IVCA Feature: 2022 Demo Day Wrap-Up … The Pitcher, The Mentor and The Managing Director

September 14, 2022One of the harbingers that summer is over is that the Techstars Class of 2022 has “graduated” after pitching their companies on Demo Day, which took place on September 1st at the 1871 Incubator in the Merchandise Mart. The IVCA was there, and has some perspective below from a participant in the program who pitched on Demo Day, one of the business mentors who guided those participants and Managing Director Neal Salés-Griffin.

Techstars Chicago is an annual mentorship course that allows those entrepreneurs, start-ups and companies to participate in a 13 week forum that teaches them how to improve and execute their business ideas. It culminates on Demo Day, an opportunity for the participants to pitch their businesses to interested investors based on what they’ve learned. For the full list of the participating Class of 2022, click here.

Techstars is based in Boulder, Colorado, and has a global footprint. The Chicago branch began locally as Excelerate Labs – which was the brainchild of Sandbox Industries, the I2A Fund, Sam Yagan (OK Cupid, Sparknotes) and Troy Henikoff – before it merged with Techstars in 2013. Troy Henikoff was the primary Managing Director until Logan LaHive took the reins in 2017. The current Managing Director is Neal Salés-Griffin, an associate in Venture Capital and a Chicago founder, who began in July of 2019, and has guided the program through the pandemic era to the first in-person Demo Day in four years.
The following interviews took place at Demo Day, September 1st, 2022.

The Pitcher: Shelley Gupta, Co-Founder & CEO of BãKIT BOX
The Company: BãKIT BOX delivers a self-contained package, ready to prepare and bake, providing new recipes with a culturally diverse flair.

IVCA: Besides Demo Day, what activity or event best defines your experience with Techstars Chicago?

Shelley Gupta: It was the whole first week of in-person meetings, it was the first time we got to meet the whole program team in person. Up to that time it had been only virtual. With our company and the other founders, there was just so much love in the room, it was just very memorable.

IVCA: When you interacted with the Techstars mentors, what was one thing that you never expected to hear from them?

Gupta: What surprised me most was that in participating, I never realized how much the mentors were willing to help, even outside the program. We had some issues about some things not working, like our website going down, which I considered outside the main program. But the mentors were texting and emailing me to offer their help … that was truly unexpected, that they would be there to support us.

IVCA: Finally, what is the one word that you think describes your pitch?

Gupta: Inspiring. That is my hope, for our potential customers to try something new, because I think they’ll love it.

The Mentor: Domenic Merenda, in Senior Leadership at Amazon

IVCA: Mentors, like teachers, always learn something from those they teach. What did you learn as a mentor in Techstars?

Domenic Merenda: I learned about perseverance, getting it right, far more that anything that was not working. From the energy surrounding the program, I learned there is always more that I can give. And I learned that we should never dismiss an idea, because there is always a pivot around the corner.

IVCA: What are the most interesting questions that you feel you CANNOT answer as a mentor?

Merenda: Founders are always asking me what goes on behind the curtain in Venture Capital. And expressing to them ‘how the sausage is made’ most likely would have them running for the hills.

IVCA: Since the country has recently gone ‘back to school,’ which teacher or mentor most influenced you and why?

Merenda: Hands down it was Mr. Hunt in high school. I was ready to drop out, and he refused to sign off on the sheet, and I ended up graduating.

The Managing Director: Neal Salés-Griffin of Techstars Chicago

IVCA: Besides today, what was the most optimistic thing that occurred or happened to you during this program run of Techstars?

Neal Salés-Griffin: It was coming into own as an investor personally. I’ve been under the wing of so many people for so many years … Jim Dugan of OCA Ventures, Troy Henikoff of MATH Venture Partners, Nick Rosa at Sandbox Industries … all those people who really put themselves out there to support me, and here I am, investing in founders myself and making decisions.

IVCA: Were the goals to the changes of Demo Day realized today?

Salés-Griffin: Yes. I think we exceeded our own expectations. We tested the Q&A format that hadn’t been done before, in addition to the pitch and the video, and we pulled it off. The founders really represented themselves well, and a lot of them are getting funded right now.

IVCA: If you had to mentor an incoming Managing Director for a Techstars program, what advice would you give them?

Salés-Griffin: Focus on building community first. None of this is possible without the incredible people around me. I just facilitate awesome people helping awesome people.

For more information about TechStars Chicago, click here.

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