Creating Equitable Opportunity for Winston-Salem Startups
Meet Kasem Rodriguez Mohsen. Among other things, he’s a Sweet Potatoes restaurant enthusiast, angel investor and equity advocate. Kasem has scaled and sold three startups, and now, as an investor and manager at Venture Winston Grants, he’s focused on making sure underserved entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color have an easier time getting access to capital, support and the resources they need to be successful.
We sat down (virtually) with Kasem to talk about Winston-Salem’s entrepreneurial ecosystem and how the city can continue to help its startup community thrive.
Innovation Quarter (iQ): You manage the Venture Winston Grants (VWG) program and its investments. What do we need to know about VWG?
Kasem: It’s a partnership with the city of Winston-Salem and a couple of the big business leaders in the community who have created the opportunity for $50,000, non-dilutive grants to be awarded to startups that are focusing on aviation, agriculture and healthcare. The cool thing about the Venture Winston Grants program is it’s completely non-dilutive funding—it’s about as close to free money as you can get for your business. You don’t have to give up equity in your company and you don’t have to go into debt. We’re looking for companies who are at their prototype stage and could really use that money to get to the point where they can put their product in front of customers.
We’ve worked with a variety of partners like Novant Health, Dairy Management Incorporated and local aviation experts at AeroX and UPS to create not just the funding mechanism but also an end-to-end support infrastructure using our ecosystem to help startups in the sectors grow and scale.
iQ: What do you think is the most impactful thing that Winston-Salem can offer startups?
Kasem: The simple answer is always funding. I say that specifically from the point of view of an entrepreneur of color. Black, Brown and women founders have a particularly difficult time raising money for their businesses. And that’s not just in the venture capital space—even though that is extremely segmented—but also bank loans and convertible debt are fairly elusive for a lot of different reasons.
Specifically with Venture Winston Grants, one of the things that I was really proud of is our ability to bring in equity advocates and equity experts at the beginning of our program so that we could look at how we were marketing and messaging our program. We looked at our selection process, our application and the language we’re using to make it as accessible to as many different people as possible. We want to make everyone feel like they could have a shot at the $50,000 grant.
iQ: How else are the players within Winston-Salem’s innovation ecosystem working to improve equity and inclusion?
Kasem: What I particularly love about Winston-Salem and where I think we can become a leader—not just in North Carolina and the South, but also nationally—is around equity. When I look at the demographics of Winston-Salem, we’re extremely diverse. With that diversity comes some challenges.
Part of what we’re doing with my venture fund Equilibrium Impact Ventures, and hopefully what Venture Winston Grants does as well, is to identify companies that are doing good—trying to solve problems like food insecurity, homelessness, access to healthcare—and making sure those products and their services are also created in an accessible way. We want the folks that live on the East Side to benefit from what we’re doing downtown and in the Innovation Quarter.
iQ: How can the community better support some of these initiatives and startups?
Kasem: The first thing would be to start to plugin. Plug into the Innovation Quarter, sign up for newsletters, start to visit some of these resources. Just by the nature of being plugged into the community as a whole, you will automatically start to gain exposure to what’s happening in the innovation economy.
As we get more and more into the reality of remote work, it’s important to remember that coworking spaces are for everybody. Maybe pick one day a week and go work at a coworking space and you’ll start to meet these entrepreneurs yourself—start to meet some of the folks in the ecosystem. And they will tell you exactly what they might need. You might even find a product or service that is interesting or beneficial for you.
“That’s kind of a really cool thing about Winston; entrepreneurship and innovation are actually woven through the fabric of the community.”
iQ: Can you share any success stories of entrepreneurs and startups growing and scaling in our area?
Kasem: I’m an angel investor in a company called Freeman Capital, started by Calvin Williams. He graduated from NC A&T with a tech degree and went to work for the department of defense. He had a well-paying job, contributed to his 401(k) and did all the things that they tell you. When Calvin bought his first home, he decided that he wanted to begin to manage his wealth so that he could start to create additional opportunities for growing his little nest egg for his family.
He went to one of the big wealth management firms, and he met with somebody who basically told him, “You don’t have wealth. You don’t have anything to manage.” And this is what’s going on in the financial industries: There are barriers to entry, information and wealth management expertise that a lot of normal, middle-class people could really use.
So Calvin decided to start his own wealth management company, Freeman Capital, and specifically focus on Black and Brown folks who were towards the middle of their career and have been traditionally blocked from those services. There’s an app that allows you to track all of your accounts and get tips on how to manage your wealth. But then also for the price of the Netflix subscription, basically you also get a dedicated account manager. That kind of support has traditionally been reserved for people who have a higher net worth. And at the kernel of what he’s trying to do is close the racial wealth gap and disrupt the negative feedback loop that some of these marginalized communities are stuck in.
It’s been a pleasure to watch him grow his company out of the Triad, but I’ve also seen how hard it’s been for him to raise his next round of funding. I’ve seen that over and over and over again, and that’s why I’ve dedicated my life to making it easier to break into these industries and to get that kind of funding to those who need it most.
The Secret Is Out
Winston-Salem is rapidly making a name for itself as a top midsized city. From a thriving innovation ecosystem to a diverse cultural experience, Winston-Salem has what startups and entrepreneurs need to hit their stride.