FOWNDERS – An accelerator for Entrepreneurs by Entrepreneurs

Photo: Fownders, view from the street Photo Credit: Truman Mylin / Fownders
Fownders, view from the street | Truman Mylin / Fownders

Fownders, located in Newark, and the brainchild of Gerard Adams, is an energetic and vibrant incubator with a “Seed to Scale” accelerator program that trains entrepreneurs to build successful startups.

Mentorship, business development, technology and marketing are the biggest services that Fownders offers startups. The inspiration for Fownders came when Adams went to a Tony Robbins event and heard him say, “Success without fulfillment is the ultimate failure.”

After Adams sold Elite Daily to the Daily Mail for $50 million, he did not feel fulfilled. As a solution, he established Fownders to give back to the community he grew up in, while fostering his passion for innovation and mentorship.

Adams was raised in the greater Newark area, where his father went to Barringer High School. The son got his name from St. Lucy’s Church (the national shrine of St. Gerard), in Newark’s North Ward.

Photo: Inside Fownders. A bank of computers for accelerator participant use is up the stairs. Photo Credit: Truman Mylin / Fownders
Inside Fownders. A bank of computers for accelerator participant use is up the stairs. | Truman Mylin / Fownders

Fownders is a social-impact accelerator with its roots in helping creative entrepreneurs, especially females and those from minority backgrounds. Led by Adams himself, the accelerator fills a gap in the market for startup accelerators. “Many of the entrepreneurs have started with real disadvantages compared to what we typically see at other accelerators,” he said.

“We’re seeing entrepreneurs from adverse backgrounds and women who’ve not been given a fair shot in a male-dominated environment flourish at Fownders, and it’s because we let markets dictate what sells and who succeeds, not a bias or what might appear socially acceptable,” he added. 

Adams’ minority partner in Fownders is Jordan French, who is also Fownders’ COO. Rob Fajardo handles business development and strategic partnerships, Brian Donovan works on Fownders’ “product” and Kal Richan assembles Fownders’ corporate sponsorship program and entrepreneur events.

 At Fownders, job titles are based on actions taken, and are not engraved on signs in offices. “Leaders create leaders,” says Adams. Each “leader” is a millennial and a successful entrepreneur, and each has his or her own startup story. Many participants at Fownders also have their own stories of how they connected with Adams and Fownders.

Photo: Fownders' mantra Photo Credit: Givon Zirkind
Fownders' mantra | Givon Zirkind

Fownders gives back by helping inner-city businesses grow, by helping inner-city youth develop entrepreneurship skills and by volunteering to assist local businesses that are owned and operated by recovering addicts or single mothers.

The accelerator is largely funded by its partners, who suggest that participants contribute five percent of their profits. Corporate sponsorships are available to the nonprofits, which give their corporate partners access through events and deal-flow sessions.

Values and Mindset Make the Entrepreneur

As an accelerator, Fownders provides angel funding for small and large businesses, as well as a work space, and may actually become a partner in a startup. However, Fownders also does much more. Adams believes that values and mindset make the entrepreneur, and everyone involved with Fownders shares this philosophy.

Photo: Jordan French with Gerard Adams, both of Fownders Photo Credit: Alyssa Yannuzzi
Jordan French with Gerard Adams, both of Fownders | Alyssa Yannuzzi

Fownders has a unique three-month training program for entrepreneurs called “Seed to Scale,” in which the participants learn to live these values. As one would expect, there are courses in basic business skills, building websites, social media, bookkeeping, marketing, goal setting and sales — taught by big names in these fields.

But the course starts with 3-4 weeks of a psychological discipline, involving instruction in leadership and emotional intelligence that includes losing one's ego, fearlessness, “believability,” vision, execution of right actions (“do what you got to do”) and networking. The program also dedicates some time to meditation and being healthy, both important components of the Fownders and Leave Normal Behind philosophies of entrepreneurship.

The Leaders of Fownders

Adams recruited French into the Fownders fold to serve as his marketing advisor and publicist. A serial entrepreneur, French also cofounded and led an Inc. 500- and Fast 50-ranked marketing firm; built a multimillion dollar real-estate holdings company; and had worked as an intellectual property attorney, engineer and celebrity branding strategist.

Fajardo met Adams through a mutual friend, celebrity jeweler Greg Yuna. Fajardo’s and Adams' values resonated together. They partnered. Fajardo created Leave Normal Behind to “challenge the status quo and live a life of purpose by becoming the best version of yourself. ... A life of purpose is defined as overcoming obstacles toward a defined goal.” Leave Normal Behind is monetized by Sofro, a Newark company owned by Fajardo and Adams that helps people create things that matter through branding, business development and marketing services.

Donovan, the product manager, worked with Brian Ragone, CEO of Sofro, and Adams to design and manage the Seed to Scale accelerator course. Donovan is an entrepreneur in his own right and is part of the Sofro team. Like many, he had followed Adams on Instagram and was anxious to meet as well as work with him.

[Ed. note: since this article was first published Sofro's name has been changed to Leave Normal Behind.]

Adams has a successful YouTube podcast series, “Leaders Create Leaders,” with 4.5 million views. Now he also wants to create an individual online video course titled “The Leader Within” (with an anticipated release date in November 2016 or January 2017). Donovan saw an opportunity to help out Adams and took it.

The Seed to Scale program’s first three weeks of psychological training are inspired by the works of well-known authorities such as Tony Robbins, the leading life and business strategist, and Martin Seligman, famous for his work on “learned helplessness” and positive psychology. “Real change is behavioral change,” said Donovan.

Noted investor and social-media expert Gary Vaynerchuk and host of “School of Greatness” Lewis Howes are slated to be among the social-media instructors at the accelerator. The program teaches how to leverage the Internet and online marketing and sales through Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat and other avenues. Other notable experts include Ryan Blair, serial entrepreneur and author of Rock Bottom to Rock Star; Peter Voogd, entrepreneur and personal coach; Peter Yobo, professional consultant; and Steve Weatherford, former Super Bowl champion with the New York Giants.

Event coordinator Richan is a millennial entrepreneur who is now working on Leave Normal Behind events — transformational events that challenge the status quo by triggering the five senses for a completely immersive experience of positivity. Richan is from Utah, where he built a successful event-planning business. He wanted to take his business nationwide, and knew that he wanted to do something big to expand. He found Adams on Instagram.

Richan started to comment on every Instagram post by Adams, but found it impossible to connect with Adams or to get an appointment at the very popular FaceTime Friday, where Adams makes time to connect personally with his audience (which numbers in the hundreds of thousands). Richan decided to do whatever it took to get a meeting with Adams. He bought a one-way ticket to New York and stayed in a hostel in Soho. While following Adams on social media, he heard that Adams was giving away New York Knicks tickets. Richan won the raffle after having hundreds of people from Utah tag him in Adams’ Instagram post, which helped him win his face-to-face time with Adams.

Richan met Adams at his home at 8 a.m. the next day, and then went on a whirlwind business adventure that lasted three days. During that time, Richan heard that Adams was looking for his next millennial apprentice. Richan committed to the opportunity and won the position.

What Participants of the Accelerator Say About Fownders

Cliff Assuncao, from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., is one of the startup entrepreneurs at Fownders. He was a realtor and had a successful startup making digital products for personal trainers. Assuncao heard about Leaders Create Leaders, watched it and decided to go to Newark to work with Adams.

Assuncao pitched his startup idea to the Fownders' “Startup Competition,” and started entering the Fownders working space, finally getting to meet Adams. He helped Adams with some videos, and in return Adams has helped Assuncao and his cofounder, Jarret Funderburk, with housing, acceptance into the Seed to Scale accelerator program and with B2B partnerships.

Assuncao said that Adams has provided excellent mentorship, and he noted that Adams had aided in a deal with a major brand. Assuncao also feels that working at Fownders is valuable, especially given the team’s “limitless network.”

Fownders Helping Inner City Youth Become Entrepreneurs

While interviewing Fownders’ leadership and some of the participants, NJTechWeekly.com saw Fownders in action in a totally unplanned incident.

Photo: From left to right, Kal Richon, Dana Chanel, Eric Farjado, Kyle, Tony and Robert Farjado Photo Credit: Givon Zirkind
From left to right, Kal Richon, Dana Chanel, Eric Farjado, Kyle, Tony and Robert Farjado | Givon Zirkind

A van pulled up. Two boys and a young lady started unloading candy into the Fownders premises. The young men, Kyle, and Tony, 14 and 16 years old, respectively, had earlier walked into Fownders and asked: “What is this place?” They were told that it is an accelerator for entrepreneurs. The boys said, “We'd love to have a business!” The Fownders team said, “OK. what would you like to do?” They did not know and sat down on the couch to contemplate a possible business.

“Uncle Magic” (a business moniker), the father of Dana Chanel, a Fownders entrepreneur and millennial influencer, walked up to the boys and asked, “Why don't you sell candy?” The boys got excited. They liked that idea. Then the man said, “I will give you $200 to buy candy. You sell it and pay me back in two months.” A deal was made. The aspiring entrepreneurs had their first micro-angel investor.

While NJTechWeekly.com was interviewing the Fownders leaders, these boys were pricing the candy with the assistance of Shakur Richardson, 18, Adams’ first young protégé from Newark’s inner city, whom Adams was inspired to help after hearing the stories of Shakur’s struggles growing up in Newark.

Adams has a vision of franchising the Fownders accelerator program to other inner cities across the nation once the accelerator has been field-tested and debugged.

How Does One Get Accepted Into The Fownders Accelerator Program?

Donovan explained the various ways in which one can apply for the accelerator program. Applicants pitch their ideas for a startup and must demonstrate that their philosophies are concordant with Fownders' philosophies. Competitions, such as Fownders Live, are held to hear pitches. Alternatively, one can submit an idea through the Fownders' website, http://www.fownders.com, or by email: submit@fownders.com.

In the last competition, held on August 8, five out of the 12 contestants were selected to pitch. Of the five, three were accepted into the program. There are about ten participants per accelerator planned.

Fownders’ recruiting team also actively seeks and receives a huge number of startup and entrepreneurship applications through Facebook ads, email outreach and other methods.

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