When considering business schools, Camille Lasker knew she wanted two things: to stay in Los Angeles and to attend a program with a strong emphasis in entrepreneurship.
The Venture Accelerator program at the Anderson School of Management met her criteria and helped draw her to UCLA, Lasker said.
The Anderson Venture Accelerator is a four-month program at Anderson, dedicated to providing entrepreneurs with mentorship, workshops and networking opportunities to advance their start-up companies, according to the program’s website.
The program culminates with a fall showcase, in which some founders are selected to present their companies to potential investors, venture capitalists and mentors. While companies must be at the prototype stage to enter the program, the Venture Accelerator has hosted a wide range of products and services, from swimwear to ride-sharing programs.
Before COVID-19, entrepreneurs met in the basement of the Rosenfeld Library, the management school’s library, several times a week, said Elaine Hagan, the associate dean of entrepreneurial initiatives at Anderson. Founders had the opportunity to listen to guest speakers in the glass-paneled pitch deck, take phone calls in meeting booths and exchange ideas at desk clusters throughout the room, added Hagan, who is also the executive director of the Harold and Pauline Price Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation at Anderson.
“We thought it was really important to have a physical space for people that were launching companies to come together and work on their ideas with the advice of faculty and staff and mentors, and also have a sense of community of other people who were like them,” Hagan said.
The Venture Accelerator stands out from other programs because it does not take equity from participating start-ups, said Olav Sorenson, a professor of strategy at the Anderson School of Management and the faculty research director of the Price Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation.
“Part of the view is that the accelerator, to the extent that we’re both helping the students achieve their ends and also hopefully helping to create local businesses that are going to create jobs, is stimulating the economy,” Sorenson said. “And that is something that is worth doing, even if there’s not, in some sense, an immediate payoff.”
The Venture Accelerator is particularly accessible to Anderson students, as students can spend almost two years developing their businesses before starting the program near the end of their graduate study, Sorenson said.
Lasker, an Anderson alumnus, said the Venture Accelerator played an important role in helping her co-launch Holi Scoops, a plant-based frozen dessert company.
During her graduate career, Lasker said she went from testing her product to launching Holi Scoops a few months after graduation at Erewhon Market, a California supermarket chain. The Venture Accelerator provided her with valuable access to UCLA alumni mentors, who gave her advice and feedback on issues ranging from business operations to marketing, she added.
When considering applications, Hagan said the Venture Accelerator does not judge founders’ ideas but instead looks at individuals’ abilities to innovate, accept feedback and work as part of a team by providing advice and support to their fellow cohort members. While some start-up ideas may seem less promising at first glance, they can become huge opportunities later on, Hagan added.
“We think that, if we give (founders) these management tools and lay out a process, we can put them in a good place to be successful,” Hagan said.
Lasker said the Venture Accelerator was especially useful in providing her the support she needed with business challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to causing ingredient shortages and raising shipping rates, Lasker said the pandemic also prevented her from providing samples of her product to the public for feedback on the latest iterations.
However, Lasker said sharing her frustrations with her cohort and seeing other founders sell their products throughout the pandemic reminded her that starting her own business was still possible.
Many founders in the Venture Accelerator ultimately hope to run and manage their own businesses, Sorenson said. He added that he hopes the Venture Accelerator helps entrepreneurs achieve these goals.
“Maybe these don’t become huge unicorn billion-dollar companies,” Sorenson said, “But if people are running companies that they’re happy with … I think that’s still a great outcome.”