The tech software sector has struggled with diversity, traditionally being dominated by white males. But the software accelerator at Akron’s Bounce Innovation Hub is bucking that trend.
“It’s a very diverse group — three female founders and four persons of color,” said Jeanine Black, Bounce’s chief marketing officer, referring to the accelerator’s current enrollment.
And that’s with only six companies in the accelerator, which is a three-month, renewable, mentorship-driven program for early stage startups.
The companies’ founders are a diverse group, whether you measure by race, gender, age, experience or even product offerings.
What they have in common is a need for help. Most are not software developers themselves, but they have unique ideas on how to use software for new businesses.
There’s Billy Taylor, for example, a Black entrepreneur with a 30-year career at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. behind him, including the role of director of its North American commercial manufacturing.
He’s working on a software offering called LinkedXL to help users better manage their businesses with performance-measurement tools that also communicate responsibilities to individual employees and business units alike.
Taylor has the credentials and chops to be a consultant already, something he said he employed to help his business quickly reach profitability. But Taylor said the Bounce Software Accelerator has been crucial to getting his idea coded so his expertise can reach a larger audience.
“I grew up in a corporation, and the small elements of starting a business are what they (the accelerator) really help me with — framing my value proposition and helping with software development so that I don’t spend money on mistakes,” Taylor said.
He also uses Bounce’s cavernous space in downtown Akron.
“I have my office in Bounce, and we actually have a simulator room that we built for businesses that we use to demonstrate the process,” Taylor said.
Then there’s Lynn Puryear, a 55-year-old West Akronite, who is also Black. She’s using her experience working at newspaper classified departments to develop EveryObit, a website that enables users to place, manage and keep their loved ones’ obituaries and to purchase funeral arrangements and things like floral arrangements.
Like Taylor, Puryear is not a software developer herself. But she also doesn’t have Taylor’s corporate experience and has relied on mentoring from the accelerator to navigate some of the trickier parts of starting her business.
“They’ve been so helpful, from helping me from the legal perspective to making sure that all of my intellectual property is owned,” Puryear said. “What I love about them is they don’t try to take over my idea, but they push back hard enough to make me think more about what I’m doing.”
Brittany Corsi, a 30-year-old Clevelander, is also working on her first startup, though she’s worked on startups for others in the past. Her upcoming website, EarthXYZ, will allow users to put in their address and see how viable solar or wind energy options are where they live and to connect to companies that provide green services.
Corsi had worked with FedTech, a startup-support organization just outside of Washington, D.C., that she said referred her to Bounce for more help locally.
“I had a couple of options between accelerator and incubator programs to join, and I picked Bounce because I really liked Jack Hilton’s direct communication,” Corsi said, referring to her mentor at Bounce. “It really helps to have someone who will just be honest and say, ‘This is good, this is bad.’ “
Jack Hilton and his twin brother, James Hilton, 33, are both mentors at the accelerator and each has his own startup experience. They were also co-founders of the Bit Factory, a program for software entrepreneurs in Akron that was replaced by Bounce and its accelerator in 2018. Both say they’ve been impressed with the quality of the people and ideas that the software accelerator has been able to attract.
The diversity makes the place hum, providing more insight and perspective than any homogeneous environment could offer, the Hiltons said. Bounce works hard on diversity issues, but it didn’t have to recruit the current software accelerator participants, according to Jack Hilton.
“This kind of just happened naturally. I think that’s a really good sign for our ecosystem,” he said, noting that many of the current participants found the accelerator through word of mouth.
Bounce CEO Doug Weintraub said he sees that as a sign that Bounce is doing the right things to reach a diverse audience.
“It represents what is going on in the world, that’s what it’s all about,” said Weintraub, a 25-year veteran of software companies himself. “The people in the program are comfortable with diversity and the differentiation between their companies. They’re all trying to start software companies, and they all need help.”
Weintraub and others hope the accelerator companies succeed, in part because that should attract future participants to the program and help Bounce get new tenants. Weintraub said that’s something he is already seeing as some of the accelerator participants take space in the building.
“There are a couple that have taken space as a result of the accelerator and then, in Billy Taylor’s case, it’s the opposite.” Weintraub said. “He came into the incubator, we had a conversation about the accelerator, and he realized he needed some help and said, ‘This is great.’ “
Bounce also offers an incubator program for growing tech companies looking for both space and access to counseling and mentorship.
Weintraub said he always wants to see more tenants in the incubator and more participants in the accelerator, the latter of which is offered by Bounce at no cost to participants.
He said he thinks Bounce now has the right software accelerator program in place and that it will grow once things in the world at large normalize a bit.
“I think this latest iteration of what we’ve put out there is working. The rolling admissions have been helpful, and the numbers show that we’re hitting on all cylinders,” Weintraub said. “Sometimes you have a slowdown in the people that apply. I’d like to see more people apply … but we hope to see even more (participation in the accelerator) once people can be more comfortable being out.”