One reason Vicky Wu thinks she was asked to serve as a mentor in MIT's Venture Mentor Services (VMS) is that, as a female entrepreneur at the relatively young age of 31, she's a good role model. The other reason is that she's been through it all, from waiting tables to keep her fledgling tech business afloat to founding and leading two not-for-profit organizations.
Born and raised in Nashua, New Hampshire, the only child of Chinese parents, Wu graduated as an accounting major from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She started Froghop, Inc., as a gaming technology company in 2000 after a string of strategically chosen internships, sales jobs and corporate positions at AT&T Local Services and Nextel Communications.
To launch Froghop, Wu and her five-person team attempted unsuccessfully to secure venture capital. In 2002, convinced that selling a product to paying customers might be a better way to raise money, they changed course. Today self-sustaining from revenue, Froghop is a middleware and software company that provides transmedial infrastructure for persistent and multi-user environments. In other words, Froghop provides a wireless infrastructure for the videogame industry, enabling users to participate in games with whatever electronic device is at hand.
Wu discovered her passion for philanthropy – first as a founder of International Orphans Foundation , Inc. (IOF), and Executive Minds for Social Innovation (EMSI), and more recently as a mentor in MIT’s VMS program – when Froghop started earning at least as much as she was making as a waitress.
Building Nonprofit Capacity with For-Profit Know How
"I thought I could drop waittressing and get a job with benefits," she says. Through her job search, she met a gentleman who needed someone like Wu to help start a nonprofit organization to assist orphans ages five and older. Wu ended up working without pay for IOF because, she says, with her Froghop responsibilities, she "didn’t have time to worry about salary."
Wu developed the IOF business model, wrote the business plan, formed strategic alliances, performed SWOT analysis and market research, promoted the organization, recruited volunteers, and launched the product (or, in this case, the program). In return for her efforts, she gained an epiphany. Running a nonprofit, she realized, is a lot like running a startup.
"In both," she says, "you have to be very passionate about what you do, there are limited financial resources, and everyone wears multiple hats."
Still, she discovered, very few of her colleagues in either the for-profit or nonprofit world understood what each had to gain by working together. From nonprofit executives, she heard widespread lack of understanding of the role entrepreneurship could play in achieving their missions. From for-profit entrepreneurs, she heard ignorance regarding the social value they could provide by sharing their expertise with nonprofits. She decided to do something to change this by starting EMSI in 2004.
Overseen by a steering committee, EMSI seeks to "converge the for/nonprofit cultures to maximize effectiveness of nonprofit management, addressing problems of efficiency and scale that the corporate world has overcome." Its membership is made up of for-profit leaders proactive in philanthropy, nonprofit leaders with demonstrated experience in entrepreneurship and innovation, and executives of social venture firms. For now, Wu chairs meetings, regulates membership and oversees event planning.
EMSI holds Mobilizer Forums onsite at nonprofits to provide live inside looks at how nonprofit enterprises are approaching issues with a strong problem-solving and results orientation. Wu is planning EMSI’s first forum in June 2005 to explore earned income vehicles for nonprofit funding. Summary proceedings will be published as a means to channel lessons learned into re-usable models for nonprofit executives in Massachusetts.
The Boston Business Journal describes EMSI "as sort of a Young Entrepreneurs' Organization for the nonprofit world, where industry peers and other interested parties help each other troubleshoot problems" Wu is open to the idea and willing to help start EMSI chapters in other cities. (Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Mentoring MIT Students & Alums
Through EMSI, Wu hopes to encourage entrepreneurs to share their expertise with nonprofits. "There are so many ways we entrepreneurs can give back to the community," she says. Still, for her, giving back to entrepreneurship is a top priority.
Thus, when contacted by VMS to serve as a mentor, Wu was enthusiastic. VMS provides entrepreneurs within the MIT community with mentoring, advice and help in developing their enterprises. As one of approximately 85 mentors in the program, Wu attends monthly meetings where mentors discuss ventures they're currently helping and volunteer for others where they believe they can add value. Mentors commit to working with a venture involving anywhere from one to dozens of meetings. Wu currently works with three companies.
Steve Belin, a co-founder of New York City-based GetGo Audio, has been assigned approximately five VMS mentors, including Wu, who meet with him monthly. GetGo is a start up that enables online publishers to distribute their content to mobile devices.
"It's very useful to bounce ideas off people that have done what I’m trying to do," says Belin, "but a lot of mentors are people with 20 or 30 years of experience. Vicky has been particularly valuable because she was in my shoes just a few years ago, so I can relate to her experience more closely. She's provided insights we wouldn’t find in a textbook on how to start a company."
As an example, Belin cites Wu’s advice about how long to wait before approaching potential investors and customers.
"We worried about intellectual property, and our take was we should have a finished product before contacting people," he says. "Vicky told us we needed to get out there earlier, do a lot of cold calling, get 10 minutes of people’s time, pitch our idea and see what they think."
Belin summarizes what he likes about Wu and his other VMS mentors:
- They have the experience that startup entrepreneurs lack.
- They provide guidance, not answers.
- They’re willing to criticize.
- They aren’t permitted to accept financial involvement with any venture they are currently mentoring without VMS permission, so mentees know they’re unbiased
"What we look for in mentors are people who've learned from their experience and have the personality and ability to give something back," says VMS Director Sherwin Greenblatt. "It's unusual for us to have a mentor of Vicky's age who's also willing to act as a role model for women, get involved in student activities, and help us teach our ventures about government grants by bringing in people she knows with experience in that area."
As for Vicky, she doesn’t believe everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur, but she does believe there are many who just need a little hand-holding. "I'm always amazed at the different ideas people have," she says, "and I want to help put those ideas in motion."
© 2006 Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. All rights reserved.
Vicky Wu CEO Froghop, Inc.