Collab nonprofit brings mentorship, resources to aspiring entrepreneurs
The nonprofit’s accelerators have helped dozens of New Haveners thrive in business.
Tea Montgomery began teaching herself to sew in 2017. In search of a new artistic medium, he designed clothes for himself and then for friends.
Now the waiting list for its products is three months long.
Montgomery credits the success of his custom clothing and accessories company, Threads by Tea, in part to the business accelerator he completed in 2019. The accelerator was run by Collab, a non-profit entrepreneurship organization founded by two Yale alumni. Now in its sixth year, Collab’s workshops provide technical support and mentoring to emerging New Haven entrepreneurs, particularly women and people of color.
“We call ourselves the front door to the New Haven entrepreneurial ecosystem,” said Executive Director Dawn Leaks. “For the people who come to us, we are often the first point of contact with commercial training.”
Collab runs four main programs: a pre-accelerator to generate business ideas, a 12-week flagship accelerator, and a food business accelerator in partnership with city seed and a Youth Accelerator summer program. They also offer 30-minute one-on-one coaching sessions.
According to Caroline Tanbee Smith ’14, Collab co-founder and director of external affairs and organization, the main accelerator focuses on “different types of business fundamentals,” from marketing to accounting.
In addition to weekly workshops, the program includes one-on-one coaching, fundraising connections, pro bono services, and a final pitch day.
“Pitch Day was really amazing because it challenged us to tell our story,” said Montgomery. “Collab has been all about building our story, who we are, what we’re presenting, and then knowing how to talk about it.”
The Food Business Accelerator also offers entrepreneurs 10 hours of space in a commercial kitchen, grocer certification, and the opportunity to sell their produce at CitySeed’s Farmers’ Markets.
Equally important, according to Leaks, is the emotional side of Collab’s support.
“The focus wasn’t just on starting, scaling and growing a business, but also helping the entrepreneur build confidence and self-esteem, and a kind of mental toughness that you need for the journey,” Leaks said explained why she wanted to work for the group. “People talk about the flashy side of entrepreneurship, the more appealing sides, the achievements, but they don’t talk about the fact that it’s difficult and that it can be a lonely road at times.”
Montgomery agreed, stating that the social connections he made were his favorite part of the program. He said it was “really inspiring and encouraging” to be around other entrepreneurs with similar mindsets and to have a community where everyone could learn from one another.
Collab also offers all-round services such as child care, translation and transport. The commitment to accessibility aligns with Collab’s mission to help historically marginalized communities achieve economic stability.
Smith explained that she views entrepreneurship as part of a broader system for implementing economic change. It can’t replace a basic safety net or address deep-seated wealth inequality, but it is “a way to build wealth for yourself and your family and your neighborhood that should be accessible to all.”
Inspired by the citywide activism they experienced as students, Smith and Margaret Lee ’14 co-founded Collab in 2017 as a series of events to help Yale students and New Haven residents build power together.
During these initial conversations, the participants shared countless ideas that could improve their neighborhoods. But they kept saying they didn’t have the resources to turn their ideas into a viable business. While there have been a few one-off public library workshops and a handful of late-stage capital opportunities, there have been few initiatives to support companies in what Smith calls the “tender early stages.”
“There were a lot of people in the community who had really great business ideas, but they just didn’t have the resources to bring their ideas to life, or the know-how,” Leaks said.
Many of those early ideas have now grown into thriving businesses that give back to the community. Smith pointed to Accelerator alumni such as Peels & Wheels, the bike-based composting service, and Havenly, the restaurant that provides refugee and immigrant women with job training and education. Leaks mentioned Oh Shito!, the Ghanaian sauce company that won $10,000 in last year’s CTNext Entrepreneur Innovation Awards, and Alegría Café, which just opened a food truck on Grove Street.
Collab is also growing and changing; Lee retired last year and Smith will be leaving in a few months. Smith explained that she and Lee always wanted a “succession plan” in hopes that the nonprofit would be self-sustaining beyond her tenure.
Leaks was hired as chief executive last February. Previously, she ran a digital media company for women entrepreneurs.
“I knew I wanted to keep helping entrepreneurs,” Leaks said. “Through the experience of being an entrepreneur … you have a perspective that you don’t fully understand unless you’ve really done it yourself.”
Applications for Collab’s Spring Accelerator are due March 19th.