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Zip Code Techpreneur program aims to build startups

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The COVID-19 pandemic changed how business looks, but the first Techpreneur Incubator cohort is looking to find innovative solutions through code and entrepreneurial skills. The program builds off Zip Code Wilmington’s 12-week program and connects participants with business and tech leaders to refine their pitch. | PHOTO COURTESY ZIP CODE WILMINGTON

WILMINGTON – COVID-19 may have stopped “business as usual” dead in its tracks, but venture capitalists Ben DuPont and Porter Schutt urge the first Techpreneur Incubator cohort to take a calculated risk and build a business that could change the game for Delaware’s economy.

“This is a massive opportunity, because if you look for places of frustration, that’s where the opportunity is,” DuPont told a handful of Techpreneur participants on Thursday. “When you look at these success stories like Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, etc., these are people who took a little risk and it happened for them. And I bet you know how to write code better than they did when they started.”

DuPont and Schutt, the co-founders of Zip Code Wilmington, a nonprofit coding school that aims to prepare a skilled workforce in Delaware, spoke as part of the Techpreneur’s “Meet the Experts” sessions, where participants can connect with top business and tech leaders in the country and pick their brains for tips in a entrepreneur’s world.

DuPont, founder and managing partner at Chartline Capital Partners, and Schutt, a partner at Brown Advisory, both stressed that a crisis is just another opportunity for innovators. Once the pandemic ends, the market will rise to meet them.

“If you look at where we were in December 2019, the economy had $2.1 trillion in the bank. Everyone is sitting on cash,” Schutt said. “If you think about the 1920s and that asteroid strike, the economy roared back. We are going to have a lot of pent up anxiety once this is over.”

Launched by Zip Code, the Techpreneur pilot and certification trainer program is designed for people who have ideas for tech-based businesses, but may not not have the tools for business development. Like Zip Code’s bootcamps, this program involves 12 weeks of intensive training in software development but adds on entrepreneurship training.

At the end of the 12-week program, the Techpreneur cohort will be able to pitch their business to potential investors.

The first cohort includes a participant who spent eight years in the fine dining industry and is working on an application to track running food costs to support food trucks and small restaurants; international developers working on a platform to connect restaurants with consumers in order to reduce food waste; a recently laid-off web developer working on early childhood education tools; and a veterinary assistant developing a sports performance predictor tool, among others.

“Looking at this from an entrepreneurship side, each cohort member has transferable skills from their background that each can leverage for their success. It’s about incorporating where they came from and using their skills to see what the market needs and how they can solve that problem,” said Troy Farmer, ZipCode Wilmington Techpreneur adjunct business instructor. “This truly has the ability to change the trajectory of lives.”

From a venture capital standpoint, DuPont sees the diversity of backgrounds in the cohort as not only another opportunity to make waves in the business world, but to seize an opportunity to build a network to boost the program’s credibility.

“You guys are more skilled than you think you are and you’re not a cookie cutter white male. You’re going to see the world differently. That’s a huge advantage. And when you have people signing up to help you, take advantage of that too,” he said. “The team you associate yourself with is critical, because you’re going to have some kind of credibility when you’re trying to solve a problem in the world.”

Schutt emphasized to the budding entrepreneurs that their ideas, and even incomplete versions of their product, were worth getting feedback on rather than waiting to polish a final version. There is even value in refining a concept already executed by an existing company, like how Instagram created a more user-friendly interface compared to other photo sharing platforms at the time.

“Frustration spawns innovation, and from a macro perspective, I think we’re at a major turning point,” Schutt said. “[Coding] are the tools that are going to give you such a leg up in the next 20 to 50 years, and it’s just accelerating.”

The Techpreneur program was launched through a New Castle County Innovation Grant that uses county-allotted federal CARES Act funding, but once the pilot program ends Zip Code Executive Director Desa Burton said she will be assessing financial options to keep it running into the future.

“The idea behind this is founded in making the opportunity accessible for all, which means lowering barriers that you might face at a university program or other bootcamps, and our assessment is based on logical or computational thinking,” Burton told Delaware Business Times. “As a result, the members of our programs look like how America looks: with 30% participants Black or Latinix and about 25% who live well below the poverty line. It’s about providing the education and the environment to make the next generation of coders and launch them on their way.”

By Katie Tabeling

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