Student Startups: Sierra College Invests in Aspiring Entrepreneurs with Mentorship and Microgrants

Sierra College Entrepreneurship Microgrant

Think it takes a million dollars to turn an idea into a real business? Think again. 

Sierra College is proving that with just a little bit of startup money and a whole lot of networking and support, entrepreneurial students can create their own businesses. Most importantly, they’ll also learn to develop an innovative mindset that can take them anywhere.

“Sierra College has always been a forward-thinking community college,” says Monique Brown, Co-Founder and Managing Director of the business accelerator The Growth Factory. This year, Brown is the college’s entrepreneur in residence. Thanks to Strong Workforce support, she’s been able to help kick-start the Sierra College Microgrant Program, where students can test out their new business ideas while learning creative problem-solving, critical thinking, innovation, and collaboration skills. 

“The idea is to encourage students to take action on their ideas,” says Brown. “Over time, those are going to end up turning into real businesses.”

While Strong Workforce support brings Brown to campus, a generous grant from Wells Fargo through the Sierra College Foundation offers students microgrants to get their ideas off the ground. Any Sierra student from any discipline can apply to receive $500 in funding, mentorship from a local business expert, and access to entrepreneurship tools like Leanstack business planning software. The pilot group had 10 students who test-drove their business ideas in the real world this year.

“We’re not trying to eat the whole elephant here,” says Brown. With the help of mentors, students break down big projects into bite-sized, attainable goals to build their ideas and plug into the local business hub. Says Brown, “We’re here to connect students to opportunities in our community and to provide our businesses with some really amazing talent.”

According to Dr. Amy Schulz, Sierra College Dean of Career Continuing and Technical Education, Brown is sharing her extensive network of startup and business leaders from health and life sciences, retail, IT, finance, and beyond. The Growth Factory is not only a startup accelerator but also has a venture fund and focuses on investing in high-growth companies in the Greater Sacramento Region. At her fingertips, Brown has a network of more than 100 mentors and investors on top of numerous connections with partners, advisors, experts, and civic leaders.

“Monique has really been connecting our business and entrepreneurship programming with the greater ecosystem in the Sacramento area,” says Schulz. She says that many underrepresented groups at the community college, like first-generation students, would not ordinarily have exposure to such extensive professional relationships: “This project really helps students get a foot in the door for that network.”

As part of leveraging her robust connections, Brown has started a popular entrepreneurship speaker event inviting regional industry leaders to campus. Topics include entrepreneurship in the creative arts, Black and African American founders, and clean technology. The goal is to bridge the campus to the greater community and workforce to forge new connections for students. 

“We’re probably one to two introductions away from anyone in the region that students would want to connect with,” says Brown. “Bringing that network to bear for our college students is powerful.”

Take the unstoppable student-mentor duo, Marcie Shelton, owner of a strategic HR consulting business with more than two decades of experience, paired with student Angele Carroll, who wants to run singing workshops for corporate team building using her background as a music teacher.

“That’s her passion, but she’s never spent time in the corporate arena,” says Shelton, who is quickly getting her mentee up to speed. “It’s been super rewarding to know I had even a small piece of helping Angele do this work. I know a ton of people who would benefit from it.”

Shelton has been helping the student position her services as a business solution, bolstering her resume and LinkedIn profile. The mentor has connected Carroll to experts who work in similar spaces to gain additional feedback, advice, and even an opportunity to pilot her services at a local banking corporation.

“Working with Marcie has been invaluable,” says Carroll, an organizational psychology major at Sierra. “When you’re trying to start something new, it really helps to know like-minded people who are supportive and can give you insight.

“Having someone to help you forge that path and guide you is incredibly helpful.”

Carroll says she developed her passion for creative expression as a young teen, which helped her cope with a challenging home environment. From her beginnings as a music teacher and leading small self-expression and communication workshops, the student and single mom is ready to take her work to the next level. Says Carroll, “That’s where I’m doing research and where I’ve been needing support to make that transition to a practical business.”

While in the program, Carroll received the Soroptimist Club’s “Live Your Dream” award, which assists women in college who are the primary source of financial support for their families. The student sees it as further proof that she is on the right track: “Getting the feedback from Marcie and the people she’s connected me with has given me confidence in my goals.”

This May, Carroll will participate in Sierra’s idea showcase with her cohort to share her discoveries and successes with the community. Plans for the program include hosting pitch competitions and expanding the visiting entrepreneurship speaker series by adding “mentor swarms,” the equivalent of mentor feedback and networking “speed dating.” Other plans include making the program for credit by categorizing it as an internship.

According to Shelton, as the program grows, even more students will be able to build new, real-world business ideas. But even those who do not start their own business will come away with the entrepreneurial mindset and skills that will serve them in any workplace, including innovative problem-solving and self-management. Most of all, she sees the long-lasting impact that this kind of program will have on the greater region.

“The more of us that become successful in the community, the more successful our community is,” says Shelton. “This ripple effect of helping people creates a huge positive sphere, and I can see how far that can go with a program like this.”