Tech influencers share 2020 predictions ahead of Charlotte Innovation Week

Charlotte Innovation Week takes place Jan. 20-24.

All eyes will be on Charlotte’s tech and startup scene as Charlotte Innovation Week kicks off Jan. 20. The team behind the inaugural event has its sights set on making business “a little less intimidating” for entrepreneurs.

Nearly a dozen events will focus on aspects of launching and sustaining a successful venture, from pitching to fundraising. Attendees can look forward to local staples like Collective Hustle’s Seed the South, Charlotte Inno’s Inno on Fire Awards and a meeting hosted by Charlotte Angel Fund.

Ahead of the weeklong celebration, we asked six people familiar with Charlotte’s startup and tech landscape to share their 2020 business predictions and other insights.

Charlotte Innovation Week runs through Jan. 24. See the full schedule of events here.

Lynn Luong

Organizer, Charlotte Innovation Week
Director, Seed the South

Photo courtesy of Lynn Luong

The week’s premier event is Seed the South, which launched last year and has become one of Charlotte’s ultimate ecosystem builders by highlighting early-stage startups.

The two-day event kicks off Jan. 22, featuring a pitch competition and panel discussions with over 50 of the region’s leading investors.

Lynn Luong, Collective Hustle‘s Seed the South director and Charlotte Innovation Week organizer, says inclusivity is one of her main goals. More than half of the event speakers are women and/or people of color.

Luong, who relocated from New York, explained that it can be hard for startups to gain attention in Charlotte, and depending on the industry, not a lot of money to go around.

From her perspective, Charlotte’s entrepreneurial community is scattered. She’s aiming for Charlotte Innovation Week to combine the efforts in an organized way.

Charlotte business predictions for 2020?
What has been evident is that people are always looking for a place to gather, so when you put together an event, you want to make sure the right people are in the room. The trend for 2020 will be togetherness and connectivity. Charlotte does this better than other major cities.

Alexandra Arrington

Co-founder/Facilitator, Money Magnets Club

Photo courtesy of Alexandra Arrington

Alexandra Arrington launched the Money Magnets Club last April as a way to teach elementary students about business and entrepreneurship. Club members learn startup fundamentals and gain assistance in launching their businesses through crowdfunding and business plan development.

To date, two members have a lemonade stand and a hairstyling business up-and-running. Arrington’s next kidpreneurs cohort will start on Jan. 22 during Charlotte Innovation Week. Participants will receive a laptop donated from Eliminate the Digital Divide (E2D) upon completion.

Arrington’s efforts earned recognition as one of Charlotte Inno’s Opportunity Champions for making “more spaces at the proverbial table.”

How can Charlotte support more Black-owned businesses?
The city needs to be OK with taking risks and facilitating collaboration between newer and established programs. Also, Charlotte should be able to plug people into existing resources and increase capacity. This bullish landscape will call for innovation in the support and distribution of resources.

John Alexander

Co-founder/President, Xchange Post

John Alexander. Photo: William Jackson

Navy veteran John Alexander co-founded Xchange Post in 2017. The online marketplace uses peer-to-peer rentals on everyday items, particularly tools and hardware. The platform won a $1,000 cash prize as Seed the South attendees’ favorite startup last year. In 2018, Xchange Post took home the $50,000 first-place prize at the Charlotte Veteran Startup Showcase.

Alexander understands that Charlotte typically doesn’t attract investors like other major cities. But, he credits events like those hosted during Charlotte Innovation Week for being a training ground and creating a sense of community.

“As a startup founder, you can feel alone in your journey, but Seed the South provided an opportunity to get to know other founders on a similar journey,” he said. “I was also happy to see the level of diversity represented, especially our many strong female founders.”

After completing a beta round of testing in December, Xchange Post plans to release its full app this spring, just in time for spring home projects.

Charlotte business predictions for 2020?
It should be a big year for business in Charlotte. The first wave of startups is generating strong revenue and raising capital, which is creating a lot of opportunities for startups following in their path. With the light rail expansion, we can expect to see more community-based businesses popping up along Tryon Street, W.T. Harris Boulevard and the greater University City area.

Abi Olukeye

Founder and CEO, Smart Girls HQ

Photo courtesy of Abi Olukeye

After working in the manufacturing industry for nearly 15 years, Abi Olukeye recognized the lack of women in her field — particularly with heavy machinery. When her two daughters turned 5 and 8 years old, she noticed that everything became gendered. She wanted to ensure that her daughters had greater exposure to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) opportunities.

In 2018, Olukeye started Smart Girls HQ, which caters primarily to the STEM education needs of girls ages 3 to 12. As a self-described STEM mom, she became a resource for parents without a STEM background, creating content and facilitating activities to get young girls excited about STEM careers.

In addition to a partnership with UNC Charlotte’s Computing and Informatics Department, Olukeye is in the process of launching a series of career exploration guides that use artificial intelligence and predictive analysis to help kids explore careers based on STEM curriculum.

Charlotte business predictions for 2020?
I can see Charlotte starting to focus more on “internet of things” and building off of the established manufacturing companies to begin converting physical assets into digital products. The more we start to see companies with a large footprint and money to invest, the more product innovations we will see.

How can Charlotte support more Black-owned businesses?
If we focus on only certain pathways as a city, fintech for example, then we will leave people out. Black women are the fastest-growing group of new business owners, but I think our problem is not having the same pathways for all kinds of businesses to thrive.

Enovia Bedford

Co-founder/Vice President of Sponsorship & Brand Partnerships, BLKTECHCLT

Enovia Bedford. Photo: Alvin C. Jacobs

BLKTECHCLT is no stranger to busting down barriers for tech entrepreneurs of color in Charlotte. Its founders have done work in convening and cultivating local talent and fostering meaningful partnerships with organizations like Carolina Fintech Hub and the Flatiron School.

On Jan. 23, BLKTECHCLT and the Flatiron School will host Coding & Careers, a crash-course in website development and a resume review. The two organizations have partnered to prepare more residents to land tech jobs. They will host a series of information sessions, leadership dinners, beginner coding workshops, and fireside chats throughout Charlotte.

Charlotte business predictions for 2020?
Charlotte’s startup community is on a steady trajectory to growth. It will continue to grow fintech-based technology companies. Hopefully, Charlotte will mature its financing and venture capital investments, particularly paying closer attention to underrepresented founders who have a greater challenge accessing the resources and relationships they need to successfully grow their businesses.

Terik Tidwell

Managing Director, Smith Tech Innovation Center, Johnson C. Smith University

Terik Tidwell (l) served as a fellow for the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative with the U.S. State Department. Photo courtesy of Terik Tidwell

Terik Tidwell has played a role in boosting Charlotte’s pipeline of Black youth in tech through his role as director of STEM Innovation at Johnson C. Smith University.

Under his watch, the school secured $1.8 million in grants — from the Kenan Charitable Trust and the U.S. Department of Education — for a K-16 initiative to expose students at West Charlotte High School and Ranson Middle School to computer science and entrepreneurship. Through ongoing partnerships with companies like Google and IBM, selected JCSU students spend three weeks in a summer STEM immersion program. This year, his work will continue to engage with local businesses, provide training, and host community-building events around tech and innovation.

Tidwell also serves as an adviser to several of Charlotte’s tech businesses. He says Charlotte Innovation Week is an opportunity for the ecosystem to come together to learn, reflect, and grow.

Charlotte business predictions for 2020?
This year, AvidXchange might have an IPO or be acquired; both would be a win for the ecosystem. Also, Charlotte is prime for automation. Companies focused on automation and supply chain technology will emerge as big players.

In 2019, 38 local startup companies raised $276 million. In 2020, we may see less invested capital because venture capital funding in Charlotte tends to be cyclical. Thus, Charlotte startup companies may want to become investor-ready this year.

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Christine Edwards
Christine Edwards is a local government professional with a love for the community. In her spare time, she volunteers, travels, enjoys good southern food and loves seeing urban policy theory play out in everyday life. Public service is her jam.
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