by Dwain Hebda
A new startup support organization is helping high-impact Arkansas entrepreneurs accelerate growth and foster economic development. Endeavor NWA, opened in March, spurs this expansion in a segment of startups often overlooked by other similar organizations.
“When we’re looking at targeting specific companies, we’re not looking for startups, we’re looking for scale ups,” says Jessica Head, marketing manager. “These are companies that have hit a really interesting inflexion point in their business model.”
While resources abound for early-stage companies in Arkansas – incubators, accelerators and the like – startups that have grown beyond that phase often find it difficult to get past certain plateaus. Among these challenges are access to international connections and figuring out how to dovetail company growth with the economic development of their region.
“Obviously, our purpose is to catalyze long-term growth, but when we say long-term, it’s not targeting companies that are at the beginning of raising their Series A,” Head says. “We tend to target people that are further on. A lot of this is connecting them, on a global scale, to the network that Endeavor has already established.”
The Northwest Arkansas office has already welcomed its first member company – Field Agent – which is a far more noteworthy accomplishment than it sounds. Companies cannot simply sign up for access to Endeavor’s resources and services but must pass an exacting process of evaluations.
“Essentially, the selection process has four parts to it; two are more introductory evaluations, sitting down, having a cup of coffee and talking about where your business is,” Head says. “After two different meetings with an Endeavor mentor or board member, they are submitted to participate in what is called a local selection panel.”
This panel evaluates the company in a more formal manner, culminating in a vote to advance the company to the next level of scrutiny. The vote must be unanimous to move the firm to the international phase of the process.
“The international selection process is the final stage as far as the evaluations go,” Head says. “They exist all throughout the different locations of Endeavor, and it just so happened that last September, it was in Atlanta.”
“The companies go through a three-part series of interviews in three days and the international selection panelists then sit down in the evaluation room and basically hash out whether or not these companies are ready to receive some of the services Endeavor can provide. If it is a unanimous vote ‘yes’, they are elected as an Endeavor Entrepreneur.”
Endeavor is a private nonprofit organization and each office is underwritten primarily by a local foundation and often, partnering companies. In Arkansas, Endeavor NWA is funded by the Walton Family Foundation which enables it to provide services to member companies at no charge. While it is based in Bentonville, Endeavor NWA isn’t limited to companies in its immediate backyard.
“Entrepreneurial ecosystems overlap quite a bit,” Head says. “Although we’re based in NWA and focusing on entrepreneurs in this specific region, we also have worked and had discussions with folks in the Little Rock area and a couple in the Delta relative to some of the other entrepreneurial initiatives throughout the state.”
The Arkansas office is one of seven in the country and at least some indications are it will be the last one opened in the United States. Asked what specifically brought the group to Northwest Arkansas, Head pointed to a number of factors.
“There’s a couple of key ingredients that are required when it comes to cultivating a truly organic, innovative environment,” she says. “Having the university here is a critical component, being able to have a research arm to discover new trends and new technologies.”
“Having corporate backing, corporations that are interested in pushing innovative programs forward both from a financial standpoint and from a mentorship standpoint, is certainly something we’ve seen in the ecosystem already, even just being here for a few months. And then I will say the third component, from a cultural perspective, is the arts. That’s a really critical piece, giving people the space to explore out-of-the-box thinking.”
Launched in 1997, Endeavor focuses on stimulating global entrepreneurial activity by providing mentorship to innovative founders in nearly 40 markets across Latin America, Asia, Africa, the Middle East and underserved areas of Europe and the United States. The organization supports 2,000 entrepreneurs who collectively average more than $15 billion in revenue annually and have provided more than 1.5 million jobs in respective regions within their home markets and beyond.