How EPIcenter, Geekdom, and Venture for America Startup Programs Adapted to the Pandemic

By Iris Gonzalez
EPIcenter EEIA participants gathered for an in-person happy hour, courtesy photo

Launching a startup is exciting but risky to pursue, even in the best of times. Throw in a pandemic that’s still impacting how we connect, collaborate, and innovate, and you’ve got plenty of challenges to navigate, especially for those stakeholders helping founders build and scale their young companies.

We spoke with EPIcenter, Geekdom, and Venture for America San Antonio (VFA), three startup programs in San Antonio, Texas, to learn how they’re adapting their entrepreneurship programs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

EPIcenter

The energy innovation nonprofit organization supports founders developing groundbreaking commercially viable technologies and energy infrastructure services. Chief of the EPIcenter Energy Incubator and Accelerator (EEIA) Andi Littlejohn said that since its launch in 2017, they have served 45% of its clients virtually. Because EEIA programs are tailored to the specific needs of each startup and not cohort-based, “it was a simple and easy transition to serve 100% of clients virtually beginning in March 2020,” Littlejohn said.

Virtual workshops and happy hours helped keep EPIcenter clients engaged and connected in the EEIA community, with high client satisfaction scores despite the shift to virtual programming. The EEIA will continue to offer workshops and networking events virtually even as it resumes in-person programming, like its recent in-person happy hour for clients.

EPIcenter has seen increased interest from startups outside of San Antonio that have discovered its virtual programming and resources, admitting its second international client since the pandemic’s start. Their startup program has also added new partnerships with other entrepreneur-serving organizations, expanding the EEIA’s reach in serving its startups via different pathways.

Littlejohn also shared a significant demographic shift in their startup program applicants. Pre-pandemic, 25% of EEIA applicants were female, yet since March 2020, there have been none.  As of March 2021, more than 1.8 million women have left the workforce since the pandemic started. The pandemic-related workforce issues women face concerns the EPIcenter team, given how “women are already underrepresented in the energy industry,” Littlejohn said.

Littlejohn also noted the pandemic has adversely impacted EEIA’s ability to recruit new startups because “online networking is not as effective as in-person. It will take some time to build back up the applicant pipeline.”

Geekdom

San Antonio’s first coworking community for startups is located in the heart of San Antonio’s downtown. Leslie Chasnoff is Geekdom programs manager, overseeing its pre-accelerator, a six-week program that prepares startups for early-stage investments.

Chasnoff shared how Geekdom’s pre-accelerator had a smooth transition to virtual platforms with solid engagement with its participating founders. Like EPIcenter, Geekdom has experienced some decline in its pre-accelerator applications for its 2021 cohort, but “we have since seen interest and activity begin to tick-up as everyone discovers their new normal.”

Since the pandemic started, Geekdom has not had founders or mentors specifically requesting more in-person meetings over virtual ones. Moving forward, Chasnoff thinks startup programming will have hybrid and virtual-only aspects to allow founders to pitch, meet, and engage virtually with investors, mentors, potential customers, or employees as they would in person. Many founders are building a startup on the side while holding down day jobs, and busy mentors may find it challenging to always connect in person.

“Having certain aspects of the programming virtual or hybrid allow us to meet more entrepreneurs halfway,” Chasnoff said.

As more people return to the coworking space or take advantage of Geekdom’s virtual memberships, Chasnoff notes more diversity in its members and founders, with four out of the six current pre-accelerator companies led by female founders.

“We also have some LBGTQ founders and Black and Latino/a/x founders,” Chasnoff said. “I believe those changes are a culmination of multiple efforts at Geekdom to broaden our approach to serving entrepreneurs in their journey and reorienting our mission and vision towards building a community that is supportive and welcoming.”

Venture for America San Antonio

Venture For America, a two-year fellowship program for recent college graduates who want to work at a startup in American cities, transitioned its programs to fully remote in March 2020. Despite the pandemic, Sarah Olivarez was hired as San Antonio’s VFA program director in July 2020.

VFA is based in 13 cities across the country so collaborating remotely is part of the organization’s nature. However, the fully virtual nature of its programming since March 2020 was a new experience since VFA programs are typically hybrid or in-person.

“Hosting virtual versions of our major programs allowed us to have a broader range of participants join us from across the country,” Olivarez said. “While we know many are anxious to return to in-person programming, this has been a perk.”

The VFA’s matching process for placing fellows in jobs with local startups was delayed from April to May 2020. Despite the delay, VFA “ended the year with 16 Fellow placements — our largest San Antonio cohort since Venture For America came here [to San Antonio] in 2014,” Olivarez said.

Some San Antonio VFA fellows did move away during the pandemic, but Olivarez expects the community to rebound as economies continue to reopen fully. Olivarez also noted how some VFA programs worked well in a virtual format to connect its fellows and alumni across cities and even outside the U.S.

“We’ll continue to offer virtual programming, in some capacity, to the entire community,” she said.

As for changes in VFA applications since the pandemic started, the incoming 2021 VFA fellow class is one of its smaller classes in recent years, despite receiving 3,100 applications and selecting 8% of candidates. The majority of VFA participants stated how they are eager to return to in-person programming after getting vaccinated. VFA has approved in-person programs for its fellows for the rest of this year.

Fellows also shared that the pandemic opened their eyes to the importance of a stable financial future. “We’re partnering with two local banks to host personal and small business seminars for them,” Olivarez said.

The featured image is of a recent EPIcenter happy hour gathering. From left: Montana Meeker of EPIcenter, Andi Littlejohn of EPIcenter, Matthis Herrera of EnVault, Edward Hooks of Leaptran, Juan Esteban Hincapié of Erco DER Services, Inc., Jeff Xu of Leaptran, Felipe Sánchez Gómez of Erco DER Services Inc., EPIcenter mentor Joseph Oliver, and Connor Gallagher-Moore of EnVault. Photo courtesy EPIcenter.

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