5 Questions with Monica Wheat, Managing Director of Techstars Detroit Powered by J.P. Morgan

Mar 28, 2022

A 20-year veteran of startup, corporate, and tech organizations, Monica Wheat will leverage her vast network and experience to the benefit of entrepreneurs in the Techstars Detroit Powered by J.P. Morgan accelerator. Previously, Monica served as the Managing Director of the Techstars Equitech Accelerator. For the past 5 years, she has served as the cofounder and executive director of Venture Catalysts, an ecosystem development organization. Previously, Monica helped build global accelerator programs in 4 cities and a 12-city investment tour with renowned underestimated founder focused-venture fund, Backstage Capital. Monica also served as the MD of Backstage Detroit and her background in engineering, strategy, and business development included several stints with Fortune 10 companies. Monica’s first angel investments occurred in 2006 in Detroit, spurred by her passion for venture and ecosystem development.

Monica has built education, acceleration, and investment programs globally, including those in partnership with Google, Microsoft, Ford, GM, and Quicken Loans. Her history with Techstars, which stretches back to 2011, includes serving as a mentor for Techstars Detroit, co-founding Techstars Detroit Startup Week, and helping spin off Techstars Startup Next into Founders Boost.

01. What are you looking for in startups for the Techstars Detroit Powered by J.P. Morgan program?

The vision is big, but basic. Revolutionize how venture and innovation is done using diversity and inclusion as a force multiplier. I am not looking for any particular industry, but I am looking for founders who are “ready” to put in the work and take their technology or high growth companies to the next level. We want founders who are in possession of ideas, innovations, and technology solutions that are defensible (have identifiable “moat”). Bold ideas and small nuances that a diverse set of founders identify and intend to grow. I can work with the building blocks and the Techstars Detroit Accelerator will polish and hone the rest.

While diversity in executive leadership and boards are well-known predictors of greater business success, the lack of diversity in startups and tech remains. This gap is usually rooted in a lack of access and capitalization, and Techstars, partnered with Chase, is committed to addressing these dynamics to change that reality. 

Techstars Detroit is open to all founders and is looking for diverse, non-traditional, and underrepresented founders for whom the markets may not necessarily expect success. By connecting these high-potential, but underestimated entrepreneurs to our networks and resources, we’ll help them exceed expectations and break barriers.

In the end, DEI in the innovation space still boils down to companies that are pursuing world-changing ideas that can also show strong promise to generate a high return on investment. I’m looking for companies ready to undertake that challenge.

Techstars Detroit founders are going to be in three groups defined within our thesis - 1) founders from any background who lead companies whose culture and values are grounded in diversity - not just HR/CSR activities 2) underestimated founders (Black, Hispanic and Latino, Indigenous American, and/or Pacific Islander), and 3) founders from any background who belong to emerging innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystems. Those who check any of these three boxes (and especially those who check multiple!) will have a strong chance of joining this inaugural class.

02. What are some of the biggest learnings from your career and entrepreneurial journey that you bring to being a Techstars Managing Director? 

I’ve been battled-tested in both the corporate world and the venture/innovation space. I started my career in commodities trading, switched to engineering, then analytics/digital strategy, and finally venture. I learned the value of an effective ecosystem in any vertical and how to quickly plug in across verticals. I’ve also learned how to build trust with my corporate and community partners - and especially with my investors -- that I am not only choosing strong companies but have proven that I can help develop them. Being objective-focused with these partners is a recurring lesson I plan to bring to this next role.

On the founder side, I became a known entity for founder strategy, support, and execution. I’ve learned that building trust builds strong relationships here too. Being a founder is a strenuous and sometimes lonely journey that tests everything you know about yourself.  At this point, I’ve literally worked with thousands of companies. Our largest entrepreneur event each year involves 10,000+ attendees. When the pandemic hit, I was inundated with calls and requests from our founders and investors. That’s an earned position of trust I’m proud of. I’ve also been known as “Switzerland” working with a variety of accelerators, corporate partners, entrepreneur support organizations, and venture funds across several cities. Through each of these phases, I’ve learned to rely on strong network connections and problem-solving skills to expedite solutions and opportunities my companies have in front of them. It's an ever-evolving toolbox of learnings and exposure.

03. What is your favorite thing about the Detroit startup scene?

That’s a good one – when groups have done ice-breaking exercises in the past, I would always say my “superpower” is that I know how to endure.  When people would ask what do people find most surprising about you, I would usually say some version of “people don’t see me coming”. That’s Detroit.  

I’ve watched Detroit endure and grow to heights and bounds most folks never imagined. We created a lot of value solving problems from what were initially very little resources and with a lot of questions. We’ve grown it to a statewide powerhouse, scaling business, winning rankings and beating the competition. This is the essence of entrepreneurship.  They never saw us coming. I love our commitment to innovation and technology.  We were the original home of innovation and ingenuity! I love our diversity, being the largest majority-minority city in the country is a badge of honor we use to our advantage.  And definitely the venture ecosystem, I’ve had a hand in building it from the ground up - a great deal overlapping in partnership with Techstars - but our ecosystem is strong, broad in our areas of innovation, resilient in our application of grit and supportive community that knows how to help startups grow.

04. What does our partner J.P. Morgan bring to the accelerator?

Startups face challenges at every stage. However, financial challenges can abruptly end a startup’s vision for their product, team, or growth. J.P. Morgan has the expertise, financial solutions, and network to support the disruptors of today and leaders of tomorrow. This program represents Techstars and J.P. Morgan’s belief that diversity and inclusion are the catalysts of innovation and growth. In supporting early-stage startups, J.P. Morgan believes it can help build a future with stronger companies led by underrepresented, diverse founders.

For J.P. Morgan, it’s about changing the entire ecosystem because while talent is distributed equally, opportunity is not. Backing diverse founders leads to a reinvestment in their communities and expanding access for others. J.P. Morgan has made longstanding, large-scale investments in cities to support local initiatives, entrepreneurs, and the environment with over $30 billion committed to advancing racial equity in 2020 and $2.5 trillion towards green initiatives by 2030.

J.P. Morgan’s partnership with Techstars shows their commitment to supporting inclusive accelerators that create opportunities for diverse, early-stage founders. As a part of this partnership, J.P. Morgan will offer an integrated suite of services to founders in this accelerator that extend beyond the 13-week program. This includes, but is not limited to, access to banking, wealth management, and advisory solutions accessible through their local and commercial banking specialists.

05. What is one lesson you would share with your younger self?

Do it afraid! When I look back at all the amazing moments in my life, all the gains and wins, and contrast them with all the setbacks and losses, I don’t regret those - I regret the moments I overanalyzed a situation and let fear control my actions. Years ago, Oprah’s team called to profile and highlight me and my co-founders for a huge live event they were doing. I wasn’t ready and overanalyzed how to perfect my approach and answers to her questions and PR requests. I lost that opportunity. I’d tell my younger self to be much more afraid and reap the benefits!

Learn more about Techstars Detroit Powered by J.P. Morgan