ahead!”
At Founders Spark, winning the grant “allows us to focus a little less on the financials and focus more on how we can make the program better and monetize what we’re doing so we can be there for the long run,” Robles said.
The second round of the Friends & Family Fund business plan competition is underway. A new round of skysthelimit launches at the start of each month.