Building Up DC’s Local Entrepreneurs

New Accelerator and Incubator Work to Close the Income Inequality Gap

Jennifer Richardson, Co-Owner of Chef Jess. (Photo: Jeremy Cullimore)

Entrepreneurs seeking support opportunities for their small business in DC can now add two new resources to the list: the Ascend Capital Accelerator and the In3 Incubator.

Both programs align with the city’s and Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Pathways to Inclusion plan to support the growth of local businesses and entrepreneurs across the District, especially for minorities, women, and those living in underserved communities.

DC’s white households have about 81 times more net worth than black households, showing a major wealth gap, according to a 2016 report from the Urban Institute. Creditors also deny minority-owned businesses three times as often as white-owned. And DC values white-owned businesses about 3.7 times higher than those owned by people of color – 1.8 times higher than the national average.

But these two programs have the potential to help close the gaps.

Ascend Capital Accelerator operates through the Washington Area Community Investment Fund (WACIF), and the In3 Incubator operates under the management of Luma Lab and with the support of a $1 million grant from the District and space in Howard University’s Wonder Plaza center on the 2300 block of Georgia Avenue NW.

In3 Incubator connects directly with Mayor Bowser’s Pathways to Inclusion Report released on Nov. 30. The Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED), along with Bowser’s Innovation Technology Inclusion Council (ITIC), put together the report to assess DC’s state of local inclusion in the city’s technology economy. It also announced three goals for DC: to create 5,000 new tech jobs for underrepresented employees; to create 500 new tech businesses run by underrepresented entrepreneurs in DC; and to build up DC as a competitive tech industry site on the East Coast.

The Ascend Capital Accelerator follows more than 30 years of work at WACIF to close the income inequality gap in the District and build up minority groups, women, and other underserved communities. It is funded by the DC Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), Capital One Bank, Citi Community Development, and JP Morgan Chase.

What Ascend Capital Accelerator Offers
Ascend focuses on entrepreneurs who have started their venture and would like further support in fine tuning the business model, building capital readiness, developing a marketing and sales strategy, and preparing for growth, said WACIF Executive Director Harold Pettigrew.

The program started in mid-May and will run a total of nine weeks, with one week for orientation. Each of the 24 entrepreneurs in the inaugural cohort will meet once a week, for two hours, in a classroom-style workshop at the DC Department of Small and Local Business Development (DSLBD) to cover four main topics for business development. They will work with professional business owners and experts for each topic. Each will also work with a mentor or staff member at WACIF to help flesh out their individual business plan.

“We want to make sure the entrepreneurs are not only leveraging WACIF as a resource, but also each other,” Pettigrew said, adding that they want to encourage networking among the businesses to increase overall network capital for DC ventures.

WACIF found that many of the 60 applicants in the first round stated that they started their business because of an idea or skill, but without a complete plan on how to run the whole operation, said WACIF Director of Communications and Outreach Jeremy Cullimore.

“They know how to bake the cake … but they’re not an accountant,” Cullimore said. “They don’t know marketing, they may not know small business financing.”

WACIF wants to help them bridge that knowledge gap and improve their success rate.

Rahama Wright, founder of Shea Yeleen Health and Beauty, has joined the Ascend Capital Accelerator for its first session. She said she heard about it through WACIF’s newsletter and is excited to take part.

She started her business in 2013, but had worked on it since 2005 as a nonprofit. She appreciates the access to resources as a growing but not new company. “There are a lot of accelerators and incubators that focus on the tech space, but not a lot that look beyond the tech and take a look at retailers, restaurants, etc.,” she said.

Wright is in her second round of funding, and wants to use the time and mentorship in the program to help build her company from selling in about 105 retail stores – Whole Foods, Amazon, and more – to going nationwide with distribution. She’s also considering angel investors or loan financing in this second phase.

The natural, organic shea butter products she develops help support women in Ghana. She hopes that expansion will help her hire more women in the cooperative and people in her operation in DC. She currently has two employees in DC and three in Ghana, and works with 14 different villages with over 800 women as a part of the cooperative.

WACIF is still calculating the full cost of the Ascend program, which can fluctuate based on the needs of each cohort and the program’s growth, Pettigrew said.

It’s free for all participants, and the only cost is to provide data to WACIF to assess the effectiveness of the program and share their story, Pettigrew said.

The next round of applications will open in the fall. To learn more visit

What In3 Incubator Offers
Inclusive Innovation Incubator (In3 Incubator) on Howard University’s campus works differently than the Ascend Capital Accelerator. It operates as a paid membership, co-working space that offers rotating, holistic programming on a regular basis, said KellyAnn Kirkpatrick, education coordinator at Clearly Innovative’s Luma Lab. It started with the help of DC and Howard, but now operates independently.

In3 Incubator opened on April 17 and offers 8,000 square feet of space with about 60 workstations, 11 offices, and five classrooms. Sponsors like Cisco and OCTO provided free Wifi and technology for the space. It’s designed to support mid- to late-stage tech and innovation startups, Kirkpatrick said.

“We are really passionate about making sure people feel the technology is approachable,” she said. “If they do have technical needs, they can talk with us about their project plans.”

Some of the events on the calendar at In3 include “WTF Is Crowdfunding? The Good, the Bad, the Cost,” “eBay Startup Cup DC,” and “Seed Fund for Next Gen Tech: NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research.”

Kirkpatrick said they like to mix business development courses with cultural events to diversify what In3 offers, so they also offer Kitchen Concerts and networking and drinks gatherings for entrepreneurs to connect.

In3 Incubator wants to open up opportunities for business owners to build their knowledge and take away any barriers to success, especially in the tech field that Bowser’s administration wants to grow in DC. “There’s a place for every talent set in technology,” Kirkpatrick said. “We’re a space that’s trying to create that understanding.”

Memberships range from about $40 for a drop-in to $600 a month for a private office. To learn more visit

New Ascend 2020 Program
On May 30, Mayor Bowser announced another new program, Ascend 2020, to support minority-, women-, and veteran-owned small businesses in DC’s underserved communities. Bowser’s office will collaborate with Project 500, JP Morgan Chase, WACIF, the Latino Economic Development Center, and Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business to train and provide capital for businesses.

DC wants to continue its investment in innovative ideas because that supports the District’s local economy and inclusiveness, said DMPED Director of Communications Joaquin McPeek. “Local and small businesses are the backbone of our economy, fueled by entrepreneurs who are improving our communities and putting residents to work,” he said.


For more information on the Ascend Capital Accelerator visit Information on the In3 Incubator can be found at