David Ponraj

“Startup Space arose out of a need that I myself had as an entrepreneur. In short, it helps small businesses find local resources. The secret sauce in this is that we don’t have to create these resources because often there already is a lot of infrastructure in place to support these businesses. It’s the connectivity that is the problem. You have local small business development centers (SBDCs), SCOREs, incubators, mentorship networks etc. but small businesses often don’t take full advantage of these support offers because they may not know where to start looking or how to connect with any of these organizations. 

So I started wondering how we might create a more democratic way for access to resources where everybody’s on the same playing field? My solution: an online platform that is agnostic to what’s happening locally and serves as the plumbing lines between the resource providers and the people who use the resources. That’s what Startup Space does.”

We go into communities and become the plumbing lines that carry information between the providers and the consumers.

Democratizing access for underrepresented founders

“If you look at all the resources available to small business owners under COVID-19, we found that those resources have not been distributed equally. Founders who already had resources got more and those who didn’t have the resources to start with, weren’t able to benefit from any of the crisis support. 

In the US, and other countries, the entrepreneurship and support system continues to have a lot of built-in barriers for underrepresented entrepreneurs. Our mission is centered around the question of how we might help elevate those entrepreneurs. We spend more time focused on communities where there we see these barriers to entrepreneurship. Such barriers could be a lack of digital tools or digital literacy, it could be infrastructure where you can’t even get access to the digital tools. It could be the digital divide where you have consumers that might not want to use digital tools.

Our goal is to help communities break down these digital divides by using digital platforms, but implementing them with empathy and with the support of trusted advisors.

We found that working with trusted, local connections—representatives of the local community—helps people not only get connected to all the support available to them but to then also elevate the conversation. 

We help our clients – who are the resource providers – with data that they can go back to their funders or to the government and say ‘Here are some real barriers: we need to stand up capital infrastructure. We need to stand up technical assistance programs. More than anything, we need to put together programs that can actually elevate these underrepresented entrepreneurs.

That’s our passion because we could have been all things to all people, or focused on where there are already wins, but we decided early on that if we wanted to be meaningful and do  purposeful work, we knew we had to go into communities where it’s really hard and where you’re not going to see the benefits overnight. Some of this work is going to take years or decades.

You will only ever see long-term transformation if you’re really putting in the work on the grassroots level and begin to understand what the barriers are that prevent small businesses from thriving. 

That’s the mission we’re on and that’s why we talk a lot about underrepresented entrepreneurs and breaking down barriers for them. That’s what we’re passionate about.” 

The value of a connected ecosystem

“We started working with the New Economy Initiative in Detroit about a year and a half ago. Pre-COVID-19 we had all these grand plans in place to help the southeast Michigan startup ecosystem. When the pandemic hit, we were able to mobilize the entire Detroit ecosystem, including the City of Detroit, all of the major funders, technical assistance programs and other business support organizations. Because we already had the infrastructure in place, within a week we were able to put together a COVID-19 resource page that—in a matter of eight weeks—was accessed by almost 8,000 people. We had created a single clearing house of all ecosystem resources and you could get instant, direct access to grant applications without going through ten different websites. Those are the kinds of breaking down barriers that we’re talking about, where you’re able to come and stand up this digital infrastructure that—in the moment of crisis or when you’re trying to reach these underrepresented entrepreneurs—allows you to use this vehicle to respond.”

Learn more about the work of Startup Space in southeast Michigan in this episode of Breaking Down Barriers with Pamela Lewis. 

The long game: Taking care of yourself and your team

“We skipped from December 31st to January 1st and I feel just as tired. Throughout 2020, we were burning the midnight oil thinking that we were only ever a few hours from a peaceful night’s rest. But we weren’t.

I don’t think this is the short game and if we are not careful, we will have nothing in the tank to play the long game. 

I look at my team as a huge source of strength. We look at each other as a trusted band that can come together and know that we all have a shared value of breaking down barriers for underrepresented entrepreneurs. You need to put together a team that has a shared vision and a shared set of values. Only then can you create a workspace in which you don’t have to live in this perpetual state of 9-5 because that’s not sustainable. Instead, I want our team to know ‘I can bring my personal self to work and say that I’ve had a really bad day yesterday and they will make some room for me and allow me to process what I need to process to then have the strength to carry out the day.’

What’s really worked for us over the last two and a half years is implementing a morning huddle. Our team is entirely remote. So we spend 20 minutes each morning—come hell or high water—to do a little emotional check on each other and make sure that we’re ready for the day.

Most people don’t realize that if you’re not working in the same office as a team, you don’t have this built-in space for personal conversations over lunch or a happy hour after work. These were the moments that allowed you to wind down a little bit and connect on a personal level. Remote teams don’t have these opportunities built in so we have to consciously create them.”

On David’s Radar

“The ecosystem builders that excite me the most are the ones who haven’t gotten the terminology down yet. They may not speak the language yet but they’re already doing tremendous work.

There are so many people coming into the field who have realized that there is work to be done, and they are doing it with a lot of empathy and a thirst for innovation. 

One of them is Kalen Acquisto: She is the manager of The Commons on Champa in Denver, Colorado, an entrepreneurship center that supports over 10,000 people a year. The energy that she brings has been amazing and I think that she represents the next wave of entrepreneurial ecosystem builders. 

Another great example is the work that Dia Ghosh is doing as an entrepreneurship specialist at the Ada Jobs Foundation. 

The veterans of the ecosystem-building movement have laid the groundwork, but if you don’t have those followers that are going to be the leaders of tomorrow, then we won’t have sustainability in this space. We need these inspired, young dreamers that are going to roll up their sleeves and do some amazing work for their communities and the movement at large. That’s what excites me.”

How can we support you? 

“The number one thing that any ecosystem can do is to welcome different voices. It is also the hardest thing to do. If I don’t look like you and I don’t talk like you, will you welcome me? The ecosystem that does that will be the most thriving ecosystem there is. I say that because I haven’t always felt welcome in all of the circles that I am in, and I am okay with that because there are lots of circles I can be in, but somebody else might not have the same opportunities. 

I think we’re doing our emerging innovators a huge disservice. We have to not just be okay with welcoming uncommon and different voices; we have to seek them out. We’ve got to find those who are not saying what I am saying. We don’t do that enough and as a fellow ecosystem builder, I feel that is my responsibility.

I have made it my mission to speak that truth: We need to seek out people that don’t say what we’re saying because that’s how we learn and grow. 

If we want to change the world, we’ve got to go find the people who view things in a different light because it’s at that point outside of our known territory where innovation happens. Innovation is in those uncommon voices.

For me, the biggest benefit is not elevating myself but elevating the idea that innovation can happen anywhere as long as we are seeking out new and different voices and are genuinely interested in listening to what they’re saying.

If we are to move forward as a society, embracing an abundance mindset is the secret ingredient.

Naturally, as human beings, we’re all very protective and defensive; we have the scarcity mindset that the world is a fixed pool of resources, that if I have something that somebody else doesn’t have, I need to protect it. But when we both come together, we will get twice or three times the amount of resources. How do we foster that mindset? It’s not easy, and it is nobody’s fault, but if we are to move forward as a society, embracing an abundance mindset is the secret ingredient.” 

David Ponraj

Tampa Bay, Florida, USA

Ecosystem builder. Entrepreneur and CEO. Husband, father, community member.