Visible Hands VC
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Visible Hands VC

Eliana Berger, Co-Founder of Envision Accelerator

We wanted to address the abysmal funding gap for women and people of color. When investigating the huge disparity and roadblocks in funding, we found that access to a network is often a big part of the puzzle. Most people are not born into Silicon Valley and don’t have an expansive network where they can just call on friends and family and then raise a huge seed round. We created Envision to democratize access to the resources that get founders from 0 to 1.
— Eliana Berger, Co-Founder of Envision Accelerator

Eliana Berger, Co-Founder of Envision Accelerator

Founder Visibility is an interview series that highlights founders that inspire us and shares how they found their firsts: co-founder, customer, capital, and confidence.

Meet Eliana, Co-Founder of Envision Accelerator, a virtual student-led, student-built accelerator that aims to help young and diverse founders build their companies. She is also a final-year undergraduate student at Northeastern University, pursuing a combined major in Business Administration and Psychology, concentrating in Entrepreneurship and minoring in Interaction Design. Despite taking a full course load year after year, Eliana’s passion and determination towards supporting countless underrepresented founders inspired her to establish Envision last Summer. Read her inspiring story below.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey leading up to starting Envision.

I’m Eliana, and I’m currently in my final year at Northeastern, graduating this December. Most of my time throughout college has been very focused on entrepreneurship. I was very lucky to get involved with Northeastern's entrepreneurial scene early on through the different organizations that exist on campus.

As I attended these organizations’ events, I noticed that many of the people who came to these events were from very similar backgrounds and lacked underrepresented minorities. This prompted me and a few others to think about how we can improve the ecosystem around us and create a community that makes people feel safe and allows them to explore entrepreneurial ideas, even if they don’t come from the “typical” background.

That mindset led me to co-found the Women’s Interdisciplinary Society of Entrepreneurship at Northeastern—also known as WISE—which has grown tremendously beyond what I ever had imagined. WISE is one of my favorite things that I’ve ever done to date.

Outside of WISE, I explored product management through co-ops, internships, and full-time jobs, because I thought it was a very entrepreneurial approach to building, and I’ve really enjoyed it. I’ve also had some experience on the VC side through Contrary Capital and some other internships, which brought me to where I am currently—finishing up my degree, working full-time at a growth-stage startup called Attentive. Then I’ll be graduating in December.

At what point did you know you wanted to start Envision?

I co-founded Envision last summer, so it’s about almost a year old which is really wild to think about. Envision is honestly something that I’ve thought a lot about ever since I started WISE. One of the programs within WISE is called WeBuild—it’s an incubator focused on helping women learn more about different entrepreneurial soft skills and hard skills and allows them to work on developing a project of their choice that actually drives impact on the communities around them. Ever since I led WeBuild, I realized that this was something that honestly should exist everywhere because it is absolutely magical getting to work hands-on with people and create a community of those that are learning right beside them with a focus on creating a very safe space.

I’ve honestly always had the idea in the back of my mind, so I decided to connect with different friends to get their thoughts. There were a few different things that catalyzed Envision, and COVID was one of them. Everybody was home for the summer, many internships got canceled, and there was a boom of entrepreneurship that was happening left and right, especially on college campuses.

We wanted to address the abysmal funding gap for women and people of color. When investigating the huge disparity and roadblocks in funding, we found that access to a network is often a big part of the puzzle. Most people are not born into Silicon Valley and don’t have an expansive network where they can just call on friends and family and then raise a huge seed round. We created Envision to democratize access to the resources that get founders from 0 to 1.

The other piece is that we realized that these entrepreneurs’ resources are really dependent on where they grew up, where they go to school, the type of support they have around them, etc. We wanted to democratize that access and create a space that can boost you forward and surround you with mentorship, capital, and resources, regardless of whether you attended college.

We were lucky enough to start accruing access to some of those resources and those mentorship networks through things that we did while in school. We noticed a huge need for a community wherein people from underrepresented backgrounds could come together in a safe environment and unblock some of the obstacles they have in their path to reach funding.

How was the process of finding your co-founder?

That was a very interesting story. The idea for Envision came about last June, and we decided that we really wanted to run our first program in July. So we pulled together all of our resources, our team, our funding, and basically everything in the span of three and a half weeks before we ran our very first cohort in July. We wanted to do it while everyone was home for the summer because the timing was right in that regard.

My co-founder Annabel and I only met once during COVID through an online community called Homework, started by Contrary Capital. I reached out to her cold, and our 30-minute coffee chat ended up being a two-hour-long conversation where we really hit it off.

When I had the idea for Envision, I put together a very quick Notion page, and I just started sending it around to a bunch of my friends to get feedback. And from that, I started to iterate on the idea, bring in different perspectives, and really hone in on what we actually wanted to offer. Annabel was the first one to jump in and say, “I want to do this with you; let’s do it.” Right from the start, her ambition and drive really matched mine, which validated everything.

We then brought on eight other founding team members in the span of two days, and the next thing we knew, we had a Slack channel with 10 people contributing a million different ideas and generating a ton of excitement.

What were some of the challenges you faced at your earliest points within your startup journey?

The biggest challenge was finding other people outside of our team that truly believed in what we were trying to do. Not only were we focused on people from underrepresented backgrounds, but we were also focused on students and very young entrepreneurs. That crossover was difficult because we came across many people who thought that students should be working at other companies and getting corporate experience instead of building their own companies. We had to do a lot of “convincing” initially, especially because my team and I didn’t have a strong track record yet. There was definitely some skepticism as we first started to pitch the idea, but a few early believers really helped us move the needle and get off the ground quickly.

The hardest part of building Envision was not getting discouraged by negative results. There were definitely a few days where I had questions like, “Why are we even doing this?” and “Why is the system so broken?” I would think the idea was hopeless and that no one was going to believe in it. But luckily, we held above it, and we remembered that for every critical voice, there are many others that are supportive.

This new generation is making strides in so many different ways, and I’m glad that we persevered because it is incredible to see that there are young underrepresented founders who are doing big things. So that was definitely the hardest part but also ended up being the most rewarding because we built a tougher skin and can fight for our team and founders.

How did imposter syndrome affect you while building Envision?

It’s tough to feel like you belong, especially when those around you don’t look or act like you in any way. Alluding to the system being so broken, there is just a lot of bias, especially in the VC space. Plenty of people from underrepresented backgrounds are so overlooked in our fundraising process where could take them up to a year and hundreds of VC meetings to acquire funding. We’ve seen our founders and so many other founders go through that. So I think it’s really dependent on who you are and where you come from.

There are so many things that can deter somebody from taking you seriously. I’ve definitely felt that through pitching and raising money for Envision, but also our founders face that when they talk to not one, not 20, but 50 to 100 VCs. That doesn’t mean that their business is not venture-investable; it boils down to finding the right people that will really believe in them and write that check.

There’s a lot to be done in the early stage, especially in investing, and I’m excited to see that more and more people are trying to be very public about a lot of the gaslighting that can happen when you start raising for the first time.

How did you establish your first cohort?

The first cohort was an interesting one. We were trying to figure out what we were looking for, and for Cohort 1, we cast a very wide net because we were trying to identify what stage of companies are best to work with and where are we best positioned to help them.

We put out applications to so many university entrepreneurial centers and programs, we got the word out on Twitter, and we were lucky enough to have a TechCrunch article that covered us in the early days. So we took the guerilla marketing route and got the word out in every way that we could. And that brought in over 200 applications.

We ended up sitting down and picking a cohort of 17 companies for the very first program that we ran in July. That first cohort actually ended up spanning 40 different universities, from current students to recent graduates. We had representation from a few Ivy Leagues and so many other universities, as well as dropouts and people who never went to college. So it was definitely incredible and exciting to see that diversity.

Every company that we had was working on an entirely different problem in an entirely different industry. It was cool to see that they were all building something very impactful. Since then, we’ve been doing cohorts of eight—much smaller cohorts—and we have refined what we are looking for. But Cohort 1 was absolutely magical and so much fun to execute.

How did you come across your initial check?

That’s also a very interesting story. We had to fundraise because we had a very ambitious goal of getting Cohort 1 up and running in July. We had a very short period of time in which we could fundraise our money, and since we’re a non-profit, we had to do all of that through sponsorship, not even through investment. We had a very lofty goal of giving each of our companies up to $10k in non-dilutive grant funding, which required us to raise quite a bit of money for the 17 companies we ended up accepting.

We had our friends introduce us to any VC funds that would be interested in talking to us. We also did a lot of outreach for different corporate sponsors. We ended up setting up at least 50 meetings across different funds, organizations, companies, and individuals interested in helping. Slowly but surely, we started to raise money.

Our first check actually came from Soma Capital. One of the very first believers of Envision was Jessica Li, who is absolutely incredible and such a strong community builder. As soon as I told her about Envision, she sent 50+ emails on our behalf to everybody in her network, just pulling in anybody and everybody that she knew to make this a reality. Soma Capital was our first sponsorship and check, which we got after one call with them on our first day of fundraising. I remember I was at dinner with my family when I got the email, and it was just the most gratifying feeling in the world. After a long day of phone calls and extreme skepticism, seeing somebody that fully believed in the idea and was willing to work with us to make this dream a reality was very surreal.

What is one piece of advice that you would give to your younger self before starting Envision?

I would tell myself not to let anything hold me back. If you’ve ever heard me say anything to anyone, I always say, “Don’t be the only thing standing in your own way.” It’s definitely easier said than done, but it’s very easy to let your imposter syndrome get in the way of telling yourself that you’re not good enough or you can’t do it. There are so many ways to stand in your own way, and there are way too many external obstacles that will come up for you to be the only thing that’s standing in your own way.

I need to keep taking that advice, and I need to keep giving that advice to others. It’s something we consistently tell our founders and team members at Envision: don’t be the only thing standing in your own way.

Thank you so much for sharing your story with us, Eliana.

Visible Hands invests in underrepresented talent who strive to build their tech startups. Applications are now open for our 14-week, virtual-first, $200k fellowship program, and they close on May 7. Apply now!

Take our quiz to learn which type of Visible Hands founder you are.

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Visible Hands

Visible Hands

Visible Hands is a VC fund with a 14-week, virtual-first fellowship program that supports overlooked talent in building technology startups.