I’m running a few minutes late to the event so I quickly grab a name tag and head into the tightly packed room of onlookers, ready to hear more on the topic of discussion, Audacity Factory
. Joe Schmidt
, the founder of the factory and a well-known Triangle entrepreneur, is a dreamer and that is exactly who he wants to join the factory's inaugural batch of founders.
The Audacity Factory is a new incubator on NC State’s Centennial campus aimed to help companies and nonprofits solving under-served humanitarian issues while disrupting the status quo along the way. Schmidt's ambition is big—within 10 years, he hopes the factory will have a positive impact on the lives of 10 million people around the world.
It all starts with an annual eight-month program in which the participants, both students and non-students alike, will be paired with mentors to accomplish a set of goals aimed to launch or propel social impact startups. Organizations will be guided through topics like marketing, business development, sales, product sourcing, legal structures, storytelling and media and more.
They'll get to pick the brains of a diverse group of mentors, also known as Schmidt’s “brain trust”, including Ronald McDonald House strategist and operations advisor Oie Osterkamp, CNN International journalist and editor Leif Coorlim, the Singapore-based founder of Crowdsourcing Week Epi Ludvig Nekaj and Eric Montross, former NBA player and the factory’s fundraising/leadership advisor.
Audacity Factory isn’t the first of its kind in this region—UNC operates The CUBE social innovation incubator
inside its Campus Y program and Duke has a Social Entrepreneurship Accelerator
. Bull City Forward has a 13-month fellowship program in Durham
for social entrepreneurs to work on ventures surrounded by peer support, leadership training, media help and a sponsor. But this is the first true incubator open to the broader community of entrepreneurs. Social incubators are growing in number across the United States; check out this Google map
of the trend.
Audacity Factory is happening because of knowledge gained and relationships built over Schmidt’s 12-year career in entrepreneurship. Most recently, he and partner Tom Lotrecchiano, sold their startup Canvas On Demand to CafePress, and after helping CafePress go public in 2012 and make several acquisitions, they left to start an angel investment firm called Tom & Joe, Inc. and write a book called EntreMANUREship. Prior to Canvas On Demand, Schmidt was the director of sales and marketing for Art.com.
Today, he's also an investor/advisor to Raleigh startups FilterEasy, Stealz and FotoSwipe, Chattanooga-based Southtree.com and Austin-based jewelry retailer Ice.com. He's a co-founder of a crowdfunding nonprofit called ENDcrowd.com, but more on that later.
The way Schmidt puts it is, he is at the point in his life where he is transitioning from a life of success to a life of significance. The pursuit of a more significant life led him to look for opportunities to mentor others and share his experiences. And what better group to mentor than young minds struggling to find their purpose/passion in life, he says.
While Schmidt didn’t have an initial connection to NC State, he was drawn to partner with its Institute for Nonprofits, which has spawned a growing community of social entrepreneurs. He liked that the program wasn't part of a specific curriculum—that can create a small barrier to entry for students in certain disciplines. Audacity Factory participants will get access to Institute programs like “Dinner with a Purpose” as well as monthly pop-up educational events based on student input. These events are meant to serve as a bridge connecting aspiring student entrepreneurs with locally and deeply involved social entrepreneurs. According to the Institute's executive director Dr. Richard Clerkin, it is all about, “creating globally engaged citizens.” He hopes to engage students and community members on socially pressing issues.
The next piece Joe needed was physical space. NC State’s Centennial campus—near the Entrepreneurship Initiative's Garage, engineering academic buildings, Hunt Library, an existing incubator and several innovative companies—offered the perfect location to create a space where aspiring entrepreneurs could find the mentoring they needed.
So where does the audacity come from?
To Schmidt, it means, “to be bold and daring while ignoring personal safety.“ Ignoring yourself is the key part in the pursuit of building something special. The Audacity Factory is meant to be a launching pad for those ideas that are a little, or a lot, bit crazy.
Schmidt initially launched the incubator in March 2014, but it is just opening to the general public.
The application for the program is now live and can be found here. It is open to students, faculty, as well as the community (local and global). Be prepared to explain the social issue you're attacking, your vision, mission, progress so far, the business model and scalability, and the ever-important "Are you audacious?"
The first group of audacious companies will start in August after an extensive interview process, meant to determine the true grit and humility of the potential candidates. As they put it, “Social change isn’t easy. You need to be motivated and ready to work hard for the long run.”
Funding is not part of the program, but is something that may be pursued in the near future.
One company has been the guinea pig for the program over the last year, and it's ENDcrowd. ENDcrowd’s audacious mission is to create a sustainable crowdfunding ecosystem where nonprofits, social entrepreneurs, for-profits and individuals can come together to end human slavery by launching crowdfunding campaigns for new projects or supporting them financially. A wall of “audacious victories” was created in order to commemorate some of the lasting achievements of ENDcrowd’s endeavors. Here's a story on the effort from Forbes. It launched in October 2014.
The Audacity Factory hopes to serve as a point of inspiration for other entrepreneurs, a place where members are free to think expansively, a community of individuals with a sense of self and purpose. While the factory is beginning at NC State, Schmidt hasn't ruled out the idea of expanding the concept. Schmidt will measure its success by how many early stage ideas become scalable and by determining the role Audacity Factory played in providing the resources necessary to make that possible.
The Factory’s goals of fostering the next generation of world changers might be an audacious one, but it is one that Schmidt and team are sacrificing their own personal safety to make happen.