Athens is a town known for arts, creativity and a vibrant collection of independent businesses. It is also home to the birthplace of public higher education in America: the University of Georgia. Located at the intersection of downtown Athens and UGA’s North Campus is the Innovation District, a thriving hub for collaboration, problem-solving and entrepreneurship.
The Truist Community Innovation Initiative, established by a 2021 grant from the Truist Foundation, provides access to the resources, expertise and programs within UGA’s Innovation District for aspiring Athens-Clarke County entrepreneurs and startups.
One of the key educational programs within the Truist Community Innovation Initiative is the Innovation Bootcamp. Considered to be an on-ramp to entrepreneurship, Innovation Bootcamps help participants clarify goals, streamline pitches and build leadership skills. Truist’s grant supports two seven-week Innovation Bootcamps each year for cohorts of 20-30 entrepreneurs at no cost to the participants.
“The goal of Innovation Bootcamp is to teach community entrepreneurs the basics of leading a successful business and introduce them to resources available to them both on campus and in the ACC community,” said Allyson Hester, the Innovation Bootcamp program manager. “Thanks to the sponsorship from the Truist Foundation, Innovation Bootcamp is able to offer education, mentorship, coaching, direction and resources without cost to individuals in the community who are interested in potentially starting a business but aren’t sure how to begin.”
The cohorts are organized by industry or audience and are tailored to underrepresented groups. Past cohorts have focused on artists, creatives and entrepreneurs of color. With Truist’s support, nearly 80 percent of the participants have come from the local community.
“My cohort was a mixture of startups from the university and community businesses from all walks of life, different cultures, different stages of business,” said Wesley Chenoweth, a bootcamp participant and owner of Grizzly Delivery LLC.
Chenoweth said the bootcamp helped him clarify his objectives and leadership style, and he learned most from speaking with program facilitators and business coaches.
Another bootcamp alumna, Leah Keggi, participated in the bootcamp focused on artists and used her experience to launch the Content Calendar Kit, a content marketing tool.
“It was a great way to make connections and get something out of it for my business. It turned out even better than I expected,” Keggi said. “It was a really collaborative environment that had a community over competition feeling along with education. Not only you could take your business and go forward and go forward with confidence.”
The Innovation District will continue to offer Innovation Bootcamps with specific areas of focus. Applications are open for this fall’s bootcamp, which is centered on the hospitality industry and will begin in September. The spring 2024 bootcamp will be tailored to female entrepreneurs.
Innovation Bootcamp is just one of UGA’s programs to help aspiring entrepreneurs gain the skills they need to successfully launch their businesses. The Innovation District offers additional educational opportunities for bootcamp alumni, while small business owners can receive other types of support from UGA’s Small Business Development Center housed in the university’s Office of Public Service and Outreach.
After they completed bootcamps, both Chenoweth and Keggi looked to the Innovation District for further business development opportunities. Chenoweth plans to participate in the I-Corps program focused on customer discovery this September, and Keggi has completed the I-Corps program and joined a pitch competition.
“I really recommend the program to everyone who wants to start a business. Especially in the Athens community, reach out to UGA,” Chenoweth said. “I felt very comfortable, it was a very inclusive program. People genuinely want to help you. The program will definitely help you grow your business and get to the next level.”