IVCA Feature: Neal Salés-Griffin, Managing Director for TechStars Chicago, on Upcoming Class of 2021 and Adapting During the Pandemic

IVCA Feature: Neal Salés-Griffin, Managing Director for TechStars Chicago, on Upcoming Class of 2021 and Adapting During the Pandemic

October 14, 2020

On November 2nd, 2020, Techstars Chicago will announce its next “Class” of 2021, as one of the most successful accelerator and founder facilitation programs in the country. Like the rest of society, Managing Director Neal Salés-Griffin had to find a way to adapt during the pandemic of 2020, and took the last Demo Day virtual in April, only one week later then it was originally scheduled.
 
Techstars Chicago is an annual mentorship course that allows entrepreneurs, start-ups and companies to participate in a 13-week forum that teaches them how to improve and execute their business ideas. It culminates on Demo Day, an opportunity for the participants to pitch their businesses to interested investors based on what they’ve learned. Salés-Griffin, an associate in Venture Capital and a Chicago founder, was named in July of 2019 to steer the program.
 
Techstars is based in Boulder, Colorado, and has a global footprint. The Chicago branch began locally as Excelerate Labs – which was the brainchild of Sandbox Industries, the I2A Fund, Sam Yagan (OK Cupid, Sparknotes) and Troy Henikoff – before it merged with Techstars in 2013. Troy Henikoff was the primary Managing Director until Logan LaHive took the reins in 2017. Salés-Griffin became the next in line, and coordinated his team and the participant companies to complete the 2020 Demo Day.
 
Neal Salés-Griffin spoke to the IVCA about the upcoming Class of 2021 announcement and the adjustments he made to move the program forward during these extraordinary and challenging times.
 
IVCA:Before we get into a perspective on the upcoming accelerator class, how did the virtual Demo Day turn out in April of 2020, and what have you learned as the Managing Director as you found yourself guiding Techstars Chicago through this pandemic climate?
 
Neal Salés-Griffin: We took Techstars Chicago to remote status on March 9th, slightly earlier before everything shut down. Our founders had to go through a lot to switch abruptly to virtual. Some struggled with their business models immediately because they relied on in-person activities.
 
But with all that in mind, I’m proud to say that our Demo Day went very well, and the founders performed at a very high level. If you’re curious, you can access the videos from that day by clicking here. We rallied, because by design Techstars Chicago was already remote-ready, thanks to some local Chicago-made technology: Basecamp. We organized all our program activity into that one place. When we made the decision to go remote on March 9th, nothing really changed on March 10th, from a program perspective. All the way to Demo Day in April, all of our program schedule and activities were for the most part sustained. I was really proud of that.
 
IVCA:When you opened applications up in May of this year for Techstars Chicago, was the reaction and number of submissions as enthusiastic as previous times, or did you experience a more cautious atmosphere because of this year’s challenges?
 
Salés-Griffin: I was pleasantly surprised on how similar the level of engagement with the program was and the number of applications that came in. So many founders have been hopeful and optimistic despite the circumstances and our more challenging contexts … globally, nationally and locally. And because of that high level of engagement I spent time with hundreds of applicants, and had the pleasure to get to know them and give feedback, even if they didn’t make it to our final selections.
 
IVCA:For each class, interestingly enough, there are some themes that emerge based on the atmosphere of when the applications were submitted. Did you find, as you were going through the current submissions, that themes were emerging based on where we are now?
 
Salés-Griffin: Very much so. Many of the applicants have been around for a while. They shared how they've adapted their business models and technologies in the era of COVID-19, among many other issues. So we have some really interesting companies that I’m excited to announce in November. They're addressing issues directly related to how people and systems have shifted in light of the pandemic ... social and racial justice, healthcare, education, automation, accessibility of technology, and more.
 
This is a great time to support founders who need more capital to help their businesses succeed. In a time of chaos and struggle there are always opportunities for innovations to emerge. That's an idea I apply to our investment decision making process, and I’m excited to see how it all plays out.
 
IVCA:Both Techstars and the 1871 incubator are focusing on more diversity within the entrepreneurial ranks, both in background and gender. The obvious benefits of diversity is providing different points of view toward commerce solutions. What, in your opinion, are the hidden benefits that most people don’t think about?
 
Salés-Griffin: There are so many hidden benefits, it’s hard to go through them all. When it comes to the network, sourcing/deal flow, decision-making, blindspots, being blindsided, language and processes, historical context and references, there are many different components and layers. Diversity is an immense benefit to teams, companies, and among investors.
 
We miss out on opportunities to both find success, and help society, when we are unaware of our subconscious biases. We don’t realize we're looking at a dissimilar category of people, and we're creating less of a beneficial bottom line. A lack of diversity becomes important more often when it affects something we personally care about. And for many, that often comes down to profitability.
 
IVCA:Finally, what is your message to the investors in the IVCA about Techstars Chicago’s upcoming Class of 2021, both in their potential participation and foreseeing the future beyond the pandemic era?
 
Salés-Griffin: First, if you feel like you’re distant from the activities of Techstars Chicago, please contact [email protected] and [email protected] and let us know if you want to get more involved or engaged in any aspect of our program, even if you just want to learn more by getting on our mailing list. Or if you'd like to mentor or lead coaching sessions to help our founders fundraise going into 2021, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us.
 
Also now is the time, more than any, for Chicago to rise up. We need to show the world what we are capable of, in coming together as a community. I couldn’t be more proud that this is the community that raised me, and got me to the position I’m in now. And I can tell you that there were so many other people who I grew up with who had the same or even more potential than I had. People who, for whatever reason, never got the same opportunities.
 
I would only ask the Chicago community to keep that in mind as you engage with and support the founders of Techstars Chicago, 1871, and any of the other entrepreneurial ecosystem we have in Chicago. If you’re not sure where to start or how to engage to further diversify your portfolio or network, [email protected] and [email protected] might be a good start.
 
For more information about Techstars Chicago, click here.