• Todd Petrella

First Founders: Creating An Inclusive Startup Ecosystem

Updated: Apr 6


First Founders is a Philadelphia based non-profit, aiming to build an equitable and inclusive startup ecosystem to assist entrepreneurs from underserved communities. UP Cycle Design is partnered with First Founders, and each sale of our Black Lives Matter sticker donates a portion to support their mission.

This past week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Garry Johnson III, the very first Founder of First Founders, about sharing his experience as an entrepreneur and starting his company.


Garry Johnson III

Tell us your story. What led you to create First Founders?

Garry: So I always tell the story of how I was introduced to entrepreneurship first. Growing up, my mom was an entrepreneur, a small business owner. She had a property clean house business outside of her full time job and through that business, essentially, what we would do is every Saturday she would a rent a Uhaul truck, pack me, my little brother, and my little sister in that truck, and we would drive around to different properties and clean them out to get ready for them to be sold. That taught me everything about business ownership; hard work, waking up early, doing the thing that just has to be done.

It wasn't until I got to college (the University of Delaware), where I actually learned that there's a thing called entrepreneurship and there's a process and methodology you can follow to be a successful business owner. I never considered my mom to be an entrepreneur, just a business owner, she just did the thing. It wasn't until UD where I learned, “Wow, there’s just resources to learn how to start your own business, whether it's an app, or a coffee shop, or whatever. There are resources, programs, and funding available for student entrepreneurs to take advantage of, and I took advantage of every opportunity and resource that the experience had to offer.

So, through that I learned a lot: how to pitch, how to come up with ideas and how to convince people to join the team, etc. Fast forward a little bit, I ended up doing a master’s in entrepreneurship and design. That allowed me to travel across the country and learn from different startup ecosystems about what they do well and what they do not do well as it relates to supporting the diverse community of entrepreneurs.

So, in that sort of research, I traveled to New York and Miami, to Texas, to San Francisco and all around, multiple times, interviewing entrepreneurs one-on-one, and interviewing people in those communities who support entrepreneurs. What I came to learn was with entrepreneurs from underrepresented identities (whether they were people of color, women, people who identify as LGBTQ), the same sort of problems will come up in every conversation. It was a lack of access to community or a lack of access to funding, mentorship or people “who believe in me and want to support me.”

I looked at our local ecosystem and I said, “Wow, we have the same problems here but the unique opportunity is that in Delaware, there’s such a small and growing startup scene”, and I see that as an opportunity to say, “Hey, let's build this the right way from the ground up as opposed to many other communities” that you might know like Silicon Valley (the place everybody thinks of when you say “technology startups,” but the reality is it's not a very diverse and equitable place, and many people don't feel included in that space). So, I'm like, “if Delaware has to be a leader in supporting entrepreneurs and being a startup hub, let's be an inclusive one by design.” That's essentially the story of how First Founders started.

I went back to the same people I was interviewing and I had an opportunity to interview our New Castle county government and said, “Hey, remember how you mentioned in our last conversation that you loved to support these entrepreneurs, but you can't find them and you don't have the capacity to support them yourselves? I have a proposition for you. We can help find them with your help and sponsorship with it and tell them “here's what it is.” That was the First Founders accelerator. The accelerator model was something I learned to close that gap between entrepreneurs who need resources and resource providers who wanted to support entrepreneurs. It wasn't just one piece of the puzzle, it sort of included all parts of the solutions that people needed.

So, the county sponsored our 1st cohort of 8 entrepreneurs through a 12 week curriculum and it was just absolutely amazing. We have a big focus on helping people understand how not to just open up a coffee shop, but how to create a coffee business that is an ecommerce site that allows you to email, source, and ship all around the world. Those are the things we try to teach and since launching in 2019 with 8 entrepreneurs, we now have a global community of over 200 founders.

That's what's so awesome about entrepreneurship; you can take a vision in your head and when you see it become real you’re like, “Wow, I did that, that's awesome, I can do anything!”


What are some success stories that you would like to share and what is the company doing now?

G: Right now, we are fundraising so people can donate directly to our nonprofit on our website. We’re raising more money to be able to launch more programming, to hire larger staff staff because we do a lot of work. We support a lot of entrepreneurs and our team itself hasn't really grown because we essentially are a small, scrappy startup ourselves. With more funding we definitely want to hire more what we call “entrepreneurs in residence.” These are people who come in to help us with marketing, they come in to help us with any admin type of things, but they also support the start up community that we have, in addition to building their own startups. These are people who want to develop themselves as leaders and, you know, make some money, but who are also committed to building their own startups. That's sort of what we're working on right now.

For some success stories, earlier this year we launched our 1st podcast pitch competition. We had 27 startups from all around the country participate in that and we had $10,000 to give away in cash prizes. One of my favorite success stories is a company called Kiddie Kredit, a credit union based in Miami that acts as a financial literacy platform that teaches kids all about credit; the importance of it and how to build it through doing chores. So, it’s this really cool financial literacy platform that's super, super important as it relates to financial literacy and even wealth building and having a successful life. They are an amazing team. They’ve won every single other pitch competition that we’ve co-organized and even have VC funding. Dwayne Wade is even one of their investors.

That's one of the things we're trying to show people in the community: this is what entrepreneurship is. You can go really, really far and especially when people believe in you, they will invest in you. We love just being a place where people come in, have that access to community and we also funnel them into other platforms, to other resource providers so that they can raise more money, build their teams and make a bigger impact.



You’ve mentioned a podcast pitch competition. What is that, exactly?

G: We made it up! One thing that's important to us as our community grows is to scale up our work. Since we have a small team and a small budget we have a principal in First Founders that is “make it stretch.” Whatever resources you have, how do you maximize them to make the biggest return on investment that you can. We said, “alright, we need to build our brand. We need to attract companies and startups and founders from all over the world, all over the country, and we don't have a lot of money to do that. We don't have a big marketing budget, but we do have a Podcast platform. So how can we leverage our Podcast platform to get the outcomes that we want, in addition to shining a light on the amazing founders that we know exist in the community.”

The pitch competition worked by us giving each participant company their own episode on our Podcast. They had 10 minutes to pitch their startup, and they had to answer a series of questions too. It wasn’t just to pitch your startup, but also “why is inclusive innovation important to you? Why do you do what you do?” to really hear the back stories behind these founders.

We had 27 startups participate. They had 2 weeks to get as many listens as they could on their episode, and the top 5 companies with the most listens would automatically advance to the final round where they would get the pitch live to a panel of really awesome judges. Then, we had another 5 who were reviewed internally, and we had some internal judges vote on them. So in that 2 week period, every team had their own episode; they shared it like crazy. We had a leaderboard, so we checked in and sent out an email every couple of days to say “here's the top 5 with the most listens” or the “top 10” whatever it was, and you would just see the teams move up and down. At the end of those 2 short weeks, we had over 20,000 global listens. People in Nigeria were listening and people in the UK were listening, etc. Before that, we had less than 100 listeners on our podcast.


*Click this link to see the pitch competition finals: https://youtu.be/H2xMN5HAPBI*


So going forward, in 6 months to a year, what direction do you want to take your company in?

G: As the summer ends and the fall creeps up, we are kind of going to be relaunching. We will hold a weekly community session that is open to everyone. You don't have to have ever been through anything First Founders before. It’s for anybody who's interested in connecting with other entrepreneurs, asking questions, getting feedback on your pitch, that's what we're there for. Consistently every week, free, and open to the public.

We will definitely be doing another pitch competition in the fall. We have some resources to give away. We've also got some new partnerships we're gonna be announcing...one of which is with an equity crowdfunding platform called Refunder so we're gonna be able to help our community actually raise their own money. Not just by asking for donations but by allowing your community to invest in your idea and help you become successful.

I’ll also be an adjunct professor at UD teaching Intro to Entrepreneurship. I'm also going to be launching a course, essentially a community accelerator for those who want to build their own startup communities and invest in those founders that they love as well. That will be outside of First Founders, but essentially, it will teach people how to start their own First Founders.


How have you and First Founders interacted with UP Cycle Design?

G: I am actually a friend of Sierra’s, a big fan of Sierra’s. We met through Horn entrepreneurship at UD, probably at the Venture Development Center on campus. I was a mentor to her while she was in Summer Founders 2020. It's amazing because I was mentoring Sierra through Summer Founders while UP Cycle was just an idea, just a couple of slides on a Powerpoint, and now it is what it is now.


Garry and Sierra also worked together as mentors at Schoolyard Ventures, an entrepreneurial summer camp available to high school students. Our interview concluded shortly after that statement. I'm glad to have had the opportunity to speak to Garry; he was very personable and down to earth. I even learned a thing or too from our conversation, something that is always welcome.


UP Cycle Design is still supporting Garry and First Founders! Each sale of our Black Lives Matter sticker donates a portion to First Founders. You can also donate to First Founders directly by clicking on this link: Donate



And while we're at it, sign up for the First Founders newsletter here: Innovation Included, by First Founders Inc. (substack.com)


That's all for this week! Thank you for reading and don't forget to please share with your friends and family!


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