She spent years wading through the murky processes, finding the best resources and tools, and answering the questions, to create HelloAlice.com, a dynamic ecosystem that helps those who are seeking answers, expertise and connection. Feel alone in moving your business forward? This may be your best resource!
Russ: Hi I’m Russ Capper and this is HXTV, championing Houston’s innovators and entrepreneurs. Brought to you by PKF Texas, CPAs and advisors serving Houston’s entrepreneurs for over 15 years. I’m very pleased to have as my guest today Founder and CEO of Alice Carolyn Rodz. Carolyn, welcome to the show.
Carolyn: Thank you for having me, Russ.
Russ: You bet. Tell us about Alice.
Carolyn: Alice is I would say the answer to what I wish I would have had when I started my first business. It helps every entrepreneur find their unique path through this very murky world of entrepreneurship. So it connects—digitally—founders to the experts, content, tools, templates, programs, all the resources that can help them solve the problems that they’re facing and figure out that next step in their business.
Russ: So, is it open to anybody?
Carolyn: Alice is free, open to everybody. You just go to HelloAlice.com and anybody can register.
Russ: And I could start befitting from it right away? I still have trouble understanding how it’s free with such good opportunities.
Carolyn: It was really important to us in helping to support what we call the new majority, every business owner that hasn’t received the benefit of having a really solid network and a ton of knowledge on how to build their business. That includes women, people of color, immigrants, veteran community, LBGTQ+, disabilities community, even people in rural towns who may not have a ton of resources at their disposal. And it was important that we didn’t charge for that knowing that cost is a major factor and a lot of people starting businesses.
Carolyn: We spent a lot of time just trying to understand the ecosystem, knowing all the great resources and tools out there, aggregating them and then saying here’s what’s relevant to you based on the information we know. So every Founder gets on, answers a few quick questions about their business like where they’re located, what stage of growth they’re in, what their goals and aspirations are, and then based on that it starts to curate and continue to learn more and more about the business owner.
Russ: I have to get to this question, we are a business show, how do you make money or is it a nonprofit?
Carolyn: We get asked this question a lot; we are a for profit company. We actually make money by working with government institutions and corporations and others who are looking to learn more about the ecosystem. We never share personal information but we do share trends and macro data around communities and cities and across the ecosystem as a whole so that people can start to understand how to better support these business owners, how to spur economic development and certainly how to get their products and services in front of ultimately who may be their customer.
Russ: At HoustonExponential.org we’ve been using it for some time, how’s business been going?
Carolyn: It has been fantastic. 2018 for us – we launched in 2017 – HelloAlice.com launched in 2017 – and so 2018 we really just built an incredible team, we have some incredible partnerships that are soon to be announced which we’re very excited about, some product integrations in third party platforms. And so you’ll start to see Alice not only on HelloAlice.com but also in some other places across the internet. So it’s been a really great year, we’re excited about all that’s coming in 2019.
Russ: I know a little bit about your background having sort of been involved and exposed to what was looking like being extremely successful operation called the Circular Board. How did you get from the very beginning of what now has turned into Alice? Tell us about that path.
Carolyn: I started investing and supporting and mentoring entrepreneurs after I sold my second company and in doing that kept seeing the same obstacles I had with my first business over and over with others. And so we launched Circular Board with the idea that how could we take this accelerator model that at the time really only existed in California and New York and a few very robust startup ecosystems and take that and scale it to the rest of the world? Because I realized if I couldn’t find what I needed to start my business, what was everybody else doing? So we launched The Circular Board, we supported over 300 women entrepreneurs through that program, helping them raise over $65 million in capital in just 18 months, which is really exciting.
A lot of those companies now are in their series C+, which is really cool. And in that process learned all the pieces that scale through the accelerator model. So we were spending so much time just saying look, you should talk to this person or you should go use this tool because it’s going to help you work more efficiently. Or read this article because I think it would really help you think about this issue that you’re dealing with. And so I started talking to other people running accelerators, I’m like what do you do because we’re spending so much time doing this. And everybody was like we just meet with them and talk to them; we have these conversations. And so we started to think about how can we actually aggregate all of that data in one spot and share it with the world and that evolved into Alice.
Russ: And I heard it described early on as a virtual accelerator, so a lot of it served people all over the country, but they had access to the information online; very few person to person meetings?
Carolyn: So we facilitate person to person meetings on the platform. Anybody can connect. We help connect people based on talent that they’re looking for, based on expertise; based on the city that they’re in. We have City Guides as you’ll see that you all link to through Houston Exponential. We have communities on there and so there is an opportunity to gauge within your community and then to also search those memberships and member bases, but we know there’s so much happening on the ground. Take a city like Houston, there’s Station and The Cannon and Houston Exponential; all of these incredible organizations, our goal is to just get more people connected into the already existing ecosystem.
Russ: Okay, and the way you describe that I assume that means that that part of your business, which is now called Alice, is still in business though. A big part of Alice is this virtual accelerator.
Carolyn: Yeah, so it basically takes people through the problems that they’re dealing with which are pretty consistent across businesses. How do you build a team? How do you raise capital? How do you think about building a culture within your business and creating a brand and all of the things that every company has to deal with, but we create really dynamic collections. So what somebody may see as a Fintech Founder in New York City their experience may be very different than someone working with a brick and mortar store here in Houston; or the reverse. And so what we try to do is try to figure out how do we connect the right resources to the right person based on the problem they’re dealing with.
Russ: Do you have some sort of case studies, success stories that you could share?
Carolyn: Oh my gosh, that’s I think the most rewarding part of my job is we constantly are getting emails from people and things that are shared. Everything from we had a founder who literally built her supply chain – I found her here in Houston, Meghan Eddings – who found much of her supply chain through Alice and the resources that she was connected to. We had another business owner, a black female founder with a company called My Purple Folder, who won a pitch competition that she found out about through Alice. And so we’re always trying to open up these opportunities to people who may not otherwise hear about them. If anybody has watched Entrepreneur’s Elevator Pitch we have some business owners on there that got introduced to that program through Alice as well. So we’re always hearing these stories of new doors are opening.
Russ: Really cool. So where do you see Alice being, ideally, say 5 years from now?
Carolyn: Our goal is that we can continue to just create access at the end of the day. So if we can start to build access but then also learn from the entrepreneurs themselves what’s working, where are there barriers, and how can we start to remove those barriers from the ecosystem, ultimately we’ll start to see much more equitable distribution across the ecosystem. So we’re helping to work on building more diverse pipelines for investors and accelerator programs and just starting to create more education and awareness.
Russ: It’s interesting though – you’ve mentioned a couple of times and I know our audience is going to want to know more about Carolyn – you mentioned your two exits, tell us a little bit about your early days as an entrepreneur, what the businesses were.
Carolyn: I learned a lot those first two businesses. In my first company I actually ended up closing the doors, so that’s my failed entrepreneurial experience which I talk about quite a bit. And that was in the retail business so utmost respect to everyone in retail because it is a tough, tough business. And then my second company was in the digital media space. We worked in the very early days of social media working on the enterprise side helping companies launch new product launches and campaigns, but really utilizing digital media and building some products and infrastructure behind that.
Russ: Okay, so let’s talk about The Circular Summit. I attended two of them, actually capturing interviews with Leisa Holland Nelson for Women Mean Business, and man that was impressive. Tell us about that and do you still do it?
Carolyn: Thank you. Yes, we still do The Circular Summit. Our next one is coming up May 8th through 10th. It’ll be in Sonoma, California this year.
Russ: Wow, okay.
Carolyn: And then we’re coming back to Texas for a couple of big events as well in the fall. We gather a group of about 300 women entrepreneurs – high growth, typically between seed and series A in terms of fundraising – and invite policy makers, investors, leading members of the media and lots of ecosystem builders into a room to really get into the weeds of how to move these companies forward and to build a really solid network of support.
Russ: Well the buzz in this event was incredible and all the people that I met were very impressive.
Carolyn: We’ve been really fortunate I think to attract such a tight group that has continued on so far beyond the event. It’s so cool, we have a Circular Summit community on Alice that is alive and well and offering one another resources. So it is I think one of my favorite events of the year, just getting to see how much energy is in that room.
Russ: Before I let you go, I know you founded these companies and Alice is headquartered here in Houston, but I also know that you do business all over the country, visit lots of different markets. What’s unique about Houston and has Houston helped in your career?
Carolyn: Incredibly. I think Houston is first and foremost an amazing market. So as such an international city and such a diverse city you can literally test your product and service against any segment of the world right here in the city, which is so fantastic. So it’s been a huge learning experience for us at Alice because we target really diverse founders and we get to see everything here. Second, the community support is great. I think someone described it once really well to me that anybody can get a seat at the table in Houston. And that is so unusual in so many other cities. Whether you’re raising money – I’ve cold emailed so many people in the city and have gotten meetings with incredibly accomplished people who have no idea who I am. I think that is a huge testament to what exists right here. So I encourage every entrepreneur who is thinking about where to set up their city, I think this is frankly the most untapped opportunity in entrepreneurship.
Russ: Real cool. Carolyn, thank you so much for sharing your story with us today.
Carolyn: Thank you, Russ.
Russ: You bet. And that wraps up my discussion with Carolyn Rodz, Founder and CEO of Alice. And this is HXTV.
brought to you by