What happens to entrepreneurs after they have completed a three-to-nine-month accelerator program, often including months of training, pitch presentations, and culminating in graduation? That’s a question many corporate funders and program managers are left wondering. Without an answer, it is near impossible to measure and report on a program’s medium- and long-term impact. Lack of impact data makes it challenging to argue for increased financing, implement improvements, bolster sustainability reporting, and strengthen broader entrepreneurship ecosystems.
Corporations make significant investments in their entrepreneurship programs but often miss a critical component of a sustainable program: an alumni network. Based on DAI’s experience designing and managing entrepreneurship programs around the world, we offer four reasons why these networks are so important.
Established in 2016, Kosmos Innovation Centre in Ghana focuses on entrepreneurs innovating in agriculture. Photo: Kosmos Innovation Centre.
Generate Compelling Impact Stories to Grow Your Programs’ Reach and Brand
The ability to highlight a program’s impact, backed by strong metrics, is key to elevating its brand. Companies understand the importance of telling compelling impact stories but doing so requires tracking key data on alumni, which in turn involves meaningful engagement with your program graduates. \ The Kosmos Innovation Center (KIC) in Ghana, for instance, has established the KIC Fellowship, a network for alumni that offers ongoing support, access to workshops, and a speaker series featuring experts from the public sector and corporate and other network partners. Providing such resources has enabled the KIC team to stay connected with dozens of alumni companies, making it much easier to collect and report pertinent alumni data.
Offering alumni support services that tangibly benefit the entrepreneur is a particularly effective incentive for companies to share their progress and keep in touch. And once alumni see how their collective success as a cohort elevates the brand of the entrepreneurship program overall, it gives them a greater sense of ownership in that brand and what it can offer them in terms of promoting their businesses.
The combined effect of providing support services and instilling in graduates a sense of contribution to the program brand makes for more meaningful alumni engagement, rather than chasing busy entrepreneurs to report their metrics, without an incentive. Active engagement helps the program to keep company metrics updated and yields a deeper understanding of program impact, which will, in turn, inform design, leading to deeper social and economic impact stories and greater program visibility—a win for both parties.
Alumni Programs Give Fledgling Businesses a Better Chance to Grow
Providing post-program support to start-ups can help them grow. A recent survey of accelerator programs by the Global Accelerator Learning Initiative found that 80 percent of programs offered follow-on support to graduates primarily in the form of networking with potential customers or investors. The survey also found that a significant share of entrepreneurs experienced revenue and investment growth one year after graduating from a program. Alumni support systems help entrepreneurs network or even address operational areas of their business as they grow. Entrepreneurs, especially those in emerging markets, continue to face challenges as they expand and navigate their local or regional ecosystems. As founders transition out of the structured program of an active cohort, alumni support services provide them with a community to turn to—for matchmaking or introductions to potential customers, investors, suppliers, and mentors.
A more engaged approach could include providing access to business advisory services via alumni office hours or paid support in areas such as marketing or financial guidance. The Shell LiveWIRE program in Trinidad and Tobago, for example, supports businesses in sectors such as food and beverage, agriculture, and tourism. Local implementing partner YBTT provides alumni services, including membership with the Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Industry and Commerce. Alumni can also access one-on-one consulting services where graduates are issued tokens or credits for paid consulting offerings in areas such as marketing and finance. This type of one-on-one support can be complemented by hosting community-building events, quarterly workshops, and networking opportunities.
Alumni Strengthen Entrepreneurship Ecosystems
Ecosystem building is an important way to support incubator or accelerator alumni as they look to expand their networks and markets. Some graduates may be positioned to continue in follow-on programs, while others may attract investor or donor funding from the get-go, but they will all benefit from forging ties to other ecosystem stakeholders such as business associations, investors, and financial institutions. Incubator and accelerator managers should actively build connections in their local and regional ecosystem to help link their graduates to contacts and resources as they mature. Similarly, staying connected with alumni enables program managers to link to emerging initiatives, donors, universities, incubators and accelerators, and other entrepreneur support organizations.
KIC in Ghana actively connects with ecosystem partners in the country, which has helped to facilitate partnerships with corporates and organizations such as Cargill, PWC, makerspaces, government ministries, and research institutions for sponsorships, alumni introductions, access to follow-on programs, and funding and support for the KIC Fellowship. As graduates create new ties in the local or regional startup landscape, they may even make referrals to your program. Greater connectedness within the ecosystem means more potential avenues of support for entrepreneurs at each stage of their growth.
Engaged Alumni Will Help You Build a Pipeline of Businesses for Your Program
Corporates and donors can leverage their program alumni to attract strong applicants and secure mentors. As the Global Accelerator Network has found from experience with its members, alumni can be an excellent source for applicants and mentors, while also serving as reliable program advocates. Conducting graduate surveys is a good way to assess the likelihood that alumni will recommend your program to other entrepreneurs, and a way to gauge alumni satisfaction.
Program sustainability is linked to the ability to track and report on performance. By designing and implementing an alumni network, corporates will enhance the sustainability of entrepreneurship programs, strengthen ecosystems for startup success, and generate learning and compelling impact stories.