There are many impact accelerators out there. But the AWS Impact Accelerator, run by Amazon Web Services (AWS) and launched earlier this year, has a particular competitive advantage: a combination of Amazon’s weight and its technological expertise. “We know about a lot of things, but what we really know is the technology,” says Denise Quashie, head of global startup marketing programs and a former tech startup founder herself.
The accelerator program launched in April with a $30 million three-year commitment to early stage startups led by black, female, Latino, and LGBTQIA+ founders. Each cohort, with 25 early-stage startups, lasts eight weeks; companies should already have their product built and be ready for primetime. Startups get up to $125,000 in cash and $100,000 in credits for AWS services.
The current decline in VC funding, according to Howard Wright, vice president and global head of startups at AWS, Amazon’s cloud platform unit, makes the need for such accelerators particularly urgent. “Historically underrepresented founders are disproportionately penalized,” says Howard.
The first cohort, the AWS Impact Accelerator for Black Founders, launched in April. That was followed by the Women’s Cohort, which started in October and ended recently. The Latino cohort will start early next year.
In a related development, Amazon last October announced Amazon Catalytic Capital, aimed at investing $150 million in venture capital funds, accelerators, incubators and venture studios that fund entrepreneurs from underrepresented backgrounds.
AWS’ technology expertise and focus are reflected in separate tracks for CEOs and CTOs. In fact, a requirement to participate in the program is that startups not only have a technical lead or CTO, but also someone who can participate in the accelerator. That person is then paired with an AWS technology specialist who can help with a startup’s back-end architecture, minimum viable product (MVP), and other technology elements; most mentors are former founders or VCs, who have experience growing businesses, or former CTOs. There are weekly consultations with mentors.
For their part, CEOs work with a person from the AWS startup business development team. Mostly former founders, as well as investors, they focus on product market adaptation and go-to-market strategies — plans to launch a product or expand into a new market — and fundraising. Accelerator startups schedule 15 to 30 minute meetings with their mentors through the program platform. They also work with Amazon employees who are not part of AWS but are in areas like voice technology or Whole Foods. The program typically relies on partners, such as Hubspot, to discuss various topics, allowing AWS to focus on technical issues such as cloud adoption and infrastructure.
A mix of personal and virtual
The first week of the program is held in person at AWS headquarters in Seattle, where CEOs and CTOs map out areas to focus on. The rest largely takes place virtually, with weekly meetings. The last week is personal for a pitch prep that ends with a pitch to investors, most of whom the founders probably wouldn’t be able to meet on their own.
Quashie and her colleagues started the accelerator program with the hypothesis that the biggest challenges for underrepresented founders were go-to-market strategies, fundraising and technology. According to Quashie, she’s discovered that statement to be true since launch.