Salem Students Shine at Techstars Startup Weekend


Over the course of a November weekend, 12 Salem siblings transformed into entrepreneurs for the fourth time in four years.

“They [students] learn more in that 54 hour length of time than they could ever learn in a classroom,” said Alyson Francisco in her description of the annual Techstars StartUp Weekend for Design Innovation. 

“They go in skeptical yet intrigued, and they come out exhausted but exhilarated,” said Francisco.

Francisco is the Mary Ardrey Strough Kimbrough Chair of Business and Economics at Salem College. She is also the director of the Center for Women in Entrepreneurship and Business (CWEB). 

With her extensive work with the local business community, she frequently encourages her students to participate in the startup competition as a method of experiential learning and community engagement. 

“As an educator I can’t possibly give them that kind of learning in a semester…so it works well with my class,” Francisco said. 

Participants start the weekend with a seven minute pitch of ideas. Founders are participants who spearhead the pitch and lead the development of each startup team. At the end, teams pitch to a panel of investors, which selects three teams to receive in-kind benefits and resources. 

This year, Salem siblings were present on all three winning teams. 

“It was very exciting,” Francisco said of the results from the weekend, “I’m so proud of them.”

Heaven Guilford, a first year student majoring in Business Administration, had not participated in a competition like this before. She was one of two Salem siblings on the first place team. 

TechStars_olivia chipi

Heaven Guilford was one of two Salem siblings to participate on the first place team. Guilford has her own dreams of managing a nonprofit in the future. “It makes me feel more motivated,” Guilford said about winning. (Photo by Olivia Chipi)

“It was intense,” Guilford said, “There was no time to slow down…you just had to hit the ground running.”

Guilford, along with Karra Kelly, were two team members for Play Book & Jam, a recording studio and music makerspace for local musicians in downtown Winston-Salem. 

“We didn’t think we were going to win first,” Gilford said, “It felt good to win.”

Gilford, Kelly, and the rest of the Play Book & Jam team earned $12,000 in entrepreneurial support services from local companies and community organizations and a year-long membership to Flywheel co-working space to develop their business ideas. 

Since 2016, Francisco has sponsored students to participate in the competition with CWEB’s assistance. From the beginning, Salem siblings have been participants on at least one of the three winning teams.  

In 2018,  Janet Smith, a senior at Salem College, founded and spearheaded the first place startup with three other Salem students.

Under Smith’s leadership, the startup called Gift’d has earned over $50,000 dollars in seed funding. 

“She knows what it takes to run a business,” Francisco said of Smith.  

Though Francisco offers this opportunity to all of the students in her Intro to Entrepreneurship class, the competition is open to anyone at Salem College interested in entrepreneurship or business ideation. 

“It gives my heart more joy to watch those students excel,” Francisco said. “It’s an experience you need to experience at least once.”

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