Ventureprise, UNC Charlotte’s innovation and entrepreneurship center, works with students, faculty and community members on commercializing their research, elevating their ideas and incorporating entrepreneurial thinking into the campus academic experience. With core programming, Ventureprise Launch NSF I-Corps provides University innovators with commercialization advice, training and funding to identify potential customers and crucial lab-to-market knowledge. While recognizing the importance of entrepreneurial thinking skills and the value it brings to students across campus, Ventureprise has launched a credential program, 49er Impact, to encourage students to make an impact with their ideas while gaining valuable professional development skills through the programming.
With a vital importance of diverse perspectives and a need for more inclusive leadership in the entrepreneurial sector, Ventureprise has developed two new programs focusing on diversity on campus and in the Charlotte community. The Inclusive Innovation Leadership Academy, a collaboration of Ventureprise and City Startup Labs, is a learning program that educates, empowers and inspires women and other underrepresented minorities to utilize their expertise and potential for social and economic impact and growth while advancing an inclusive environment for entrepreneurs and innovators. The Entrepreneurship Faculty Fellowship is focused on broadening participation in the innovation process and integrating an entrepreneurial mindset across UNC Charlotte's campus.
These three UNC Charlotte and Ventureprise alumni are making an impact not only on campus, but throughout the community.
Founder, Smart Girls HQ
University Business Partner and Ventureprise Alumna
Abi Olukeye, an adjunct professor in the College of Computing and Informatics, participated in Ventureprise Launch NSF I-Corps Program in 2018 after making the transition from corporate to startup founder. She has continued to scale her company while partnering with campus research as well as work with UNC Charlotte students through the 49er Impact and NSF I-Corps. Olukeye has been recognized, along with two Ventureprise Alumni, by Governor Roy Cooper and North Carolina African American Heritage Commission as a STEM Leader during Black History Month 2022.
How did you start Smart Girls HQ?
Smart Girls HQ is a STEM career education company focused on helping young girls achieve STEM career literacy. This started as a problem I was experiencing myself. I saw my daughters at a very young age experiencing gender bias with toys and activities and couldn’t find a solution. I came into entrepreneurship from a corporate world. I was enjoying what I was doing, but was curious on how I could apply what I was doing to a problem that I cared just a little more about. I wanted that connection.
What are some of the resources you have been able to take advantage of here on campus?
What I love about Ventureprise was that it was an amazing gateway. Through a Ventureprise networking event, I was able to meet Dr. Mary Lou Maher and eventually collaborate, ultimately receiving a Phase-1 SBIR grant through the National Science Foundation. I have also worked with doctoral students and student interns, utilized resources from the library other offices such as the Small Business & Technology Development Center (SBTDC) and Office of Research Commercialization and Development.
You have described your self as a social entrepreneur. How do you define social ventures in the world of entrepreneurship?
I am fascinated by the double bottom line. There are businesses that do a really good job delivering impact socially but also commercially. It requires a different way of thinking, it is a challenge and can be done. And it should be done a lot more. The market is going to determine whether you exist or not. I like that pressure. It’s healthy. If you are doing the right thing, the market is going to reward you. You continue to innovate.
ADRIENNE THREATT ’06
Founder, Hope Vibes
Ventureprise Mentor and UNC Charlotte Alumni Board of Directors
In 2017, Adrienne Threatt '06 didn’t intend to start a non-profit, but to do a one-time event. She had come across a YouTube video of a young woman experiencing homelessness, describing her experience of making the hard decision of whether to eat or buy feminine hygiene products each month. Seeing this video sparked a journey from a one-time event handing out feminine products to a non-profit that has been able to pivot and find its way into making a strong impact in the Charlotte community. Threatt has returned to campus to empower students to elevate their ideas into action. She continues to work and inspire 49er Impact students and assist them as they learn about social impact and entrepreneurial thinking.
How did you start Hope Vibes?
We have pivoted a lot since we started this journey in 2017. We originally set out to do an event to address the needs caused by a lack of feminine hygiene products, but once we were out in the streets, we realized how big the problem was. It was not only women, but men and children, all having hygiene issues and not having access to things like toothpaste, showers and places to wash their clothes. We decided to explore more ways we could bring solutions to the table.
What advice do you have for current UNC Charlotte students?
My roots are strong here. I was a student from 2001 to 2006, getting my B.A. in English and Secondary Education. I worked on campus after graduation in the William States Lee College of Engineering and then for the Office of Research and Economic Development. My advice to students is to build relationships. All of the people I worked with over the course of the years, even as a student, I still have a lot of these connections. Oftentimes, these relationships can be bridges to other opportunities. Stay connected to your professors, supervisors, fellow students, you never know what these relationships can bring.
How important is entrepreneurial thinking to a student’s journey?
Entrepreneurial thinking is creativity and risk-taking joining forces to meet a need. It is not something to be afraid of, but rather an opportunity for exploration of new ideas in a way that many never venture out into because of the perceived confines and limitations of their personal journey. Social entrepreneurs, in many ways, lead the charge to making our world a better place. We take the problems we see in the world around us and use our creativity to cultivate fresh, innovative solutions that produce significant impact for communities of people. I love being in this space. I’ve had the opportunity to work in a variety of career fields, but none have given me the sense of fulfillment that I now possess in social entrepreneurship. I am able to help people in a way that resonates with my purpose and has visible impact. I want to encourage students. When you identify a problem in the world around you, do not be deterred by the magnitude of the problem and do not be limited by what you don’t have. Start small and do what you can with what you have until you can do more.
BRIE’ANNA BROWN ’21
Program Director, INTech Camp for Girls
Brie’anna Brown '21 had some knowledge about entrepreneurship as she began her internship at Ventureprise as a marketing and communications intern. While working on student programming, Brown assisted in the development of the 49er Impact, which has now grown into the 49er Impact Credentialing program. As Brown focused on encouraging students to work on ideas that have a social impact on campus and beyond, she realized that she wanted to continue working in the social entrepreneurial space after graduation. After her time at Ventureprise, she went on to work with another UNC Charlotte and Ventureprise Alumnus, Khalia Braswell, at INTech Camp for Girls. And Brown has just begun her journey making her impact, being recognized in Charlotte Inno’s Under 25.
What resources at UNC Charlotte did you utilize?
UNC Charlotte has an ever-growing campus with departments, programs and people available at every turn. I’ve used the learning hub for tutoring services, the Ventureprise office for developing my business skills and networking, and the Univeristy's connections with partners in the city, such as attending career services, mock interviews, career fairs and more. In my sophomore year of college, I decided to begin building my future intentionally and focused on my passions, one of those being entrepreneurship. This led me to discover the Ventureprise office, where I had the support I needed to further expand my vision. Through my involvement with Ventureprise, I learned invaluable concepts that are key to the entrepreneurial lifestyle, how to grow my network and was inspired by other students who had the same goals I did.
What is some advice to UNC Charlotte students? Any hidden gems on campus?
My advice to UNC Charlotte students is to have no limits and to be hopeful. As a student, you are completely surrounded by an ever-growing city and there’s an abundance of resources for you to take advantage of. So, dream big now! Take action and pursue those things you’ve always envisioned for yourself. These resources include other students, organizations/businesses, departments, and faculty and staff. One hidden gem on campus that I wish I discovered sooner is the Ventureprise office. Students are able to build out their entrepreneurial ideas, challenge their thinking and grow with a cohort. With mentorship and grants offered through this department, there's an unlimited amount of growth opportunities for students and members of the community.
What are some of your passions?
My passions have continued to grow in the past years. Since my early years of college, I’ve been invested in contributing to the growth of marginalized communities through education, entrepreneurship and technology. In my personal life, I’ve joined my friends and family on the journey of discovering their true passions and establishing a plan to pursue their new realized goals. After graduating, I asked myself a lot of “what if” questions. What if I moved out of state and worked for a corporation? What if I co-founded a new venture? But I think the most impactful question was “What if I went all-in where I currently am?" Following my decision to pursue a full-time position with INTech, I was promoted to Program Director. I’m responsible for ensuring that the demand for our service is met through programmatic offerings, building long-term relationships with key stakeholders and creating a welcoming environment for our community to come and learn. My next steps are to continue the legacy of INTech and to expand our reach. I'm looking forward to forging new relationships and expanding the vision of developments. I also want to position myself in the nonprofit sector as a resource for others who want to pursue similar paths to learn and flourish.