100K Ideas is not your average business incubator. In fact, they pride themselves on being different — on being accessible to all members of their community and welcoming to all who walk in their door. They like to describe what they do as “herding reindeers” rather than “chasing unicorns,” like most incubator and accelerator programs, because reindeer “are still mythical, but at least they exist.”
They also pride themselves on their mission to “relieve innovators of the entrepreneurial burden,” supporting community members from idea to concept in a pain-free process that leverages student talent, innovates education, and removes barriers to access.
This is our favorite type of model here at BIF because it taps into what we call “the gold in the grey space” — working across sectors and industries to meet true citizen needs while transforming each of the latter. When we heard what 100K Ideas was doing out in Flint, MI, we knew we had to go see it for ourselves. So Eli Maclaren, our Chief Market Maker, and I hopped on a plane this past month headed for Detroit and beelined it to Flint.
I had first heard of Flint from the headlines of its water crisis and had learned that it was the birthplace of GM. But despite economic hardship faced as a result of a declining auto industry and falling victim to the state’s criminal water management choices, Flint’s residents aren’t sitting around waiting for things to sort themselves out. In addition to the organizers and activists that contributed to getting the city’s crisis on the national radar, the Flint community members we met are committed to addressing some of the root causes (i.e. inequality) and systemic challenges (i.e. lack of opportunity) of which the water crisis is just one more symptom.
When we arrived at the Dryden Building in the heart of downtown Flint, we were greeted with a banner proclaiming #FWDFlint. A quick walk around the block and we saw a shiny new Farmer’s Market, a spiffy transportation hub, a colorful childcare center, multiple churches, two university campuses, and a refurbished theater getting ready to open up. In the diner where we ate and even strangers on the street, folks were chatty, helpful and welcoming towards us New England gals — two outsiders in a new place. I realized immediately upon arrival that despite its national narrative and the assumptions it had created for me, Flint was full of treasures that I didn’t expect.
When we entered the offices of SkyPoint Ventures, the parent company of 100K Ideas, we were personally welcomed and greeted by CEO Phil Hagerman, and were enamored when his Chief Innovation Officer David Olilla began to tell us their tales. Phil was born and raised in Flint and had helped grow his father’s family-run pharmacy into the multi-billion dollar Diplomat Pharmacy venture that it is today. David hails from Northern Michigan and is an inventor at heart — he created the first-ever helmet-camera, pre-Go Pro, and has several other products in the works. An innate problem-solver, he tinkers and toys with design challenges until he finds new ways to figure them out. Together, they are one dynamic duo that isn’t waiting for anyone’s permission to make an impact in their city and far beyond.
On its website, 100K Ideas explains itself as “community of student professionals [who] vet entrepreneurial ideas to provide a helping hand in business development to anyone regardless of their prior experience or background.” The concept is an answer to entrepreneurial elitism and the barriers that so often prevent people from getting their ideas off the ground. Rather than suffer through a grueling and exclusive application process, anyone can walk off South Saginaw Street in Flint and into 100K’s space in the city’s historic Ferris Wheel building, and be welcomed by the university students that staff much of the non-profit for a free consultation. The fact that their staff are students serves a double purpose — not only are they less intimidating to work with for your average budding innovator lacking a business or technical background, but the students themselves are also gaining real-world experience and learning through the shared process. The name of the organization comes from Flint’s 100,000 residents, fueling its social mission that “if we got one idea from every one person in Flint, we could change the world.”
The model not only democratizes entrepreneurship by making it more open, inclusive, and accessible, but it seeks to transform a city and its citizens as well. It not only provides a community and a validation system for budding entrepreneurs, but it leverages student power to create an expansive model that tackles multiple systemic issues: outdated higher education models, exclusive barriers to entrepreneurialism, inequality, and broader economic development challenges through new venture creation.
So what is 100k Ideas’ special sauce?
- The model is open to all. Not only is it inclusive and accessible for those it serves, but the organization and its leaders are open to collaboration in all its forms: “This bus is for everyone,” David told us, “If you don’t want to get on now, it will come back around again and the doors will open back up…”
- Dynamic leadership with an innovator’s heart: the 100K Ideas team is perpetually operating in beta, always open to improvement and iteratively working to get the model right. What they have now has been tested and tried, and David continues to tinker with the model every day.
- The conditions are right: 100K Ideas serves a community where the need is great and there is a sense of urgency in their work. They firmly believe that “talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not,” and recognize that Flint is a community where more citizens should be enabled to act on their innate creativity and leverage their ingenuity to generate impact. 100K Ideas acts on their belief and is working to expand the opportunities for Flint’s citizens to do that.
Most business accelerators follow a single model, but 100K Ideas is not copying anything else. Phil, David, and their team learn every day from the entrepreneurs they seek to serve. They play with what works for them and what doesn’t, and have created something wholly new — at first, we weren’t sure if they were trying to disrupt higher education or economic development, but we quickly realized that the answer is both. This is just the type of citizen-centered innovation we seek to lift up — innovation that provides a public service, that unleashes citizen agency, and contributes to revitalizing a community. Visiting 100K Ideas was my first of hopefully many trips to Flint, but I hope to see more models like 100K Ideas in places all over the nation so that I won’t have to fly halfway across the country to find community-centered innovation like that. Citizen-entrepreneurs in communities across the US deserve it.