There were days when Marcel Jara would be happy if his family-owned food truck, Arepa Culture NC, would get five or 10 customers. Jara, an immigrant from Costa Rica, became involved with the family business in high school. At the time, his father Pedro Rodriguez had quit his marketing and sales job at age 56 to take an entrepreneurial risk selling arepas, a ‘daily bread’ Venezuelan staple of a flat corn-based bread that is often served with meats and cheeses, much like a gordita.
Today, Jara is an NC State grad and the CEO of Arepa Culture NC, which is part of the 2019 NC State Andrews Launch Accelerator that’s housed at HQ Raleigh. But just starting out, business was slow, and there were difficulties along the way. A few weeks in, Rodriguez’s partner left the business and Jara’s mom, Hannia Jara, quit her teaching position to work in the business fulltime.
Marcel wanted to do everything he could to help his parents, by working after school and on weekends, and this continued as he went to college at NC State.
“Being in a hot food truck, that’s definitely a pretty labor-intensive job,” Jara said, “so I always kind of wanted to give back by helping, like, ‘Oh, no, I’ll wash the dishes, I’ll do this, I’ll work as much as I can.’ Along with wanting to support the family business, believing in the product and also having that entrepreneurial spirit at the time, I saw the tremendous opportunity that this food truck and the business had so I decided to take a 180-degree turn.”
Jara always had a natural inclination towards the natural sciences and medicine, but he changed directions from a major in biology and instead dedicated himself to business and entrepreneurship when he switched over to the NC State Poole College of Management. Since the business opened in 2014, Arepa Culture has grown in revenue and made $276K last year. Jara said Arepa Culture NC just bought its second truck and hopes to open a brick-and-mortar location soon.
The food truck business is growing in other ways too, joining two other startups in NC State Andrews Launch Accelerator.
The other two startups are Freshspire, a platform to reduce food waste by making communication between farmers and buyers easier; and Tennisbloc, a company using technology to create a more accessible tennis community. As part of the program, the startups meet every Tuesday from May 14 until Aug. 20 for development and sales sessions. These are intended to help the CEOs grow their startups and also grow as entrepreneurs, according to Gabriel Gonzalez Orta, the program manager at the NC State Entrepreneurship Clinic.
“We look for potentially investible markets,” said Gonzalez Orta, “markets that we think are growing, or a niche that could develop later on. Ultimately, is this the right founder, or what we think could be a good concept and have a good market? And truly, the most important thing is, can we have an impact?”
Raleigh-based Freshspire Co-Founder and CEO Shraddha Rathod said the Andrews Launch Accelerator application process required a written application and a pitch day in front of a panel of judges. Participants must be NC State juniors, seniors, grad students or recent grads.
Rathod became inspired to create Freshspire when thinking about a way to diminish food waste. The four-person social enterprise has had around $70,000 in transactions on Freshspire, which seeks to increase access to local food. (GrepBeat previously profiled Freshspire on April 25.)
“We also are very passionate about being a voice for the farmer so they have more of a choice on what products they’re selling and to who and what prices,” Rathod said. “Lastly, although it’s not something we say upfront, we do want to start measuring how we are reducing food waste on the bottom line.”
Money, and More
The Andrews Launch Accelerator, which was funded by Chip Andrews’ donation of $1 million in 2016, awards non-dilutive grants of between $5,000 to $50,000 per startup in addition to providing mentorship and resources.
Says Jara, “I think that the relationships that you’ll be able to build through the accelerator, not only with the other teams but with the mentors and just being in HQ Raleigh in general—the entrepreneurial spirit, seeing all the startups here—it gets your blood flowing. It gets you super-excited. And it’s just one more bit of motivation.”
Offering at least one executive-in-residence (EIR) to each team, Gonzalez Orta hopes that the EIRs serve as liaisons in terms of larger networks.
“We look at helping them build their network,” said Gonzalez Orta, “a true network that can give them the resources that they need today and later on, but to have those conversations right now.”
Rathod said the accelerator helps her startup in planning for concrete results by the end of the summer. She said the Triangle needs as many accelerators as possible.
“It’s difficult to come out of college and try to bring up a company even though so many people have such great ideas,” Rathod said. “A lot of them fail really early, so things like this accelerator first of all help a little bit financially but also help you get to a stage where you can potentially raise money in the future.”