Brian Shields started IncubateNYC, an educational community and incubation program for entrepreneurs, with co-founder Marcus Mayo in January 2012. “We designed our incubation program specifically to help aspiring entrepreneurs get started the right way and to continue to make progress. We accomplish this through the power of community,” reads the group’s website. The organization currently has 60 alumni who have gone through the incubation program, and is planning to expand more in 2013.
Shields spoke to Madame Noire about diversity within the technology industry and among entrepreneurs, advice for starting a business, and his personal journey with IncubateNYC.
Madame Noire: Tell us more about IncubateNYC and your role there.
Brian Shields: IncubateNYC is an entrepreneurial education organization that provides people curriculum and content through experiences. We’re really big on learning by doing and everything we do is tailored adult education that helps people learn in the most effective way. To learn sales, we make them pitch, which is obvious. Or to teach market research fundamentals, we make participants go out and talk to people. We make people learn things by executing it and we provide content around it.
Marcus and I have known each other for 10 years and tried to start a bunch of businesses, but we weren’t super passionate about any of them. We’ve been angel investing for a long time and decided that, because we’ve seen so many great things through entrepreneurs, learned a ton from working with and advising them, and funding them and seeing great exits, we decided to create an academy that provided people the education they needed to be successful.
MN: What are the goals for Incubate?
BS: From a business standpoint, this year is really about rocking out with the companies that we have. We’ve had about 60 founders come through so far in our six months of existence. So it is about enriching the alumni program and continued incubation.
And for next year, our goal is to roll out a la carte classes for people in three areas: business, product development, and industry expertise. One of the most important things is you have to know the industry you’re in and people who are entrepreneurial really thirst for learning more from people. We bring in new people once a month to talk about different industries. We’re going to be doing music in January.
MN: You said there are 60 alumni so far. What are some of the success stories from IncubateNYC?
BS: One example is a company called The Women’s Age, which is a media business for women to have a conversation about their ages and aging gracefully. This is a woman who is about 33 but most of the people in her family have died really young. She’s created this platform to celebrate women aging gracefully, through a combination of written media and a ton of guest bloggers and video content, like talk shows and interviews.
When she first came to the program she had a business idea that she wasn’t totally connected to, but [the experiential learning] eventually got her to this. She’s been doing this for two months, taught herself HTML and CSS, and started her own website.
MN: What is the percentage of blacks and women in your program?
BS: Our program is about 70 percent minorities, meaning not white males. It’s not by design. We are open to everybody and aren’t minority focused, but it is partially because Marcus and I are minorities and people gravitate to people they know. There are great programs like NewME, which are specifically minority focused. But we have the belief that the best want to work with the best, so we hope to attract the best.
MN: What can be done overall to get more minorities into technology and digital fields? How can the industry attract African Americans?
BS: You have to make tech cool. “Cool” is a relative term and “cool” is different for people who have grown up with two parents or parents who were doctors or teachers or bankers. They understand the fundamentals of business or math and science, and where that can take your career. But for a lot of minorities, in particular African Americans, our culture isn’t defined totally by that, [particularly] if there is a separation in the family foundation.
It would be great to elevate role models who people can relate to. That’s a big part of it. If I were to rewind the clock, I don’t know if I would relate to Mark Zuckerberg. Think about the impact that Barack Obama’s election had on people’s vision of what’s possible in this country, race-agnostic, and I think that can be applied to a business industry that is meritocratic in and of itself.
MN: What about diversity within investors? Is that something that is changing or on the rise?
BS: It’s changing. It’s the chicken or the egg thing when you are trying to get people in. It’s the same thing with women. Do you need more women investors or do you need more women entrepreneurs? Can you have one without the other?
If you look at the way the VC market is going now; it’s going more heavily operational. Entrepreneurs want to work with a funder or investor who understands what they are dealing with and who can help them think through questions, not just somebody who is about money. Entrepreneurs want to work with somebody who understands them and you can cut that down any segment or line: women, minorities.
MN: What is your advice for people who are starting out with their own business and how to jump in?
BS: My general advice is, look, it’s going to be hard and you aren’t going to make the right decisions. There’s a lot of research that says 2/3 of business decisions, either in new business or corporate, is going to be wrong. So just go do it; you’re not going to be right. But being wrong is the fastest teacher and you’ll learn the right answer sooner. And just stick with it. The hardest thing we find is getting started and then sticking with it. We tried to start like eight businesses, but we couldn’t stick with it because we weren’t passionate about it. So find that thing that really matters.
Quote that inspires you: “Life’s battles don’t always go to the stronger or faster man; But sooner or later the man who wins is the one who thinks he can.” – Walter D. Wintle, “The Man Who Thinks He Can”
Favorite Website: LinkedIn’s News Section
Current Read: The Start-Up of You, by Reid Hoffman
Who Inspires You and Why: My Mom. Whenever I think about where I am today and the viewpoints I have on life, I have always appreciated my mom for that.