On March 16, the team at the Zeal Center for Entrepreneurship hosted a graduation ceremony for its first CO.STARTERS cohort.

The hybrid event began with a Zoom gathering that featured commentary from Zeal executive director Brienne Maner, cohort facilitator Eric Weisser and Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken. Event attendees included Zeal board members and startup ecosystem leaders.

Additionally, each of the participating businesses had the opportunity to present a two-minute pitch to the audience.

“Listening to our inaugural cohort proudly and confidently share their refined pitches after 10 weeks as community leaders such as Mayor TenHaken and many other ecosystem stakeholders cheered them on was a real milestone for our startup community and for this organization,” Maner said.

“I personally was bursting with pride and emotion witnessing the next batch of startup leaders emerge.”

Having listened to one another practice their pitches over the span of the program, the participants also experienced their fair share of pride and emotion. As pitches were shared, the entrepreneurs cheered each other on with encouraging messages in the Zoom chat. Following the virtual event, the cohort and Zeal staff were able to gather for a private dinner at Sanaa’s 8th Street Gourmet.

“It was clear that this cohort has created lifelong friendships and a network of support between all participants. Although the participants were diverse and unique, they all share a deep understanding of each other as founders and what it takes to be one,” said Karla Santi, founder of Blend Interactive and a board member at Zeal.

“I hope they continue to cheer for each other and offer words of support for years to come. As entrepreneurs, we all need that support system.”

We asked a few of the recent CO.STARTERS graduates — Michael Blair, Laura Kotelman and Jo Dohrer — about their experience in the program. See what they had to say below.

Tell us a little bit about your business.

Michael Blair: My business is focused on developing innovative wastewater treatment technologies aimed at environmental protection and remediation.

Laura Kotelman: In 2017, my husband and I purchased the farm I grew up on near Sioux Falls. This purchase followed a learning tour where my family and I left our Alaskan home of over a decade. We spent a year traveling through 40 states, studying agriculture, bees, honey and working at wineries. As we traveled and learned, we decided that we really wanted to focus on products that had room for market growth, were environmentally regenerative and allowed us to give consumers a local experience.

Jo Dohrer: My business is a rideshare service for children ages 5-17.  

Why did you decide to participate in CO.STARTERS?

MB: I knew that I had knowledge gaps in how to start a business, and I thought that the CO.STARTERS program would help me bridge them.

LK: After a few starts and stops with the business due to work and family obligations, I knew that it was time to make a decision to pursue or not pursue this opportunity. I wanted to get insight, direction and clarify ideas around the business.

JD: I wanted to surround myself with like-minded people to bounce ideas off of, learn about different marketing strategies, as well as techniques for how to raise capital and approach investors, and create a built-in accountability system for myself.

What was the most valuable thing you learned related to your business?

MB: “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” It forces you to focus on what is essential for your business’ success.

LK: Things do not have to be perfect to start out. Looking at what it takes to launch small and determining the break-even point.

JD: Truly, who my customers are and how great the need is in our community.

How has CO.STARTERS impacted you as a founder? What’s next?

MB: As a founder, I learned that “technology and customers need to be married for the company to succeed.” My next step is to generate laboratory data that will help fund the next stage of the business.

LK: Sharing with others who are on the same journey, facing many of the same barriers and uncertainties, is really empowering. You celebrate wins together.

JD: CO.STARTERS has made me more accountable as a founder and much more confident in what I’m doing with this idea. It has given me confidence to keep moving forward with my idea, tools and knowledge to refine and better understand my business plan and pro forma, and it has empowered me to achieve success.

If someone is considering joining CO.STARTERS, why would you recommend they participate?

MB: I would recommend CO.STARTERS to anyone with an idea for a novel technology because it will help them to see their technology from the customer’s perspective, as well as plan out their path to funding their own startup company.

LK: The connections made and lessons learned were phenomenal. Additionally, being paired with a mentor specifically for my business after the program is something that is going to radically change my business launch.

JD: I would highly recommend CO.STARTERS to all founders and owners because surrounding yourself with like-minded people and being exposed to numerous highly successful people in our community is an opportunity that few get to have. A famous quote from our facilitator, Eric, is, “You are the average of the five people you hang around.” There are some pretty amazing people to “hang around” while participating in CO.STARTERS.

Maner and her team at Zeal recently collected applications for the next cohort, which will begin in May.

“We had a good feeling that the CO.STARTERS accelerator platform would effectively support area entrepreneurs, but the first cohort truly blew our expectations away,” Maner said.

“Our deep bench of expert facilitators and mentors, the incredible support of our business community and our strong network of resources are the impetus for great entrepreneurial progress. It’s a recipe for success that we’ll continue to follow and refine.”

However, supporting and lifting up entrepreneurs isn’t limited to CO.STARTERS.

On May 20, the annual event Hey Sioux Falls will be held at the downtown Orpheum Theater.

The event celebrates the trials and triumphs of entrepreneurship and recognizes six local entrepreneurs with awards, including New Startup, Best Pivot, Startup Champion, Small Business, Corporate Innovator and Social Impact.

Nominations for Hey Sioux Falls are open through April 16. Don’t miss your opportunity to honor someone who is making an impact on the business and startup ecosystem. Submit your nominations today.

The event will be hybrid, with both in-person and Zoom options. Tickets are free for Zoom and $10 for in person, and can be secured here. You can learn more at heysiouxfalls.com.