Three Triangle Startups Participate—And Compete—At AU’s Black Founders Week

Three Triangle-based startups are among the 10 participating in this week's Black Founders Exchange at Durham's American Underground. The week culminates in a Demo Day on Friday.

More than 200 minority-led companies from across the country applied. Only 10 made the cut.

Three are from the Triangle.

American Underground is hosting the best and the brightest of minority-founded startups this week for the Black Founders Exchange—a entrepreneurial crash-course program that will end with a pitch contest on Friday at 12-2 p.m.

Durham-based companies Optimal Solar and Spa Utopia are both participating in the Google for Entrepreneurs-sponsored program, along with Raleigh-based startup Coworks.

At the beginning of the week, each startup was paired with a mentor experienced in subjects ranging from engineering to finance, depending on the needs of each company.

Doug Speight, executive director at American Underground, said pairing founders with mentors is just one of the ways the program helps entrepreneurs of color gain access to resources they may not get otherwise.

“All the national statistics point to the fact that founders of color often have less access to resources like startup funding, access to strong mentorship—access to networks,” he said. “And this program was specifically structured to alleviate some of those constraints so that these amazing founders can gain traction and the support that they need in order to grow and scale their companies.”

For Reginald Parker, president and founder of solar module producer Optimal Solar, the guidance his mentors have given him on funding and the financial aspect of business has proved extremely helpful so far.

“They have a depth of experience in the renewable energy space, growth companies and clean tech sectors,” he said. “So what they’re thinking about for me is the bankability and the investment question because those are the two things I’m most interested in.”

Optimal Solar Founder Reginald Parker.

Speight said having local companies participate in a program like the Black Founders Exchange is important so their talent can be harnessed and reinvested in the area’s startup ecosystem.

“The economy depends on our ability to include as many diverse founders and contributors as humanly possible,” he said. “Being able to develop a strong base of founders of color and women in this area will enable us to expand our regional economy and our state economy as well.”

After a week of mentorship, workshops and training, the founders will pitch in front of investors and compete for a flight to Silicon Valley, where they will connect with possible investors.

Despite the alluring prize, Parker said he doesn’t view the demo day as a competition but more as a way to show what the founders have learned during the program.

“I think that the ability to do the pitch contest is a win in and of itself,” he said. “The winners are every last one of us. This is our ability to share with the world what has gone on for this whole week and just how awesome all of the founders are.”

The ten companies participating in the Black Founders Exchange Program are:

  1. Coworks (Raleigh, NC): A software company that produces a co-working management system.
  2. Earnster (Los Angeles, CA): A mobile app designed to help teenagers earn items they want by completing chores for their parents.
  3. MedHaul (Memphis, TN): A cloud-based software company meant to streamline medical transportation.
  4. Optimal Solar (Durham, NC): A producer of high-efficiency solar modules.
  5. Panoptic Project Solutions, LLC (Mobile, AL): A company with open-source software meant to automate project management.
  6. Possip (Nashville, TN): A company with software that helps connect schools and parents in real-time.
  7. Sightworthy (New York, NY): A video editing service that transforms long-form content into 10-second videos meant for social media.
  8. Spa Utopia (Durham, NC): An on-demand, luxury spa service that comes to you.
  9. Graspie (Buffalo, NY): A mobile-learning and engagement platform aimed at millennial workers.
  10. Watch The Yard (Los Angeles, CA and Atlanta, GA): A media organization that hosts videos related to the Black Greek life experience.
About Marco Quiroz-Gutierrez 26 Articles
As a reporter at GrepBeat, Marco writes about startups and innovation and enjoys writing about entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds. He is a junior studying business journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Reach him at or on twitter @marcoquiroz10.