A program run by two Yale alumni that works to support Connecticut entrepreneurs announced last Thursday that it had been named a finalist for the CT Entrepreneur Award. The same group, Collaboratory in New Haven, was also named “Murphy’s Innovator of the Month” for March by U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.

“Collab is a boost program for entrepreneurs in Connecticut and New Haven,” said Margaret Lee ’14, who founded the group alongside Caroline Smith ’14. “Our main mission as an organization is to make entrepreneurship accessible to all different kinds of folks.”

Lee said that Collab serves two main roles: It hosts several events and panels about the issues relevant to the people it serves, including youth, immigrants, women and mothers, and it runs a six-week incubator program for early-stage entrepreneurs that provides basic training workshops and up to $2,000 in funding, among other resources.

Smith said Collab at first took the form of a series of community events that brought together Yale students, New Haven residents and entrepreneurs to meet on equal ground and to cooperate in solving problems. At these events, Smith and Lee said they saw numerous promising ideas, some of which had the potential become individual projects, and considered how they could further encourage this energy and drive. They found that New Haven had already provided early-stage education and later-stage capital for entrepreneurs, but it lacked services for entrepreneurs in the very early stage of developing a venture, so Smith and Lee set out to fill that niche.

“Entrepreneurship has not been an option for a lot of people because it’s a risky endeavor that comes with all sorts of different barriers, whether it be financial, psychological or logistical,” Lee said. “That’s what we’re trying to address — to allow as many people as possible to feel empowered to take that route and to provide those resources for them. We feel that entrepreneurship is really empowering. The idea of using a limited amount of resources and trying to create something new, with yourself or your teammates, whether it’s a product or a service or a nonprofit — there’s a lot of ownership and passion there.”

To that end, Lee said that during the one-on-one workshops, she and Smith do not only check in on the progress entrepreneurs have made and the obstacles they face, but also try to get a sense of participants’ emotions, which can have a significant influence on a business venture. Lee and Smith also focus on what beliefs or circumstances hold entrepreneurs back, out of a belief that individual empowerment can create community change.

Julie Robbins and Steve Machesney — cofounders of the startup Lotusleaf Therapeutics, which develops a pregnancy sleep system for pregnant women — said that the incubator program helped them learn how to do market research and improve their pitch.

“It’s one thing to know your company, and another thing to explain what you know to investors precisely and clearly,” Machesney said.

Cleo Fulcher, founder of Rock the Beat DJ Camp, a disk jockeying program that integrates Common Core State Standards, said Smith and Lee were attentive to her needs, supportive of her goals and always there for additional feedback. Collab was especially helpful in identifying Fulcher’s customer base, she said.

Smith said she is excited about the role that Collab and its philosophy will play in Connecticut over the coming two decades. Although the state is an “underdog,” currently in an incubator stage for innovation support, Smith and Lee envision that in the next 10 years, there will be a turnaround for entrepreneurship in Connecticut. They hope to ensure that its future is inclusive and accessible.

There is a demand for accessible entrepreneurship in Connecticut, and Smith wants to ensure that starting a business is feasible for everyone, no matter the neighborhood they come from. Smith noted the diversity of applicants in the 2018 winter cohort for the Incubator Program: of the 75 ventures, 65 percent were led by women, and 72 percent were led by people of color.

“New Haven doesn’t want to be the next Silicon Valley,” Smith said. “We want to be the next New Haven. What if in the next 20 years we could be the state that did it right? A state that, instead of focusing solely on talent retention, brought talent that was already here? That’s one of [Collab]’s main focuses: How to build up the talent and brilliance that’s already here.”

Smith said that Collab’s next step is to explore what it means to build a person-centered incubator that focuses on not only the venture, but also the individual. They plan to bring this philosophy to the next round of participants and to observe the results. With these results, Smith and Lee hope to challenge the dialogue currently surrounding economic development in the Elm City.

Before developing Collab, Smith and Lee co-directed marketing at SeeClickFix, a New Haven civic technology startup that connects citizens and local governments.

Eui Young Kim | euiyoung.kim@yale.edu

Correction, April 3: A previous version of the article mistakenly stated that the name of Julie Robbins and Steve Machesney’s startup is Comfort Therapeutics & DBA Lotusleaf Therapeutics. In fact, the startup is called Lotusleaf Therapeutics.