UpStart supports women and people of color in entrepreneurship

Take a look at the 10-week program through WARF

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of columns about UpStart, a free entrepreneurship program for women and people of color supported by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, or WARF.

“I like to be the cheerleader and send them to Michelle for a reality check.”

These are the words program manager Katie Rice emailed to me after I shared my business idea for UpStart, the popular 10-week entrepreneurship immersion program for women and people of color.

Rice really liked the idea — owning and operating a dog-friendly co-working space where I can also conduct my future freelance writing and editing business — and encouraged me to run it by Michelle Somes-Booher, aka “the reality check.” Somes-Booher also is the director of the Wisconsin Small Business Development Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which runs the curriculum for UpStart.

“She is the expert on what would actually work to make money and be successful,” Rice says of Somes-Booher.

And so began my journey — part journalist, part budding entrepreneur. For the next few months, I’ll be writing this column about my experience as a student in UpStart, as well as sharing stories about some of the other 30 students in the class, the instructors and guest speakers, graduates (there are more than 250 to date) and UpStart’s impact on the Madison startup ecosystem.

The entrepreneur’s journey, according to UpStart speaker Megan Watt, is “all about persevering.” Watt, a 2015 graduate of UpStart and founder of Dream Catalyst Labs, kicked off the first session with a sobering statistic: more than 90 percent of startups fail in their first three years.

“To be an entrepreneur, you have to learn the difference between taking risks and being risky,” says Watt, who shared anecdotes about her own peaks and valleys during the first few years of her life as a speaker, trainer and coach.

The other students in the class are an impressive bunch, with businesses ranging from video production and photography, financial counseling and home health care, catering and commercial cleaning, to a free online directory for women-owned businesses (cleverly titled DirectHERy). Applications for the next Upstart cohort are due by May 24 at warf.org/upstart.

As for me, I’m just hoping I survive the reality check.

Meet Sidney

Sidney Moore, founder of Sidney’s Girl Power Inc., is UpStart’s youngest graduate.

At just 11 years old, she was encouraged to apply to the program by another graduate, CEOs of Tomorrow founder and CEO Roxie Hentz.

“We took the application seriously,” says Michelle Somes-Booher, director of the Wisconsin Small Business Development Center.

When Moore got in, the young entrepreneur took the program seriously as well, attending each session with her doting father and fiercest advocate, Bruce, and crushing the final assignment to give a live business plan pitch.

“She owned it,” says Somes-Booher of Moore’s final pitch. “She got up, did her thing, was smart about it and did it in the two-minute time limit.”

After she experienced bullying in school, Moore’s father helped her overcome feelings of self-doubt. Soon after, she launched a girls’ empowerment program called “Leaders in Training.”

“She’s got the UpStart community around her to support her — 250 graduates,” says Somes-Booher. “She got an excellent opportunity, but she didn’t just get it, she earned it.”

Moore is working to grow her business and do well in school. She wants to attend Harvard University and become a pediatrician.

“For other girls who are thinking of starting a business, it’s hard work and takes determination,” she says. “But it’s worth it because you are helping other people.

Brennan Nardi, former editor of Madison Magazine, has been writing and editing in the Madison area for more than 20 years. Reach her at brennannardi@gmail.com