5 Questions with Eric Glustrom, Founder of Watson Institute

Oct 14, 2021

Eric Glustrom is the founder of Watson Institute and Educate! - two organizations transforming education worldwide. Watson is a reimagined model of education based in Boulder, Colorado dedicated to supporting next generation innovators, leaders and social entrepreneurs to solve the toughest challenges facing the world. Educate! currently reaches 240,000 students across Uganda and Rwanda through a mentorship based, leadership, and entrepreneurship program that has significantly influenced the national curriculum and examinations of Uganda and Rwanda. Recognized as an Ashoka fellow, Echoing Green fellow, and one of Forbes 30 social entrepreneurs under 30, Eric’s work is driven by a simple belief: to solve the toughest challenges facing humanity, the place to start is within the hearts and minds of the next generation.

01. Give us the elevator pitch for Watson Institute.

Watson Institute is a reimagined model of education for next-generation innovators, leaders, and entrepreneurs. We provide the tools, network, mindset, and courage for the next generation to solve the toughest challenges facing the world, launch successful careers, and lead impactful lives.

Watson Institute’s 294 Alumni from 69 countries around the world have raised over $100 million, created over 1,000 paid part or full-time jobs, and impacted 5 million people around the world through the initiatives they help lead. Watson alumni have been selected to Y Combinator, the Echoing Green Fellowship and five have been named to Forbes’ 30 under 30 lists. Alums continue their education at Harvard University, New York University, Princeton University, and Oxford Saïd’s Business School, among others.

02. How does Watson Institute create a more diverse and inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystem?

Watson Institute’s flagship program, the Semester Accelerator in Boulder, Colorado, admits between 25 - 30 young entrepreneurs each Semester. Of these 25 - 30 young entrepreneurs, at least 66% identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, Persons of Color), over 80% of program participants’ annual household income is less than $30,000, and at least half are young women. We view the Semester Accelerator through the lens of it serving as a pre-accelerator program that addresses the leaky pipeline of diverse, underrepresented talent. Our goal is to equip participants with the skills, resources, and network they need to apply to more advanced entrepreneurial development programs, such as Techstars or Echoing Green.

Watson Institute’s Semester Accelerator includes award-winning curriculum in both the hard and soft skills that are required to pursue an entrepreneurial path, committed mentorship from successful entrepreneurs and community leaders, and highly interactive Master Course workshops. By curating frequent opportunities for Watson’s entrepreneurs and established, wealthy entrepreneurs to come together and co-create solutions to some of the toughest challenges facing the world, we address the leaky pipeline in entrepreneurship and create a more diverse and inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystem.

03. How will support from the Techstars Foundation and the Techstars network further the mission of your organization?

As Watson Institute approaches its first Decade of Impact: 290+ Alumni reached, over 1,000 jobs created, and 5 million people impacted throughout the world, we are pursuing growth and scale by partnering with leading corporations and foundations to design and implement tailor-made programs for the population and geographic region they care most about. In doing so, we are confident we can help our corporate partners to achieve both their philanthropic and workforce development goals. However, in order to successfully grow in this way we must be surrounded by expert advisors and partners who are committed to bridging the gap between education and employment, empowering young entrepreneurs, and supporting companies to achieve their workforce development goals.

We welcome individuals from the Techstars network who share in our commitment to bridge the gap between education and employment and to provide opportunities to diverse, next generation entrepreneurs to engage with Watson Institute as Mentors and Master Course Teachers. Watson Institute Mentors commit to at least one full Semester where they provide feedback and guidance to a Watson entrepreneur for at least two hours each month. Master Course Teachers volunteer their time to lead a highly interactive two-hour workshop on a subject matter they are experts in. We are fortunate to have worked with Nicole Glaros and Andrea Perdomo, two former Master Course Teachers and Techstars employees.

Support from the Techstars Foundation and the Techstars network will reinforce Watson Institute’s commitment to attract the most talented and deserving diverse, next-generation candidates to the Semester Accelerator program. The training and networking opportunities offered through the Accelerate Equity program will push us to think more deeply and creatively around how we deliver our curriculum, who we bring in as Mentors and Master Course Teachers, and the ways we connect entrepreneurial skill development with economic opportunities for the young social entrepreneurs in our programs.

04. How did you come to do this work and why is it important to you personally?

At Watson Institute, we are privileged to see the lives, ventures, and communities of diverse next generation entrepreneurs transformed on a daily basis. There are many examples of this ranging from Ricardo Rocha’s venture Bondadosa which delivers healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate groceries to families living in food deserts across Denver to Tessa Zimmerman who reaches over 40,000 youth every month with training that helps them navigate anxiety, stress, and strengthen their mental wellness. It is the impact and lives that alumni like Tessa and Ricardo are leading that inspire me to grow our impact.

I also personally experienced the gap between what is taught at universities and what is needed to create a meaningful, entrepreneurial career and life of impact. I was motivated to create Watson Institute after struggling to find the connection between what I was learning in college and Educate!, the organization I started while a student, which would later become the start of my career and today is the largest youth serving organization in East Africa. The process of building Educate! helps inform my understanding of systemic change and my dedication to accelerate the careers and deepen the impact of diverse, young entrepreneurs.

Furthermore, the reason this work is important to me is because I see the people around me (and myself) growing and transforming. This could take the shape of a team member being promoted into a new position, overcoming the challenges involved, learning new skills, and ultimately excelling in a way she/he never thought possible or it could be one of the students we work with starting a venture that is impacting tens of thousands of lives, raising significant capital, and ultimately achieving more than they ever thought themselves capable of.

My work continues to be driven by one core belief: to solve the toughest challenges facing humanity, the place to start is within the hearts and minds of the next generation.

05. Tell us the story of an entrepreneur you are proud to have supported.

Watson Institute views its greatest success as the achievements of its Alumni and Scholars. While there are too many entrepreneur success stories to share here, we would like to highlight two Watson Institute Alumni: 2018 Alumnus Ricardo Rocha and 2019 Alumnus, Ashraf Mizo.

Ricardo participated in Watson Institute to strengthen and accelerate his venture, Bondadosa, which is an affordable grocery delivery service that serves low-income Colorado families living in food deserts. Since leaving Watson Institute, Ricardo has expanded operations to Aurora, Lakewood, and Commerce City; fulfilled over 300,000 orders in 2020 alone; created over 70 jobs, and raised over $720,000 for his business.

Ashraf is originally from Sudan and attended Watson Institute’s Semester Accelerator in Boulder in 2019. While at Watson he gained the tools, committed mentorship, and network to advance his venture, Nayla, which creates affordable and high-utility prosthetics for amputees in Sudan. Nayla has been featured in Forbes and was a 2018 Falling Walls Lab Finalist.

Ashraf recently received a full-ride scholarship from The Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship to pursue his MBA at the prestigious Oxford Saïd Business School in the United Kingdom. Ashraf was just one of four Scholars to be awarded this highly competitive scholarship for MBA applicants who want to pursue careers in social or environmental change.

Watson Institute was nominated to be a participant in the Accelerate Equity program of the Techstars Foundation by the Caruso Foundation. Make a gift of any amount and the Techstars Foundation will match a portion of what you and the Caruso Foundation give! You are key to supporting underrepresented entrepreneurs.

Donate now and advance equity through entrepreneurship with the Techstars Foundation.