When Williestina Jacobs signed up for Startup Works, she had more than a few preconceived notions. For starters, she thought the free summer program for aspiring entrepreneurs, run by Columbia Business School’s Tamer Center for Social Enterprise, would help her develop her own business idea and generate funding for it through the program’s startup grants.

But Startup Works wasn’t quite what Jacobs expected—and looking back, she’s grateful for that.

Instead of working on her startup idea, Pathway to New Beginnings, Jacobs and the 20 members of the six-session, in-person pilot program were grouped into six teams, each of which collaboratively nurtured a startup idea. The series culminated in Showcase Day, an open event in which each team presented its startup. The teams then received feedback and, for those that met certain requirements, up to $10,000 in startup grants.

Jacobs acknowledges that she experienced some initial discomfort when she realized that Startup Works’ participants would be teaming up. As someone who’s been impacted by the criminal justice system herself, Jacobs originally developed Pathway to New Beginnings to help formerly incarcerated people reenter society. But soon after being placed in her group, she realized her idea for Pathway was expanding in ways she hadn’t expected. “Working with my group and getting so much support, I’ve realized that this was one of the things that always held me back in the past: I had to realize I can’t do it all myself,” Jacobs says. Now, she’s thinking of Pathway to New Beginnings as just one arm of the broader nonprofit her team is building: Pathway Professionals. And through the program, Jacobs will receive funding and coaching to further her contribution to the team effort.

Startup Works was conceived of by Chankrit Sethi ’23, whose interest in this area was sparked by the Reforming Mass Incarceration and the Role of Business course taught by Damon J. Phillips, adjunct senior research scholar in the faculty of business and faculty founder of the ReEntry Acceleration Program (REAP) at CBS. She had the opportunity to develop the workshop series after proposing it as a final project for the follow-on REAP Immersion course taught by Sandra Navalli ’03, adjunct faculty and managing director of the Tamer Center.

In running the series, Sethi’s imperative is to tap into the strength that can be born from inclusivity and collaboration across diverse groups. As such, the series was advertised across Columbia University and through the Tamer Center’s reentry community partners, including Osborne Association, Hour Children, Fortune Society, Columbia University’s Center for Justice and Justice Through Code, and the Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic led by Professor Lynnise Pantin at Columbia Law School. This helped open the workshop to those who are justice system-impacted and those who are not and encouraged them to form teams with one another, with each group required to include at least one justice system-impacted member.

“I truly believe that everything we do has to be built from a diverse lens and an inclusive base,” Sethi says. “It should invite people with different ideas and people from different groups. It should feel like an open dance floor, where music of every kind is playing and people from different cultures feel like they can come and dance.”

“I truly believe that everything we do has to be built from a diverse lens and an inclusive base.”

- Chankrit Sethi ’23

The REAP Immersion course offers MBA and Executive MBA students the choice to either teach business courses (Financial Empowerment, Entrepreneurship, and Getting to Yes) in prisons or provide career advice to Justice Through Code students who have been formerly incarcerated. Sethi chose the latter and says that through this advising work, it became clear to her that she wanted to expand her efforts in the area. “I want to be a megaphone for marginalized entrepreneurs,” Sethi says. Startup Works also matched each team with three to four advisors drawn from REAP alumni and the Tamer Center Social Venture Network.

Hattie Bestul, a program manager at the Tamer Center who facilitates REAP, says that in designing and realizing Startup Works, Sethi has helped demonstrate why REAP is designed the way it is.

“One of the important things about the REAP program being formatted as a class is that not only are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people benefitting, but also CBS students are gaining knowledge and experience around this issue that they otherwise wouldn’t have,” Bestul says. “They go on to change their future workplaces. They create or develop projects like this one, which will benefit our program in the long run.”

“The level of creativity and passion that these teams brought to the table at Showcase Day was evident in their engaging presentations. I am confident that these teams will make a positive impact in their communities,” says Dan Fireman, co-founder and managing partner at Growcore Investments and a Tamer Center advisory board member. Fireman’s support helped catalyze Startup Works as a platform for teams to showcase their talent and ideas. “I look forward to engaging and advising teams and seeing this initiative continue to develop,” he says.

Another participant in Startup Works’ first cohort, Taryme Lester, co-founder of startup Urban Pinnacle, echoes this hope.

I’ve been spreading the word to other entrepreneurs I know,” she says. “I have a few lined up; I’m just waiting for Startup Works to announce the next session.”