5 Advisers to Avoid When Launching a Business

In the age of trending #startups and #entrepreneurship, more people than ever believe they are experts or have advice to give. According to Mashable, “the success of any new business often hinges on getting the right advice from people who have been there before. Applying the 90-10 Rule to advice means that 90 percent of the advice worth following comes from just 10 percent of the advice-givers.” Here are five advisers to avoid, as shared by Mashable.


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Advisers Who Don’t Listen

Have you ever come across people who start spouting advice without taking the time to understand your specific situation? They never bother to ask a single question about the business before launching into their “advice.”

Avoid these individuals by focusing on advisers who ask thoughtful questions and then listen to your answers. The best listeners usually make the most helpful advisers.

A Conversation with Rakia Finley, CEO of Surge Assembly

Rakia Finley is the founder and CEO of Surge Assembly, a technology firm. Surge Assembly is not your average tech firm. It is a company that believes in more than just providing solutions. The goal is also to promote growth. When Finley is not spending her time running a business, she can be found working to support women in the community. She recently started an event called Pastries and Champagne, where professional women come and share the challenges and triumphs of being a woman in the male-dominated tech industry. Finley took some time out to share with Blerds what it’s like being a female CEO in the tech world.

Q: Where are you from originally?

I’m originally from Portland, Oregon. I moved to Silver Spring, Maryland, when I was 16.

Q: Where did you go for your undergraduate/graduate degrees?

I attended Hampton University, where I received my bachelor’s in sociology. I received an MBA from Howard University.

Q: How long have you been working in the technology field?

I started doing tech when I was still in undergrad. I built my first website near the end of my freshman year. My brother is a web designer, and I just thought anything my brother did I wanted to do. So I taught myself HTML, simply to just bug my brother. I learned that I really liked it a lot. I got really interested in technology, but I was very scared of changing majors. So during the summer, I took program classes at American University and received a web design certification.

Q: Essentially, you had a tech background before getting your MBA?

I did, but I didn’t know it at the time. I knew I wanted to help nonprofits use their resources to help their development. I didn’t know that tech would play a huge part in that.

Q: How did Surge Assembly start?

My business actually started in 2003, but it wasn’t until 2004 that my brother and I realized there was something here and we could make some money and pay for college. We worked with small nonprofit organizations in the Washington, D.C., metro area. I was working on a contract with a nonprofit called Break the Cycle, a domestic violence prevention organization for teens. I was implementing technology solutions into their development, such as website design and redeveloping email marketing structure. This was during a time where technology existed but everybody was scared of it, especially nonprofit organizations. It was cool to people, but when you’re trying to implement those strategies into actual organizations people are very scared.

Q: Where do you think the fear came from?

I think the fear comes from them not knowing. Whenever we went to nonprofits and told them we were going to build them a whole new website, they thought we were going to steal their intellectual property. The coolest thing at that time was downloading white papers. So the fear was their white papers could be stolen. The intellectual property then was just writing and thoughts.

Q: How did you know there was a need for the work you’re doing?

I attribute this to my mother. My brother and I were always two individuals who thought adults were doing it wrong. I carried that with me in work life. My thought was this could be done so much better. So in regard to the work I do, the need wasn’t there. I would suggest to clients the value of implementing tools, online donations portal, instant messenger, etc. It wasn’t because they needed it; they thought it was a waste of time. It was more about there being a more efficient way to do this. I love that technology allows you to do things in a more efficient manner.

Q: Choose three words to describe your professional journey and why?

Progression: We started with Microsoft Tools, Microsoft Access and Instant Messaging. We had to progress, so now we do Mobile Apps, CRM systems and more intricate technology solutions.

Education: I have never been allowed to base my experience off something I learned 10 years ago. I’m constantly learning and being open to what technology is.

Understanding: I keep saying we’re leaving people behind. Our client profile tends to be older organizations and businesses being run by older people who aren’t a part of the tech boom and don’t necessarily care about it.  We as boomers or millennials have a responsibility not to leave the rest of society behind in technology.

Q: What are your thoughts on women of color in STEM fields?

I think there are amazing women in STEM, but I would love for our voices to be a little stronger, a little bigger.

5 STEM Grants and Scholarships for African-Americans

STEM careers are growing at a much faster rate than other industries. The growth is apparent on both the national and global levels. There are many opportunities available to Blerds who have a strong interest in pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Here are five grant and scholarship programs created to support innovation, education and entrepreneurship in the STEM fields.

1. Small Business Innovation Research

Five years ago, entrepreneur Kendra Ough attended a Small Business Innovation Research conference. While there, she discovered that there was funding available for small businesses with big ideas.

The Small Business Innovation Research program has been around for more than 30 years with the primary goal of supporting small businesses plan development. They provide grant money to fund research and development, which inevitably gives small businesses a competitive edge in the global marketplace.

There are several agencies that participate in the government-funded program, such as the Department of Agriculture, Education, and Transportation. The basic eligibility requirements include a three-phase process. Some additional requirements are: 50 percent of the business must be owned or controlled by one or more individuals who are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents; the business cannot have more than 500 employees; and it must be for profit and located in the U.S.

*Please note that every participating agency has its own additional guidelines. Visit the SBIR site for additional information on eligibility requirements.

2. New York State Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics

This past May, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the launch of the New York State Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Incentive Program. The Higher Education Services Corporation-funded grant is designed to encourage high school students interested in STEM majors in college.

To be eligible for the grant, students must attend a New York state high school, be ranked in the top 10 percentile of their class, and enroll full time in a State University of New York (SUNY) or City University of New York (CUNY) school. For more information visit the HESC website.

3. Conrad Spirit of Innovation Challenge

The goal of The Conrad Foundation is to promote innovation and entrepreneurship. One way the foundation accomplishes this is through the Conrad Spirit of Innovation Challenge. The program, which supports future inventors, scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs, was created in 2008 in honor of astronaut Charles “Pete” Conrad Jr.

There is a five-step process to becoming a Conrad Scholar through the Conrad Spirit of Innovation Challenge.
The first step to is to join a team and register for the challenge. Registration is currently open but will end on Oct. 16, 2014.

The second step is to develop an idea or a solution to current problem in one of the four industries: aerospace and aviation; energy; environment and energy; cyber-technology and security; and health and nutrition.

The third step is the initial round and also referred to as the “Investor Pitch.” This pitch is submitted in the form of a short video where teams describe why their innovative idea is valuable. This video is submitted online.

If a team moves on to the second round, which is the fourth step, they will present a business or technical plan that will be a developed from the pitch presented in the initial round. This is also submitted online.

For the final step, teams that advance to the final round will present their innovations in person through marketing and Q&A’s.

If a team wins the third round, the participants will be honored as a Conrad scholars. This honor affords them an opportunity to access seed funding for their innovations, patent support, as well as additional scholarship funding.

4.The STEMPREP Program at Southern Methodist University

Southern Methodist University is on a mission to increase education and resources for middle-school minority students with an interest in STEM-related careers.

This year the U.S. Department of Defense offered the enrichment program $2.6 million to fund the program. The program promotes early awareness in STEM subjects. and those who complete it often become college graduates and pursue careers in the STEM fields.

The STEMPREP program is available to students anywhere in the U.S. who qualify. Students usually enter the program in their seventh-grade year. If they are successful in the summer program (based on behavior and academics), the student has a chance of being invited back each year until the program ends in the 10th grade.

For a student to be eligible they must complete the application, write an essay, take the SSAT, a standardized exam for students interested in admission to independent schools, and they must provide transcripts from their past three years in school.

The program is an excellent opportunity for students because after their 10th grade year the program helps them access other opportunities, such as research work with the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Many of the students who complete the program often become college graduates and pursue careers in the STEM fields.

5.MIT 100K

MIT100K is a dynamic program that has been supporting future entrepreneurs in the STEM fields for the past 25 years.

Through this competition-based program, like-minded individuals from MIT and the outside community come together to strengthen their skills and build on their talents to create new tech firms for the future.
Each year MIT100K awards hundreds of thousands of dollars to winners to help them start their businesses.

Jason Young’s App, Thrive and Shine, Sheds Light on Finances For College Students

Jason Young is the co-founder of MindBlown Labs, an Oakland-based tech company that is responsible for creating an innovative and educational learning tool called Thrive and Shine. The main goal of the app is to increase financial literacy and capability for young Americans.

Young said he “had an idea” and with right help and support, Thrive and Shine was born.  The Harvard  University graduate was just recently appointed to the Special Advisory Council on Financial  Capability for Young Americans by President Obama. This new responsibility has afforded him more access, resources and support to improve  financial capability for our youth.

Q. When you think about young people being financially capable/literate what does that mean to you?

So what that really means to me is that they have the knowledge, skills, mindset and trained behaviors necessary to make financial decisions that will impact their lives.

Q.The national retention rate for college is so low, how much of that do you think is directly attributed to students being financially illiterate?

There are a lot of factors which impact college retention, but I do think that financial literacy and financial capability are very important factors. Financial literacy is having the knowledge, and financial capability is broader. Financial literacy is actual a part of financial capability. A lot of students going to college are not financially capable. They don’t understand how to finance college. My second oldest brother dropped out of college because he didn’t understand the financial aid process and didn’t know where to look for money so he couldn’t pay tuition.

On the other hand, I think there’s another factor which is the understanding of the long-term ramifications of going to college and not finishing. Most students don’t think of college as a financial decision. They don’t understand that, so they don’t understand the decision they’re making when they choose to drop out or to continue.

I think if a lot more students understood that they will still be paying those student loans 10 years later, whether or not they finish, then they would understand the significant impact college could have on income. Knowing that would allow them to make very different choices.

Q. How do you see Thrive and Shine being used as way to help students think about college as a financial decision?

So the high-level answer is that Thrive and Shine does a good job of helping students do what they can’t do in real life, which is to see the consequences of their actions in real time. I think that’s very powerful. Specifically with regards to college, the next version coming out this fall actually will cover the impact of a college education on earning potential, as well as student loans. This will allow them the choice to actually go to college and see what happens if they don’t finish. They can see what happens when they take out loans and they can see what happens if they take out too many loans.

Q.Do they see what happens with private vs. federal loans?

It doesn’t get that detailed, but we’re building a curriculum around that and the curriculum will go into that detail.

Q.In thinking about the curriculum, how would you advise college access counselors to use Thrive and Shine as learning tool for students?

In terms of how it can be used, first and foremost we see it as a tool to get students excited just about the idea of money and some of the concepts related to money. So for most students who haven’t even had a job, how do you talk to them about student loans when they literally don’t understand how much a tank of gas costs?  If they haven’t had a job, they can’t make those kinds of cost relations. The idea is to help them create those connections and not just on individual topics but systematically, which allows them to see how the cost of college relates to their own life.

Now in terms of these particular topics, we’re building experiential curriculum and the idea is to have students play the game, have them become used to the concepts, get excited about those concepts and then the instructor, teacher, or counselor will talk to them about their experiences in the game.

From there, they can build upon those experiences to go more in-depth. Instead of talking about federal vs. private student loans or interests rates, they can talk about the student’s avatar, what happened when student loans were taken out, what happened when the avatar graduated. If the avatar doesn’t graduate, then students can discuss options like what it means to take out loans and not finish college, or what it means to finance college through scholarships or what it means to consider attending a more affordable college.

Essentially, the student and the instructor start to have that conversation and it’s based on at least some part of the student’s reality.

Q.You have an economics background from Harvard. Did your economics background make it challenging for you to create Thrive and Shine?

Well, I definitely had to build an entire to team to do this. There are eight people working on this full-time right now. A lot of the times when people hear you say you created an app they think “Oh wow, that’s easy.” The truth is it takes time and  a lot of energy.

The fact that it’s an educational app adds another layer of complexity. There was a definite learning curve for me when I started working on Thrive and Shine. I actually went to work for a startup before doing this. I worked there for several years learning about technology and working with developers and even then, coming out, there was still a huge learning curve.

I would say it was challenging, but I mean most things worthwhile are challenging. It takes a lot of time and effort. You have to learn and you also have to make sure you have good people around you. This is a team effort. I didn’t build this app. I had an idea. I recruited a team. It really requires a lot of really smart and passionate people and a lot of time. It was very iterative. We had the concepts, we designed it, and we built a little piece of it, and tested it. Overall we’ve tested with nearly 4,000 students and thankfully, before we consider the app to be truly complete, we’ll have tested with 10,000 or 20,000 students.


Q. Thrive and Shine is visually stimulating and engaging. What was the process around tackling the artistic aspects of the app?

Well, most financial literacy instruction just doesn’t work in part because it’s not engaging.

Our No. 1 mandate was to make sure this game was engaging. We wanted to make sure we were creating something students could relate to.  In terms of the avatar, that was also a major focus. What we found at the rudimentary level was that students really engage with the avatar. We had students who played it for 40 or more hours in their free time and they expressed that they wanted their avatar to be successful, so they sent her to college but now they want to help her pay off the loans.

Some expressed that when they stopped playing the game their avatar was sad, so they went back and played some more.  The feedback from the students let us know that the avatar played a key role in the application which was something we didn’t learn from creating it. As a result of the feedback, we invested a lot of resources to rebuild the avatar system from scratch.

Q.This year you were appointed to the Special Advisory Council on Financial  Capability for Young Americans.  What are some of the things you and the other council members are already discussing as far as new initiatives and policies to improve financial capability for young people?

I can only say so much about we’re doing at this point. What I will say is that the council is different from previous councils because it places a large emphasis on public-private partnerships, as well as on partnerships between the members of the council.

We are also more focused on young people and that is huge. We are looking at how we as members can do things and have an impact. One of the things we are focusing on is how we can get high-quality financial capability instruction more widespread so that students, particularly from lower-income backgrounds, can have more access.

Q.Does that mean that you might be going into the schools asking questions?

It’s very likely that we would. Another piece of that is that a lot of the organizations represented in the council work with young people.

 Q.What factors do you think play into the African-American community as a whole as financially illiterate?

I think that as with many things, African-Americans are not doing as well with financial literacy but everyone is doing horrible. Part of it is socio-economic. Ninety-five percent of students graduate financially illiterate. Even up through the middle class, which means our youth don’t know anything about money.

It’s more pronounced in the African-American community because there is a higher level of poverty and a lot more single-parent households and so those issues get exacerbated. However, on a broader spectrum most people are financially illiterate. Most parents feel uncomfortable talking to their kids about money. So as nation, no one is teaching financial literacy and what it means to be financially capable to our youth.

I think in the African-American community, that gets exacerbated because there are all these other negative cultural influences that promote the exact opposite of financial literacy. But once again, that is a microcosm of what has happened in American culture in general.

We have rap, we have hip-hop which promotes some very negative values these days, at least the mainstream version of it. At the same time, you have The Bachelor and the Real Housewives which essentially promote the same negative values. Financial illiteracy is  not an issue unique to the African-American community.

Financial literacy is a necessity for the nation as whole.