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The Next Generation of Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network

$104 million.

That's the amount of venture capital 86 companies raised while receiving mentorship from Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network over the last three years. Those companies went on to raise an additional $66 million after working closely with a team of experienced entrepreneurs-in-residence. 
When the program kicked off in 2012, it was the first of its kind for the prestigious New York investment firm and in many ways a test for how corporations can better support entrepreneurial communities around the nation. Blackstone set aside $50 million for entrepreneurship initiatives after its IPO, and UNC's Judith Cone immediately applied for funds to start the network in North Carolina. After receiving $3.6 million, she formed a board, hired an executive director, found the initial dozen entrepreneurs-in-residence and formed a partnership with UNC, Duke University, North Carolina State University and North Carolina Central University to feed their most promising young companies into the mentorship program. 
Her motivation was to make the Triangle a top five entrepreneurial hot spot—it's the same mission she's worked toward since she left a post with the Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City in 2009 to become the special assistant to the chancellor for innovation and entrepreneurship at UNC.
Credit: Blackstone Charitable Foundation
But the funds always had an end date of 2015. If the network was successful, it would find a way to exist beyond the three years of underwriting by Blackstone. Blackstone would then move on to create sustainable organizations in other places—for the last year it has already worked to recreate the Triangle's model in Denver and Boulder.
So what happens now?
News about Blackstone's local presence has trickled out so far this year. Executive Director Bob Creeden left after his contract was up at the end of last year. And Cone moved from her advisory and board role into an interim executive director position to help guide the organization's next steps. Since then, she and program directors Sheryl Waddell and Kathryn James have vacated office space in Durham and moved to RTP's centrally located The Frontier. They've also forged partnerships with the major entrepreneurship hubs around town to make it convenient for EIRs to meet with local companies and each other. And they've spent time evaluating every aspect of the the operations.
Blackstone provided some additional funding to sustain the network for the next year. There's a company doing pro bono marketing work for the organization and student fellows and university grad students are helping out. Cost cutting has happened to try to use all grant funding for the benefit of the companies. Soon, a search for a new executive director will begin. And that person will be charged with making the organization sustainable in 2016 and beyond.
But the key to the program continues to be the experience and prestige of the EIRs. Modeled off of the PayPal Mafia in Silicon Valley, Cone set out to bring together a high-performing local group of individuals to meet regularly to interview company founders and decide which to bring on as mentees. Each EIR then serves as a lead for one company and a secondary lead for another. The rest of the team provides support as needed and agrees to open up its network for the needs of the mentee companies. UNC Center for Entrepreneurial Studies DirectorTed Zoller helped to identify those individuals using his dealmaker mapping software. The initial dozen mentors collectively started 26 companies, employed 3,000 people, raised $700 million and had exits valued at $4.5 billion. Two additional mentors have joined their team so far this year. Each receives a stipend for his or her participation in the program.
They include Peter Bourne, chairman of Spring Metrics; Lee Buck, an early stage investor who co-founded now defunct Launchbox Digital; serial entrepreneur, investor and startup consultant Kevin Bowles; SciQuest co-founder Peyton Anderson; early stage investor Jan Davis; Accipter founder Chris Evans; former Intersouth Ventures partner Kip Frey; Don Holzworth, EIR at UNC Chapel Hill's Gillings School of Public Health; former IBM director and Yap founder Igor Jablokov; Aerial BioPharma founder and CEO Dr. Moise Khayrallah; K4 Connect and AuthenTec co-founder Scott Moody; Baebies founder and life science entrepreneur Richard West; UNC School of Medicine Professor Kay Wagoner; and Frank Plastina, president and CEO of Arc & Company. 
And according to Cone, they've organized themselves in the absence of a full-time executive director.
"They really took ownership—they elected a chair to run the meetings and have really stepped up to take more of a leadership role in the program," she says. Current companies they're mentoring include Bright Wolf, dragonwing girlgear, Lonerider, Spiffy Car Wash, Tethis, WedPics, Aquagenx, Augment Medical and a handful of biotech and life science companies.
Judith Cone addresses the crowd at the annual UNC Innovation Showcase. She's special assistant to the chancellor for innovation and entrepreneurship. Credit: Andrew Wood
Any company can apply for mentorship from the EIRs—the universities agreed from the beginning that the EIRs should take the best ideas and companies they find. According to Cone, plenty of those have hailed from the local universities despite the lack of a mandate. Besides the 86 mentees, more than 200 companies have received support from Blackstone's entrepreneurs-in-residence. 
Mentees are expected to set milestones to work toward with their mentors. It could be setting a strategic plan, raising funds, hiring staff or setting up an advisory board. That won't change even as the organization looks a little different over time, Cone says. 
The biggest aha over the last year is the realization that enough people are committed to Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network to ensure it lives on.
"We're getting close to realizing what they wanted for us and what we want for ourselves too," Cone says.

This story originally appeared in ExitEvent here
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