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Promoting an entrepreneurial community in the Merrimack Valley

By Cindy Atoji Keene

Lowell and Lawrence may not be the first cities that spring to mind when launching a start-up. But David Parker, executive director of the Merrimack Valley Sandbox, is promoting a thriving entrepreneurial community in these historic mill towns. The Sandbox helps early-stage entrepreneurs accelerate their businesses by providing support and guidance, including workshops, mentorship, networking opportunities, business competitions and other resources. Parker believes in “entrepreneurship for all,” and said about a quarter of participants in accelerator classes come from non-Caucasian backgrounds, mostly first or second generation immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Cambodia, and Puerto Rico as well as Africans and Middle Easterners.  “The entrepreneurs at the Sandbox come from all walks of life, including folks with minimal educations, low income, and minimal grasp of English. But regardless of background they all have the drive and determination to succeed – and I love having a role to play in their work,” said Parker.

Q: What’s an example of your favorite rags-to-riches Sandbox accelerator story
I immediately think of Keo Rattana, a first generation immigrant from Laos and single mom of three boys. Keo was laid off from her job and decided to see if she could come up with a recipe for tasty vegan, gluten-free ice cream, because she’s lactose intolerant. She joined our program, figured out the game plan for KEO Homemade Ice Cream, and is now selling pints and quarts in 22 retailers around Boston including two Whole Foods stores.  She dreams of becoming a national brand someday.

Q: How does the New England (Boston, Lowell, etc) area compare to other parts of the country when it comes to accelerators?
 A: The Boston area has many accelerators, from broad-based ones like MassChallenge to vertically oriented ones like LearnLaunch. What I’m seeing is that mid-sized cities across the U.S. have much less activity, most likely because they don’t have the concentration of industry and investment resources that Boston and most other large cities have. So for cities with 100,000 to 300,000 residents, there’s less of a “tech scene” and thus all-encompassing programs like the Merrimack Valley Sandbox probably are a better fit.
 
Q:  What is required for a start up to join your accelerator?
 
For the Merrimack Valley Sandbox, all we need is an application submitted to our website at MVSandbox.org/Accelerator.  We don’t ask many questions – it’s a pretty painless process.  It isn’t easy to be accepted though, because there’s a lot of competition – something like one in five or six get accepted.  Our evaluators come from the Sandbox community; they read the applications, grade them, and send feedback back to the entrepreneurs.  They look for evidence that the applicant is serious about pursuing their idea; that they’ve thought about the market and customers they want to reach, and understand the need to address financial viability, even in the beginning. 

Q: Are your graduating companies raising capital and becoming successful?
A: Our companies are doing well.  We’re seeing 70 percent of our accelerator graduates still up and running a year after finishing our program.  Some are doing extremely well – hiring like crazy, growing fast; others are still figuring out their sweet spots.  And a number have shut down – but then a few of these entrepreneurs are already working on new ventures.

Q: If you were to give just a few words of advice to start-up founders, what would they be?
A: Keep expenses low; have a vision of where you want to get to and be flexible about how you achieve that vision. Network constantly, because you never know if someone can help you. And make sure you and your family are prepared for an all-encompassing experience filled with emotional highs and lows.

Q: What’s your go-to business attire?
A: I find that the “standard” entrepreneur attire – decent trousers, long sleeve business shirt (usually striped), definitely no tie, usually no jacket– works in Lowell and Lawrence. I want to project a seriousness to my work, but I don’t want to overdo it.  Ties these days are generally for formal events, or worn regularly by bankers and lawyers.

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