John Fiorello is passionate about entrepreneurship—sharing his experience and lessons learned and encouraging others in their entrepreneurial journeys. MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price spoke with John about stepping into the Director role at the Entrepreneurial Center of Northwest Connecticut at Northwestern Connecticut Community College (NCCC) and the importance of mentoring and supporting local startups.
NAN PRICE: Tell us about your entrepreneurial journey and how you became involved with NCCC.
JOHN FIORELLO: I’m an avid believer in entrepreneurship and the ability for people with crazy ideas to make the world a better place. My entrepreneurial journey began about 15 years ago, when I started my first company. As a startup, it was difficult to know where to turn to get help and how to process all the information I received from people and organizations and use all that information to figure out the right things to focus on.
When I started my second company, RecordME, we were in a fringe tech space for the music industry. Our needs as a startup were very different than my first company. Over the years, we utilized a bunch of resources in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York. One of the ones that was most impactful was Valley Venture Mentors (VVM) out of Springfield, MA.
We participated in their mentorship program and then eventually were one of the winners in their Startup Accelerator. I later served as a facilitator and mentor for countless of other startups.
I really appreciated the important role the community played in helping startups achieve their potential—helping founders understand the business model canvas, how to fail quickly, how to develop a minimum viable product, and how to test it to make sure they had good product market fit.
Around that time, I started working out of the coworking space at the Center for Workforce Development at NCCC, which is where I met Jane Williams, who was the Workforce Development Coordinator at the time.
Jane and I collaborated and developed a program called Northwest Startup, which provided a mentorship experience for startups based in Northwest Connecticut. We ran that program for a few years and built a cool community.
But COVID-19 changed all those live events. And then Jane retired from NCCC. I was a big fan of the work she was doing and she encouraged for me to apply for the director position. Since RecordME was in the music industry and had also suffered through COVID-19 experience, especially as it pertained to live venues and events, I reached out to Northwestern and they brought me on to do my best to fill Jane’s shoes.
NAN: How has that transition been?
JOHN: I’ve only been here a few months. I’m very new to higher education and new to working in colleges, although I did once teach a business class as an adjunct professor and I taught a few business seminars at NCCC.
In this role, my goal has been to restart the events we had paused during COVID-19. One of those is Northwest Startup, a community night where startups can get roundtable small group support from community mentors. We’re also launching the Startup Small Business Helpdesk, where entrepreneurs can meet with me and other founders to work on their most pressing challenges. The recurring weekly meeting takes place on Thursdays from 4:00 to 5:00 p.m.
In addition to that, we’re developing programming around mentorship events that will enable a cohort of startups to regularly meet with facilitators and mentors over the course of four months, along with monthly meetings with the community, to help develop their business and help them overcome their most significant business hurdles.
In the future, we’ll be running an accelerator and we’ll be raising a small, $4 to $5 million fund that we’ll use to invest in startups—specifically those interested in working and living in the Northwest corner of Connecticut.
NAN: Are these programs available to just NCCC students or are they open to anyone?
JOHN: They’re open to anyone. I work with some students but most entrepreneurs are members of the community. It’s similar to the Women’s Business Center at the University of Hartford’s Entrepreneurial Center (EC-WBC) or the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation (CCEI) at the University of Connecticut.
The Northwest corner of Connecticut is somewhat different than some of the more urban areas of our state. But there’s enormous potential here. There are a lot of great mentors in the region but you have to do a bit of work to find and connect with them. We’re hoping to become the community hub that can link with the existing resources that are out there and, instead of duplicating them, focus on the areas where we can be most helpful, especially with high-growth, high-risk technology startups.
NAN: How are you sourcing mentors for the program?
JOHN: We know mentors abound because when we were doing events pre-COVID-19, they were coming out of the woodwork to join us. There are all sorts of people involved in the ecosystem. Reaching back out to them is a process of working with the partners that are currently supporting economic development in Connecticut including—the Connecticut Small Business Development Center (CTSBDC), the Economic Development Commission, Northwest Connecticut’s Chamber of Commerce, Northwest Connecticut SCORE, The Northwest Connecticut Council of Governments, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), and local coworking communities.
I’ve been doing a lot of networking, meeting new people, introducing myself to the folks who care about economic development in the Northwest Corner, and letting them know we’re starting to get the ball rolling again and we’d love to have those mentors come back out and continue to support local startups.
NAN: Anything else to add?
JOHN: I think it’s important to mention the fact that entrepreneurship is a process and the journey is a little bit different for everyone. But there’s enormous potential in our community.
I hope that the Entrepreneurial Center of Northwest Connecticut can become the place startups think of when they need help. And then, once they receive great support, I hope we become a place where they feel compelled to give back to other startups as they continue in their entrepreneurial journey.
I’m a strong supporter of mentorship going both directions. And when a startup or founder receives help from a community member, the best ones will then turn around and offer that help to other startups—not for any self-serving reason, but just because they want to see the ecosystem grow. I’m sure we’re going to find those startups and we’re going to develop those startups and they’re going to be very successful.
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