5 Questions with Monica Wheat, Managing Director of Techstars Equitech Accelerator

Jul 06, 2021

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 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 Techstars Equitech? 

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 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. When I say diverse, to be clear, I am including racial diversity, gender diversity, sexual orientation, diversity of thought as well as in the DNA of their corporate structure. I can work with the building blocks and the Techstars Equitech 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 is committed to addressing these dynamics to change that reality. We’re 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 return on investment. I’m looking for companies ready to undertake that challenge.

Equitech founders are going to be in three groups defined within our thesis - 1) underestimated founders (Black and Brown founders, women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and the differently-abled), 2) founders from any background who lead companies whose culture and values are grounded in diversity - not just HR/CSR activities, and 3) founders from any background who lead companies in any industry that are developing technologies that help increase access and equity across society. 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 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 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 do much more afraid and reap the benefits!

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

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.

04. What is your favorite thing about the Baltimore startup scene?

Equitech! I love the bold vision of Equitech and its goal of establishing itself as the world’s first Equitech city. I love that such a distinguished group of investors and community leads is supporting this vision. I love the spirit of Baltimore influencers and founders to take control and re-define themselves. I love the grit that makes them shine and deliver, it reminds me of the passion that inspired me to get into the venture space many years ago. The spirit and dedicated community remind me of Detroit, where I’ve built the startup ecosystem for the last 10+ years.

05. If you could have coffee with any entrepreneur who would it be and why?

Do I have to choose just one?! I’m curious how this brain thinks: Elon Musk; I’d be lying if I didn’t say that some of the first names that came to mind were: JayZ/Beyonce. I love what they’ve built and seeing how it’s scaled and impacts the community. Sorry, I'm not good with rules!

To learn more about the Techstars Equitech Accelerator and what we're looking for in startups and founding teams, watch a replay of an AMA with Monica and Venture Principal, Ramzy Ismail.