Making Entrepreneurship Accessible

The best ventures are built on foundational relationships.

Margaret Lee and Caroline Smith are cofounders of the business start-up accelerator program, Collab.

Margaret Lee and Caroline Smith understand the power of relationships. During their undergraduate years at Yale, they and their classmates were surrounded by opportunities to connect with others who could help advance their work, ideas and careers. After graduation, Lee and Smith stayed in New Haven. They began meeting local residents who had every bit of the creativity and ambition of their college peers, but who lacked the networks available behind the Ivy walls.

To solve this problem, and in the process tackle the issue of growing inequality, Lee and Smith founded Collab, a start-up accelerator program with a mission to make entrepreneurship accessible for the people of Greater New Haven. In a short time, Collab has worked with a body-care products company, a college test-preparation service, a nonprofit food recovery project, an app for home chefs and more than 100 other small businesses, organizations and consulting ventures. Thirty out of the 35 ventures in their portfolio are run by people of color; 23 out of 35 are led by women.

Parvine Toorawa displays her brand of chutneys developed from recipes she learned growing up in Mauritius.

Local entrepreneurs discuss their businesses at Level Up, a Collab networking event.

"If we prioritize building up the talent that we have in Connecticut right here, right now — we will lead to the broadest, most
inclusive growth in the state that we call home," says Lee.

Both born and raised in Kentucky as children of immigrant parents from Korea, Lee and Smith did not actually meet until after college, when they both went to work for the same company, See-Click-Fix. There, they bonded over a shared desire to develop the
entrepreneurial potential of New Haven.

Lee and Smith have tapped into a creative energy that is on full display at Collab's pitch night, the celebratory culmination of its accelerator program. The high-energy event packs the house with an audience that reflects the diversity of the region. The local chefs taking the stage this winter at their pitch night for food start-ups included: a woman from the island country of Mauritius with a line of chutneys; a Syrian refugee with a catering business; and a purveyor of hot sauces inspired by his native Puerto Rico. Each combined an ambition for
growing their businesses with a desire to create meaningful connections in the community through their work.

"The best ventures are built on foundational relationships," says Smith. "If we were to have a commodity, it's relationship building." Collab works with The Foundation by referring ventures for possible mission-related investments.

Smith and Lee are both graduates of The Foundation's Neighborhood Leadership Program, an eight-month training and grant program for resident leaders to imagine, develop, test and realize projects that build community and provide positive outcomes; the Program is currently serving the communities of New Haven, West Haven, East Haven and Hamden.