Letter to a future founder: Build community, boost business, and dream big with the AWS Impact Accelerator program
This post was authored by Aireka Harvell, founder of Nodat and inaugural member of AWS Impact Accelerator for Black Founders.
Welcome to the AWS Impact Accelerator program! I’m Aireka Harvell, founder of Nodat. Not too long ago, I was standing right where you are—about to kick off my journey in the Impact Accelerator program. I know how overwhelming those first few days can feel. It’s my hope that in sharing some of my experiences, I can help prepare you for the next eight weeks and beyond.
I remember walking into the Amazon offices for my first week of the program. It was completely surreal to be a small part of the bustling atmosphere. Everywhere I looked, an Amazonian was opening a door or pushing an elevator button to an unknown location. And when the elevator door opened for my floor and I heard the DJ filling the room with so much energy, I knew the whirlwind application and interview process had led me to exactly where I was supposed to be.
From applicant to accepted
I’m getting ahead of myself! Let me back up and tell you a bit about how I was accepted into the Impact Accelerator program. I first heard of the program in a newsletter from digitalundivided, the leading nonprofit that catalyzes economic growth for Latina and Black women entrepreneurs. AWS’ program was the first accelerator option I had come across for Black founders in a while that offered more than mentorship. But just a few hours remained to apply. So, I clicked the link and worked on my submission late into the night to meet the criteria.
Among the 1,600+ applicants, I was chosen for an initial phone interview. A few days after that, I gave a 10-minute pitch with a 20-minute Q&A. Immediately after my pitch, I received an invitation to meet soon as possible. Not only would Denise Quashie, Head of Startup Programs and Accelerators, be on the call, but VP of Global Startups for Amazon, Howard Wright, would be joining the discussion. I called my advisors and got to work prepping for the final round of interview questions.
In the meeting, Denise and Howard wanted to know if I could meet them in Seattle in a few weeks. But it had not occurred to me that they selected us for the program. So, I answered yes confidently and waited anxiously for the more complex questions about our technology. Instead, Howard turned the camera to his entire team at AWS and said, “Are we going to invest in Aireka? If so, thumbs up!” Everyone put up their thumbs and said, “Welcome to Amazon, Aireka!” I gasped and cried!
Now that I’ve gone through the program and can reflect on those game-changing moments, I realize I got there because I wasn’t afraid to brag about myself. Make sure you do the same. No accomplishment is too small! At the same time, don’t be afraid to talk about your weaknesses and the things you don’t have together. When else will you have the opportunity to ask for what you need and get it?
First impressions and making connections
If you’re anything like me and my fellow cohort members, you may be a little too nervous to network at that first gathering. Here’s a pro tip: look for Derek Pham. Over the eight weeks of my program and beyond, he would become known as the “Ice Breaker King” and was our primary shepherd for this experience.
He helped us open up to our fellow founders and to the Amazon mentors and leaders we worked with, which is absolutely critical for success in the program. When you can be vulnerable right from the beginning and receive the uplift from your new community, a bond forms that can’t be broken. Your startup will be stronger for it.
Rubber, meet road
During our in-person meetings in the first week of the program, the CTOs for each startup pair with tech solutions analysts and executives from the AWS technical team. With this support, we accurately set up our architecture and secure our products on AWS cloud servers, switching to Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) instances and Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) servers. We also met with executives from LinkedIn who helped us improve our profiles and optimize them for customer acquisition and investor outreach. Since that session, my page has grown to 2,500 followers and over 500+ connections. The engagement on our company page has increased also. In addition, we met with marketing and growth experts who would later coach us on creating strategies for increasing customer acquisition.
After that first week, we hit the ground running for the virtual component of the accelerator. Don’t expect a once-weekly chat or a video you can have on in the background. Each week is intense in the best way, consisting of hour-long workshops at least three times per week, plus meetings with your business and technical mentors.
In the eight weeks of the program we increased our daily active users by 35%, downloads by 633% weekly, and boosted our revenue by 23%.
Be honest about your needs and goals in these meetings, and be open to the feedback you receive to accelerate your business. For instance, in my first meeting with Courtney Gras, AWS Startup Community Lead, she helped me understand how our key performance indicators (KPIs) and metrics were poor indicators of growth, and gave us the tools we needed to more meaningfully measure our growth and increase momentum. Thanks to her guidance, in the eight weeks of the program we increased our daily active users by 35%, downloads by 633% weekly, and boosted our revenue by 23%.
AWS goes above and beyond to connect you to experts who understand your industry, background, and goals. It’s up to you to take in their advice and act on it.
Before you know it, you’ll be at your graduation day, surrounded by the community you’ve spent the past eight weeks building. That community will be unmatched—so don’t be afraid to lean on it.
During my time, one of my fellow founders worked on the graphics for our website, and in turn I helped him with a few pointers for his pitch. I flew around the country to support and brainstorm with cohort members, and stayed active in our incredible Slack channel, which was constantly buzzing with interactions.
The last day of the program may be as overwhelming as the first. After eight weeks of an intense shared experience, saying goodbye felt a bit like letting go of your mom’s hand the first time you cross the street alone. It’s a bit scary, but trust that you’re now equipped with the tools you need to take those steps on your own—and that the weight of the AWS ecosystem is behind you, ready to back your every move. Their support, and the fellowship with your cohort, does not end on graduation day.
Making the most of your experience
As you embark on this journey, remember a few things. First, be authentically you. You might be the most out-there person in the room, but that energy may help someone else reveal more about themselves. Additionally, allow yourself to be fully immersed in the experience. The more you can contribute and receive, the stronger and more long-lasting a relationship you’ll be able to build with your cohort and your mentors. Set your intention for this time, and be open to where it might lead you.
Finally, remember that not every step in this journey is going to be a “yes.” But the experience of the AWS Impact Accelerator is here to remind you that you are worth it. You are not crazy for dreaming this big.
Best of luck on your journey,
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