Civic Accelerator

When I planned my trip to New Orleans in December 2015, I came across an event at Propeller the same day I had scheduled an interview with Rob Lalka at Propeller. “Innovate New Orleans” was a day two-day workshop for professionals to learn all about design thinking, the Lean Startup Method and business model design, held by Points of Light’s Civic Accelerator. I had been in touch with Megan Christenson – Director at Civic Accelerator – when I was headed for D.C. earlier in 2015 but we had missed each other, so I was thrilled to get a chance to talk to her and Ayesha Khanna – President of the Civic Incubator (of which the accelerator is part).

Ayesha Khanna at CivicX's 2015 Spring Demo Day

Ayesha Khanna at CivicX’s 2015 Spring Demo Day

Civic Accelerator focuses on so-called “civic ventures’: “for-profit and nonprofit startups that include people as part of the solution to critical social problems.” [website]. Over the course of three months, the program works with ten to fifteen early stage teams – in person and online – to fully develop their ventures and prepare to scale. Civic Accelerator works with two cohorts per year, each of them revolves around one central issue. “In the early days, we focused on four broad outcome areas — education, the environment, economic development, and tech for good”, explains Ayesha, “… but we have since evolved to go deeper in economic development and education to organize our cohorts around design challenges or specific outcomes, including upcoming cohorts focused on digital and financial inclusion and opportunity youth.”

In their selection process, the committee looks for ventures that achieve social impact by engaging people as a core part of their solution. For their last round, they received 200 applications out of which the application committee (comprised of 15 experts) invited thirteen to join the program. Since Civic Accelerator works with ventures at the prototype stage they assess applicants based on several key criteria:

  • Entrepreneur/Team – background, domain expertise, how well suited to execute
  • Product – what problem solving for target customers, how do we know the product will work and risks have been mitigated?  
  • Customer —  the uniqueness of their solution, whether customers are likely to adopt their solution and pay for it, perceived market size
  • Profitability/Financials – how does the company make money and/or create predictable and scalable revenue streams, achieve margins
  • Social Outcomes – does it address our design challenge, measurable results, embedded in venture, how well they understand their cause
  • Civic Engagement – leverage human capital, unique platforms/services to engage people at scale

“Our focus on Civic ventures sets us apart from other accelerators, but that’s not the only differentiator. We took a page from Village Capital, and let the peers decide which two teams receive a $50,000 investment using investment criteria applied over the course of the program. We are legally agnostic and recruit and support diverse entrepreneurs from across the country. Half of the founders and co-founders we work with are women and 1/3 belong to ethnic minorities. Last but not least, we have strong corporate relationships – our partners from different industries bring their many assets to support these teams by serving as mentors, sharing content expertise as faculty, helping to market and shine a light on the teams, and providing grants and vendor opportunities,” says Ayesha.


Participants at Innovate Atlanta

Civic Accelerator’s headquarters are in Atlanta but their programs run in cities around the country such as Chicago, San Francisco, New York, Seattle, Detroit and Washington, D.C. Ayesha and her team are on the road A LOT. Megan comments on the role of any given location: “Networks are key. Not just in terms of individuals and organizations that make great partners for our program, but that can benefit our entrepreneurs. The startup business is relationship-driven. You need a healthy quantity of those connections.”

With Ayesha I talk some more about measuring program success: “We partner with a third-party evaluator – the Goizueta Social Enterprise Institute at Emory University — to help us assess our results.  A strong indicator around the effectiveness of a program is whether or not participants would recommend it to their peers. At Civic Accelerator, more than 90% of founders say they would. We have in place long-term measures to assess to what extent participants learn new skills in areas such as business planning and financials. We look at whether the ventures are growing their customers, revenue and investments over time. They share progress on social outcomes and the number of citizens they are engaging as part of their impact.  Lastly, we assess the return on investment, be they non- or for-profit.”

Innovate Houston

Innovate Houston

What I like about Civic Accelerator is that they do not only play in the big arenas of New York, D.C. or San Francisco, but also look at mid-tier cities such as Detroit and Seattle, which is where I believe the next wave of social innovation lies. The team around Ayesha has over 60 partners across the U.S. to help identify the next opportunity to bring social innovation to fruition; among them are Impact Hubs, local accelerators, universities, their network of nonprofits and affiliates, Black Girls Code and Teach for America to name a few.

Going forward, Ayesha aims at increasing the Accelerator’s impact. “We aim to support 550 social entrepreneurs in the next 3 years that are directly engaging ten million people to solve these complex social problems. We want them to raise 100 million dollars in follow-up funding, engaging 100 million people indirectly.”


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