Techstars tapped Detroit entrepreneurial leader Monica Wheat to lead its Equitech Accelerator as managing director (MD). 

Wheat is the co-founder and executive director of Venture Catalysts, a nonprofit ecosystem development group focusing on programming, funding, strategy and business development for entrepreneurs. Since its inception in 2016, the nonprofit has been putting on large-scale events and strategic programs. Most notably, Venture Catalysts helped Backstage Capital launch their global accelerator program in Detroit, Los Angeles, and London.

Wheat told AfroTech it’s been a challenge running an events nonprofit during the pandemic. While she was grateful for all the new business rolling in, Wheat said her team did get overwhelmed.

“We doubled and tripled down on our deal flow and connections and did strategy sessions and programming throughout 2020 and 2021,” Wheat said. “We are mostly a volunteer organization and I must hype the praises for my team who did so much to help so many.”

Wheat has been working with Techstars as a core partner for over a decade. Venture Catalysts leads Detroit Startup Week, a Techstars partner event that brings in more than 12,000 attendees annually. Wheat has held some community roles in the Techstars network that have led her to this managing director position today.

Applications for the Equitech Accelerator closed this week, but Wheat encourages interested entrepreneurs to still reach out.

“I’d like to challenge those who are interested to take the initiative to reach out on Techstars site or to find me on LinkedIn — you never know,” she said. “I’m looking for amazing stories of innovation and growth and to enable deal flow with investors and programs globally. We need you stepping up in the mix so we can showcase what you’re doing to the world.”

AfroTech talked with Wheat further about her plans for leading the Techstars Equitech Accelerator. 

Editorial Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

AfroTech: What does your role, managing director of Techstars Equitech Accelerator, entail?
Monica Wheat: It’s truly an exciting opportunity each time I take an MD role.  An Accelerator MD’s role is to set direction for strategy and operations of the 12-week program. Its an investment role made more intense by the required development you must enable for the teams you chose. Key and top of this is setting the investment strategy to pick ten or so teams to invest $100,000+ each in and then work with those teams over the 12 weeks to prepare them for their next stem whether that be robust revenue, business structure and product strategy, additional multi-million dollar (hopefully) investment rounds, or all of the above.
An MD must be a leader, advisor, confidant, strategist, tactician, and develop potential into successful outcomes. An MD must be the lead partner liaison for Techstars as well as recruit amazing speakers, mentors, Mentors-In-Residence, Entrepreneurs-In-Residence, investors and business development partners that will help these companies do in three months what it would take an average company two years or more to do. Its acceleration!
AT: Will you be leading the accelerator virtually?
MW: No, the accelerator will be live in Baltimore November through February as long as COVID-19 conditions allow. It’s the standard 12 weeks of a full scale accelerator. The accelerator invests up to $120,000 in each company and founders can use some of this funding for temporary living expenses if they are not from the area. We are recruiting companies globally.
AT: What inspired you to take on a role like this with Techstars?
MW: Techstars’ core mantra is #GiveFirst and it’s why I’ve worked with them for so many years. Every organization has its pluses and minuses, but I admire the continued effort on their behalf to help develop founder ecosystems globally. This is a core passion of mine: ecosystem development. This is a core argument of mine: the tenets of what it takes to develop an effective ecosystem and how an effective ecosystem can enable founder success and how venture and entrepreneurship are the keys to economic mobility. We’ve always been aligned in this.
Additionally, I was drawn by the visionary intent of the UpSurge Baltimore team with the launch of the “Equitech” mission and the plan to set it as a model for other cities to use diversity as a force multiplier of innovation and technology.
The “Equitech” thesis is three parts:
  1. Founders from any background who have and hold diversity as a core strategy of their companies in their leadership, on their cap tables, in their strategies, etc. Real focus and not just HR/CSR mouthpiece initiatives.
  2. Underestimated founders (Black and brown founders, women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, the differently-abled) building businesses in any vertical.
  3. Founders from any background who are building products that enable access and equity to the broader society.

This is huge and a very unique way to look at building an emerging or re-emerging market.

AT: What are three goals you’re hoping to accomplish in this new role?
Monica Wheat: I’m excited to be able to develop and highlight stories that prove why investing in emerging markets and/or underestimated founders is the largest investment opportunity of our time. I’m looking forward to exercising the framework I’ve developed over the years to bridge the gap on how we prepare, how we recruit, how we invest, how we develop, and how we enable founders who don’t fit the historical mold. This work feeds directly into investing and fund development goals I’ve held for several years.
AT: What are you hoping to learn/gain from being managing director of Techstars’ Equitech Accelerator?
MW: I’m hoping to set the stage for more to come. I’m hoping to open doors for founders and investors alike. I’m planning on growing my continued partnership with Techstars and key entities to build for both Equitech and Venture Catalysts and build collaborations in as many directions as possible. I love the space of venture investing. When I went to school for engineering, I never thought I’d be here, but now I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I was built for this.