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GrowCo helps a new crop of innovators emerge
South Carolina proves fertile ground for a new community for high growth founders
In the heart of South Carolina, nestled within the historic city of Columbia, a potent force of innovation is quietly unfurling.
GrowCo is a ESO formed from the vision of local entrepreneurs. The program is pioneering a new era of startups, fanning the flames of innovation in the Palmetto State.
At the helm of this transformative journey is Caroline Crowder, the Executive Director with a robust track record of fostering entrepreneurship ecosystems. With global mentoring experience through Techstars, two global EdTech startups as a team member, former ESO experience as Program Director, Crowder is now drawing the blueprints for GrowCo's germination.
Once a member-based nonprofit to grow Columbia-based Inc. 5000 companies, GrowCo pivoted to a new mission, with no small thanks to a generous $1M donation from the Boyd Foundation. Now GrowCo is focused on programs to support founders with a healthy nod to early stage ideas, building a destination at the Boyd Community Innovation Center (BCIC), and creating a culture of entrepreneurship in the Midlands.
Why a destination?
“The difference between a place and destination is important to define,” Crowder explained. “A place is just a shell. A destination is a location that people gravitate towards knowing they will have an incredible — possibly life changing — experience.”
To that end, GrowCo has a relationship with Gener8tor, a nationally-ranked venture capital firm and accelerator with a platform that includes more than 75 programs spanning startup accelerators, corporate programming, speaker series, conferences, skills accelerators and fellowships.
“It was important to hit the ground running. Gener8tor is an awesome partner for us as they specialize in urban startup community programming and believe that everyone deserves opportunities to be a founder, regardless of race, place, or gender,” Crowder said.
“At pitch nights, we've seen gALPHA grads get their first customer, find a new mentor, leverage the audience's network to connect with subject matter experts, and more. Our audience is growing at Tech Beans and all other events we host. I lovingly refer to Tech Beans as our ‘beating the drum’ event because it's weekly -— same time, same place, same day, every week.”
Working with the BCIC and GrowCo is Chris Hievly. Heivly was invited by a group of local public and economic officials to help foster a start-up community. The Columbia group noticed his work in furthering the entrepreneurial scene in the Durham area’s Research Triangle Park.
This coming fall, Hievly will facilitate an Idea2Launch workshop with USC students. This partnership is an example of how GrowCo and BCIC is bridging communities across the Midlands, tying in the USC Faber Entrepreneurship Center and USC McNair Center for Entrepreneurism and Free Enterprise.
“Together, we have a unique vision to focus on the entire entrepreneurial journey, and to really hone in on three main priorities: executing on early stage programming, inspiring new founders to start their companies, and to create a culture of inclusive entrepreneurship in the Midlands region.”
Even though the Innovation Center is still under construction, GrowCo is kicking off their third gALPHA cohort (applications are open now), a four-week venture-creation workshop designed to help entrepreneurially minded students and technologists create high-growth startups.
And Crowder is already hosting and facilitating the typical get togethers coworking spaces and incubators are known for.
In an ongoing effort to combat what they see as a zero sum mentality, Crowder and Heivly, alongside a business-friendly local government, are making incremental inroads and mindfully laying the groundwork for the next generation of Columbia-based innovators.
Crowder knows that she might not get to sit under the trees she’s planting today. That doesn’t take away the value of the organization’s mission, which also prioritizes actions as well as beliefs of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
To that end, Crowder is actively cultivating the resources she has in her immediate vicinity. That includes the top International Business School at USC. It also includes local HBCUs Benedict College and Allen University, liberal arts at Columbia College, which only recently went co-ed, plus Midlands Technical College and Columbia International University. The city also has a large international community of professors and staff members, plus all their trailing spouses.
“I think of myself as a global citizen,” Crowder explained, “having lived in three different countries in the world and traveled to over 30 countries at this point. And as an international business alum of USC, I want to see the diversity of our community reflected within GrowCo’s startup community.”
The GrowCo anchor tenant is Van Robotics. Founder Laura Boccanfuso was featured on Shark Tank and Time Magazine named the company’s socially-assistive robot tutor ABii one of the 100 best inventions of 2020 and featured on CNN International for learning in the year 2050.
“Laura could be building Van Robotics anywhere in the world,” Crowder said. “And she chose to build the company in Columbia, South Carolina. It means a lot to have her in our community. She serves as an inspiration to me and many other founders in the area. I hope as our community grows, we will foster more innovators just like her.”
The coworking space is designed around Heivly’s ‘aspiration stack’ philosophy of flex spaces. It’s a configuration in which the physical space is motivational to members and encourages communal interactions. The offices are strategically designed with one goal in mind: inspire founders to get to the next level. To that end, the smallest offices segway into ones that are slightly larger and have a few more desks and chairs, and continue to gradually increase in size.
Crowder’s ambition is well suited for the challenge. “I like pushing boulders uphill,” she laughed. And under her leadership, GrowCo is proving to have a bumper crop of like-minded innovators.