Maria Gibbs ND '17 PhD and Dustin Mix ND ’10, ND ’13 M.S., ESTEEM ’13
Even during this time of social distancing, it seems that INVANTI co-founders Maria Gibbs (ND '17 PhD) and Dustin Mix (ESTEEM '13) can’t help but bring people together to continue to investigate and work on tough problems and help people uncover their inner entrepreneur - virtually, of course. While they’ve had to hit pause on their in-person studio model, Gibbs and Mix wasted no time in conjuring up their newest project: The Initiators Guild.
The idea for the Initiators Guild - the name of which has a ring to it like a piece of entrepreneurial treasure or an adventurous startup society - is something Gibbs and Mix had been musing over for a while. “We started to think a lot more about how we can continue even during times of uncertainty to activate people to work on these problems that we think are really important to daily American life,” Mix explains. Gibbs and Mix took the pandemic as an opportunity to implement ideas they’d had about ways to re-think their recruiting process for their business INVANTI, a startup generator which matches aspiring entrepreneurs to South Bend-based problems. Typical recruiting for an INVANTI cohort takes the form of LinkedIn outreach to individuals whose profile suggests they could be a good fit for the program. However, even when outreach leads to a phone call, many are unable to make the commitment to moving to South Bend. Gibbs and Mix began to realize just how many incredible people (and potential entrepreneurs) were out there whose current personal and professional circumstances prevented them from joining a program like INVANTI. These are the Initiators: action-oriented, curious learners who are attuned to problems in their community which remain unaddressed, what Gibbs and Mix are calling “overlooked insights.”
According to Mix, Initiators demonstrate four important characteristics: “The first is, you have a propensity to act and draw resources to you to start. The second thing is you have this mindset of ‘humble but confident’ [meaning] you love to learn, you love to seek feedback, and you’re okay with making decisions in ambiguity. Third, you have an edge with either an experience or skillset that really sets you up to have one of these overlooked insights. The final [characteristic] is you have a commitment to actually starting something.”
Initiators who join the guild will participate in a 9-week remote and virtual program called Activate. Members will work through three stages of the program - Build Hunches, Evaluate Problems, and Develop Concepts - and will have the flexibility to continue with their current schedule including part-time and full-time work. “We can get to a lot more diversity and quantity of interesting problems to work on by expanding out the people we are activating to get started and make progress,” says Gibbs. The remote learning aspect of the program will involve weekly Gibbs and Mix-produced check-in podcasts, virtual white boards, and online office hours where founders can bring their questions.
Activate is intentionally designed to help develop the entrepreneur rather than a specific idea or business. In fact, Gibbs insists you just have to “come in with yourself. You don’t have to have a well-defined insight or anything like that. All you need to know is that you want to work on a problem.” Unlike other similar types of programs, Activate will focus primarily on building the Initiator's entrepreneurial skillset, and only at the end will wrap-up by introducing ideation and validation stages. “In our 9-week program we’re not brainstorming solutions until week 8, and the foundation below all of [what we’re doing] is focusing on the founder, thinking about problem-founder fit,” says Gibbs.
Mix adds, “this Activate part, this 9-week onboarding is the beginning, it's not “the thing”. This is to give us all a common language, how to use our tools, how to lean on other people for help...and dig into the things that you really want to work on.” Playing into the traditional concept of a guild, Gibbs explains that what the Initiators will be learning is a kind of entrepreneurial craft: “the craft of finding a problem to solve and starting to do the early work of developing a concept. [Activate] is training you in the craft of being an initiator and then when you’re in the Guild you get to use it.”
In this way, the Initiators Guild is more than just a program - it is a gateway to a lifetime of support for individuals who desire to integrate entrepreneurship into their daily lives. Even without a central studio, the co-founders are committed to cultivating a meaningful sense of place. With the Initiators Guild, traditional restrictions associated with incubator programs - physical location, start and end date - won’t define the program. Mix emphasizes, “we want to have a place that those people could always belong to no matter where they are at any particular stage or particular project. We want it to be more like because of who you are you can belong to this [group].” Through developing strong relationships with the Initiators, the INVANTI co-founders hope to find passionate and committed people who could be recruited into their South Bend startup studio program in the future.
While INVANTI’s new cohort and in-person incubator work will have to wait until social distancing rules are lifted, Gibbs and Mix have observed that those existing small businesses that got their start through INVANTI seem to be working harder than ever. “They still have a lot of challenges, but the core things they’re working on, we haven’t seen them change that much yet. It is a testament to their original insights and the fact that they were working on things that really mattered to the daily lives of people, and you see that even more so under the extreme conditions of the pandemic. You’re seeing that same resilience [they had when they first came to South Bend] kick in.”
As entrepreneurs themselves, I was curious to know how Gibbs and Mix were coping with the pandemic as well; it is clear that even during this time of uncertainty, the Initiators Guild has become a beacon of light in the darkness for Gibbs and Mix. Gibbs remarks, “we have been really energized by the work. It’s a welcome change of pace for us. Here is an opportunity we are really excited about and we are in complete control of doing our process ourselves and then getting it out there and turning it around.” As they build this new guild, the INVANTI co-founders are returning to their early entrepreneurial roots and thinking about how to rally people around creating impact. “It’s a good dose of humility and empathy for other people that we’re trying to help start things. It really tests our process and the things we’re telling other people work by having to do it ourselves. The more often we do that as INVANTI, the closer we can stay to that experience of what it is going to be like in the Initiators Guild.”
[Editor's note: Both Gibbs and Mix serve as faculty with ESTEEM, teaching Entrepreneurial Thinking in the fall semester and guest lecturing in Social Entrepreneurship during the spring semester.]