The On Deck Access Fund launched in September of 2020.
In the short time since, hundreds of Access Fund scholarship recipients have joined On Deck Fellowships and seized opportunities to learn and contribute as they build toward their vision of the future.
Many have returned as impassioned donors back to the Access Fund itself, which exemplifies the virtuous cycle embedded in the ‘win and help win’ structure of the Access Fund. This fuels our belief in the impact of unlocking access.
Saamra Mekuria-Grillo received an Access Fund scholarship to ODF9 in late Spring of 2021 and is now a proud donor. Saamra is the CEO of Formation Ventures which she founded in 2020, a social venture focused on supporting Black entrepreneurs starting in high school.
We caught up with Saamra to talk about cohort-based learning, the importance of inclusion and belonging, and why learning from your peers can be more powerful than learning from experts.
You've worked in big tech and edtech. In 2020, you made the leap to found your own venture. Can you share what you’ve been working on for the last few years?
I left the work I was doing with Pahara Institute in April of 2019 — before that, I worked at Google and at Bain.
I knew that I wanted to launch something in the social impact space, but I wasn't sure exactly what. I had an inkling that I wanted it to be around entrepreneurship, so I spent a year conducting interviews and conversations with people about the entrepreneurship ecosystem, specifically as it related to communities of color.
I wanted to identify what gaps they were seeing that could be addressed.
What I kept hearing was the lack of support for younger entrepreneurs of color. At first, I thought I would build a fund, which brought some pieces of the puzzle into focus, but for supporting youth entrepreneurship in the Black community, we weren’t seeing solutions yet. So I launched Formation Ventures to bring attention and structure and support to these young folks, ages 16 to 26, with both a fund component and a programming component.
In talking to a lot of folks in the VC ecosystem, it’s clear they don't want to invest in 17-year-olds who have no track record—seed funding is all about your track record.
But for me, I ask how can we demonstrate that these folks are ready and that they have the potential to be wild successes? It's by being there earlier and ensuring incredible learning opportunities and exposure for this developing talent to feed into the Black entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Our goal is to try to set people up to be successful over the long term, not just over the course of four weeks. There will be an incubator that operates as a nonprofit, and then the fund is going to be a for-profit vehicle that actually takes an investment stake in the businesses coming out of the incubator, similarly to what you would see in a more traditional incubator.
Why did you decide to join On Deck Founders?
Two close colleagues, Nicole Jarbo and Julia Stiglitz were both ODF8 fellows, and they both told me that On Deck was one of the most helpful, meaningful, and useful experiences to them in their building processes as entrepreneurs. Nicole had encouraged me to apply and when I expressed that this was high tuition for a non-profit founder, she shared information with me about the Access Fund.
I ended up receiving a scholarship.
I went into it thinking that I wasn’t sure what I was building was the typical model for an ODF applicant. But I also knew that there was a real value in being part of a community of founders and surrounding myself with that energy. There's just something about being on a journey with other people as opposed to feeling like you're going it alone. It's part of what we've built into our model for Formation. And it was powerful to experience it firsthand.
One big insight that I took away from ODF is the power of being in a weekly mastermind group of founder peers. My group was a place where I could share my challenges around fundraising. They really pushed me to think about different revenue streams and more creative ways to structure how we monetize what we’re doing. That’s their domain as founders of for-profit enterprises, right? They don’t rely on donors. None of them came up with the particular answer that we ended up with (around our incubator potential monetization), but the push that I got from them was a steady drumbeat of: “Think about it a different way,” “What if, what if you tried this?”
It was really helpful in opening my perspective in ways that I don't think I would have gotten to, or at least, not as fast. So number one was just interest in and exposure to entrepreneurship. Number two was, there really weren't any launch experiences that were specifically focused on youth of color.
What surprised you over the 10-week fellowship?
The power of the model.
During the Fellowship, I could see how a community of 150 people in a cohort is able to combine and recombine itself, almost like an amoeba, to be where it needed to be. As someone who comes from a more L&D background, it's very counterintuitive to how people have learned in traditional models. Observing this at On Deck really gave me the confidence that we can do a peer-to-peer learning model. It is super effective and actually really enjoyable, too. People are not actually looking for an expert to tell them how things go. They want to be able to reach out to people who have walked in their shoes, or maybe a couple of steps ahead of them, but don't have all the answers. This fosters authentic relationship-building and give-and-take opportunities.
You’re now a donor to the Access Fund as well — why do you think it is so powerful? What do you hope for as it grows?
I love that there are scholarships to be able to participate in On Deck and it’s why I’ve become a donor to the program. It's a huge foundation for being able to do other types of inclusion and belonging work. The extension of that, to me, is how do you ensure that once people like me— who fit a different model of founder in the work I’m doing—still feel the inclusion and belonging at other levels. Affinity groups, alumni support, and continuous resources are all features I hope for as this program grows.
The other piece of it is representation: highlighting stories of people who have walked in your shoes before and received the Access Fund scholarships. I think that’s important to those folks who are maybe less inclined to step in to feel that invitation. Once I had been through the program, I felt very empowered to reach out to others and I felt very much a part of the community.
I think just the encouragement to set up 1:1s with people and have real conversations and connect creates a sense of inclusion. On Deck does an incredible job of selecting people who I think are, by and large, incredibly giving and generous of their time. The spirit of service really does flow through. What that means is if someone reaches out or if you reach out to someone for a 1:1, they're most likely going to say yes. And that's huge. That doesn't always happen in communities. It’s a really big part of making the space feel inclusive once you're in it and engaged.
So much of what we’re focused on with Access Fund and what you’re focused on with Formation Ventures is about dramatically increasing opportunity for others.
In your career, has anyone gone the extra step to create opportunities for you?
When I think about someone who’s made a small gesture that created a large opportunity for me, I think of Julia Freeland Fisher from the Christensen Institute who connected me with my now co-founder Brian Lightfoot. She and I just had a conversation about what I was working on, and she suggested I talk to Brian, who is finishing up his Ph.D. I think it would be very unlikely that I would have encountered him in any other context. As soon as I did, he became an advisor and a helper, before he joined as a co-founder in 2021. He has been an incredible multiplier to what we're going to be able to accomplish as we launch in Spring ’22 with our first implementation partners. It’ll be a rubber hits the road moment!