Vaibhav Sharma

Tea Montgomery started teaching himself to sew in 2017. Looking to explore a new artistic medium, he made clothes for himself, and then for friends. 

Now, the waitlist for his products is three months long. 

Montgomery credits the success of his bespoke apparel and accessory business, Threads by Tea, in part to the business accelerator he graduated from in 2019. The accelerator was run by Collab, an entrepreneurship nonprofit founded by two former Yale students. Now in its sixth year, Collab’s workshops provide technical assistance and mentorship to aspiring New Haven entrepreneurs, particularly women and people of color. 

“We call ourselves the front door to the New Haven entrepreneurial ecosystem,” said executive director Dawn Leaks. “Oftentimes, the folks that are coming to us, we’re their first touch of business education.” 

Collab runs four main programs: a pre-accelerator to flesh out business ideas, a flagship 12-week accelerator, a food business accelerator in partnership with Cityseed and a “youth accelerator” summer program. They also offer one-on-one thirty-minute coaching sessions.

The main accelerator focuses on “various kinds of business fundamentals” from marketing to accounting, according to Caroline Tanbee Smith ’14, Collab’s co-founder and director of external affairs and organizing.

In addition to weekly workshops, the program includes individual coaching, fundraising connections, pro bono services and a culminating pitch day. 

“Pitch day was really amazing because it challenged us to tell our story,” Montgomery said. “The whole time, Collab was really about building our story, who we are, what we’re presenting and then knowing how to talk about it.” 

The food business accelerator also provides entrepreneurs with 10 hours of commercial kitchen space, food handler certification and a chance to sell their product at CitySeed farmer’s markets. 

Equally important, Leaks said, is the emotional side of Collab’s support.

“The focus was not just on starting and scaling and growing a business, but it was also on helping the entrepreneur build confidence and self worth, and kind of the mental fortitude that you need for the journey,” Leaks said, explaining why she wanted to work for the group. “People talk about the flashy side of entrepreneurship, the more appealing sides, the successes, but they don’t talk about the fact that it’s hard, and it can be an isolating journey sometimes.”

Montgomery agreed, explaining that the social connections he made were his favorite part of the program. He said that it was “really inspiring and encouraging” to be around other entrepreneurs with similar mindsets and to have a community where they could all learn from each other. 

Collab also provides wraparound services like childcare, interpretation and transportation. The commitment to accessibility aligns with Collab’s mission of helping historically marginalized communities achieve economic stability. 

Smith explained that she views entrepreneurship as part of a broader system of enacting economic change. It can’t replace a basic safety net or resolve deep-seated wealth inequality, but it is “a pathway of building wealth for oneself and your family and your neighborhood that should be accessible to everyone.” 

Inspired by the citywide activism they witnessed as undergraduates, Smith and Margaret Lee ’14 co-founded Collab in 2017 as an event series to help Yale students and New Haven residents build power together. 

During those initial conversations, participants shared countless ideas that could improve their neighborhoods. But over and over again, they said they lacked the resources to turn their ideas into a viable venture. Although there were a few one-off workshops at the public library and a handful of late-stage capital opportunities, there were few initiatives to assist businesses in what Smith called their “tender early stages.” 

“There were many people in the community that had really great business ideas, but they just didn’t have the resources to bring their ideas to life, or the know-how,” Leaks said. 

Many of those early ideas have since become thriving companies that give back to the community. Smith pointed to accelerator graduates like Peels & Wheels, the bike-based composting service, and Havenly, the restaurant that provides job training and education to refugee and immigrant women. Leaks mentioned Oh Shito!, the Ghanaian sauce company which won $10,000 at last year’s CTNext Entrepreneur Innovation Awards, and Alegría Café, which just opened a food truck on Grove Street. 

Collab, too, is growing and changing; Lee stepped down last year, and Smith is departing in a few months. Smith explained that she and Lee always wanted a “plan for succession,” hoping that the nonprofit would be self-sustaining beyond their tenure. 

Leaks was hired as executive director last February. Previously, she ran a digital media company for female entrepreneurs. 

“I knew I wanted to continue to help entrepreneurs,” Leaks said. “Having the experience as an entrepreneur … you have a perspective that you don’t fully understand unless you’ve truly done it yourself.” 

Applications for Collab’s spring accelerator are due March 19.

Sadie Bograd covers Nonprofits and Social Services. Last year, she covered City Hall. Originally from Kentucky, she is a sophomore in Davenport College majoring in Urban Studies.