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Michael Di Spirito is a 4th-year student at Georgetown University studying Economics with a minor in Physics. Michael is the CEO of Georgetown Ventures. Georgetown Ventures is a student-led startup accelerator. The organization has been around for six years, and its portfolio of 100 startups has raised $35 million in funding. I talked with Michael about LaunchPad and Venture Accelerator and how to join the internal team.
Kieran: Hey Michael, thanks for joining me today. Do you want to introduce yourself?
Michael: Thanks, Kieran, for having me. My name is Michael. I’m a senior at Georgetown, studying economics and physics. Over the past year, I’ve had the privilege of serving as the CEO of Georgetown Ventures, the student-run startup accelerator at Georgetown. Outside of school, I’ve worked for a few early and growth-stage startups and play club soccer and classical music.
Kieran: How did you first learn about Georgetown Ventures?
Michael: It’s funny, my first year was COVID, which means we were all off-campus and didn’t really learn about student groups until we returned as sophomores. Because I wanted to get some experience, I interned for a startup in Washington, DC, during my first year. When I got to campus, I heard about GV through some friends and back-to-school programming. I thought it sounded interesting because I loved my experience at the startup. So, I applied. It’s important to note Georgetown has a big culture around student groups. GV is only six years old, so new compared to some of our legacy groups like our credit union, finance club, etc. It has a short history. So, even in the few years I have been there, it has changed dramatically, and I am really proud of our impact in that short timeframe.
Kieran: Georgetown Ventures is a student-led startup accelerator started in 2017. To date, Georgetown Ventures has supported 100 startups, and those companies have gone on to raise $35 million in funding. Is there any other important background information that people should know about the org?
Michael: Each semester, we operate a 10-week accelerator program where we work with about eight to ten of some of the most promising startups founded in the Georgetown community. These startups hail from all corners of Georgetown — undergraduate, graduate, med school, MBA, alums, etc. A few things to emphasize; first we are truly student-run. So, for better or worse, it ends with our leadership team. There is not a lot of faculty oversight. Another thing is we are a labor-intensive organization. It’s not startup consulting in the sense of making decks and trying to tell the founders what to do. We’re trying to be that extra ten set of hands that every founder wishes they had. Each team gets six to eight students, putting in a few hours a week. As an organization, we contribute 3,000 hours per semester. Each founder is getting ~$15,000 worth of value between our strategic, creative, and technical. It’s no strings attached and no equity.
Kieran: I saw you guys have LaunchPad and Venture Accelerator. Can you talk a bit more about your startup programs? What’s the difference between the two programs?
Michael: The programs are separated by stage. I really think about the distinction as one being cohort-led and the other being more project-led. The LaunchPad program is geared towards earlier-stage startups. We take them from zero to one. It’s a pretty traditional idea to product launch incubator. We’re leading them through the lean startup methodology as a group. For the Venture Accelerator, startups are a bit further along in terms of growth, so they’re more independent, and they have a slightly larger project team to help them. The big distinction is the cohort style versus the independent style.
Kieran: Can you give an overview of the application process? I saw a written application on the website, but what happens after that? What are you looking for when selecting founders for your programs?
Michael: We try to meet as many founders as early as possible. It’s a year-round process since the Georgetown startup ecosystem is not really big. There are a few different channels through which we can reach founders. We try to get to know and talk with them before the application deadline. The application is pretty straightforward. We’re trying to understand the product and founding team better. During the interview, we dive deeper into the information they provided us on the initial application. The app stays open the first few weeks of school, the same as our member application. We want to accommodate the younger students who may rely on back-to-school programming to hear about these opportunities. Regarding the criteria for working with us, we are industry and stage-agnostic. A big thing for us is serviceability. As a student group, there are things that we can do and things we can’t do. Even if you have a brilliant startup idea, if it’s not a good fit for what we want or can offer, then we pass. So, it’s about fit and making sure the founder is mission and value-driven, ready to work with student members, and making sure that will be a good partnership.
Kieran: Can you talk more about that fit? What are things you can do and want to help with versus what are things outside your expertise that you tend to stay away from?
Michael: Some of our unique attributes as students are flexibility, creativity, and high energy. Those things are perfect for customer discovery. We’ll go bar hopping to win clients or anything like that. But for instance, if a founder wants to code a blockchain platform from scratch — that’s an extreme example of something that is not super serviceable for us within ten weeks. A lot of other things we’re great at include product design and go-to-market. Our creative team is good at building brand identities for early-stage startups. Our tech team is good for product development around MVPs. But there are some things that we wouldn’t be able to move the needle on significantly in 10 weeks.
Kieran: What do you see as the biggest opportunities to improve Georgetown Ventures in terms of how you support founders?
Michael: It’s really exciting because we’re building a playbook that is starting to work, but I think a few things that come to mind include alum engagement. We have some unique value adds as students. We’re always available and creative. However, the industry expertise of alums is super important to leverage. When you bring those two groups together, you create a more substantial value add for startups. Another thing would be building out a portfolio function, whether or not that means investing, but having a way to track and continue our support of founders after they finish the program. As it is right now, I will always have those relationships with founders, but when I graduate, there is no formal way for the founders who graduated from our cohort this fall to have continued support. The last thing is to keep investing in the tech division. That team has been a massive value add, and we just launched it in the spring semester. We created a CTO role, so investing in that will go a long way for the founders who need it.
Kieran: What percentage of student founders you work with continue on their startups after graduation?
Michael: The answer to this question has changed significantly over the last few years. When I first joined the club, it was really low. I’ll say now that it’s exciting that every startup in our Fall cohort had enough traction to continue, and all are planning on continuing for the foreseeable future. We need to continue monitoring their progress, but it has also shifted upwards because our cohort is now more largely composed of alumni and graduate students who might already be committed to working full-time on their ventures. So that is a significant factor. It was really exciting, too, that we had a founder this semester; within a year of working with us, he raised a $500,000 pre-seed round and is now taking a leave of absence to pursue it. So, we can officially say we accelerated someone out of Georgetown.
– now, let’s transition to questions to help students who want to join the Georgetown Ventures internal team –
Kieran: Can you give an overview of the application process for internal team members? What are you looking for when selecting students to join the internal team?
Michael: We try to make it as easy as possible for anyone and everyone who’s interested to apply. The process occurs during the first few weeks of school. We have a short application to gauge your interest and what you want to work on. In the first round of interviews, everyone is grouped together regardless of the division they’re applying to. The second round is more tailored toward what they’re trying to do GV. So, if you’re applying to the Tech team, your interview would be with the Director of Tech and CTO and tailored to that type of work. In terms of what we’re looking for, it’s genuine interest. Nobody expects, and I can’t emphasize this enough, 18 or 19 years old to have startup experience. That is not a thing we look for. We have a pretty strong education program that teaches people all of this stuff, so prior experience is not required. We benefit from the fact that nobody wants to work in startups because they want to be rich or anything like that, so it stands out when someone really loves it. It jumps off the page when someone is excited. When you get people who are equally passionate about startups and have a diversity of perspectives, and people all want to work on different things, it makes the accelerator really strong because the teams bring so much unique value from each of the members that the founders feel well supported on anything they ask for.
Kieran: Students can join LaunchPad, Venture Accelerator, Creative, or Tech. Can you give an overview of the work students do on each team?
Michael: I would think about our services or divisions in three ways. LaunchPad and Venture Accelerator are the two programs, but they are for students working in product and strategy capacities. For students on those teams, it’s similar work – you’re trying to do the job of a co-founder without equity. So, whatever the founder wishes they were working on but don’t have time for, you’re going to be helping with that. For them, it’s a lot of customer discovery, product design, go-to-market, financial modeling for some of the growth-stage startups, helping make key hires, and leading the fundraising process. The creative team’s goal is to leave each founder with a unique brand identity, which is really difficult early on with a startup because often, you don’t know where you’re ultimately going to end up. The students on this team are really strong in graphic design, and they’re building professional brand books with custom logos, color palettes, and voice guidelines. Every founder should feel like they have a technical co-founder when they work with us; that is where the Tech team comes in. The students on the Tech team are doing essential product development, building landing pages, and other tasks, such as scraping Twitter to help with market research and things of that nature.
Kieran: Can you talk more about your education program? How long is it before they interact with founders?
Michael: We really love that new students are on project teams immediately. The education happens simultaneously with your first project. Learning by doing is essential. So, on the one hand, they’re immediately on an assignment in the division of their choice and learning from some of the older students as they go. We have an education session once a week for the first semester. The education session helps students acclimate to some terms and concepts, and we try to keep it fun. This semester, there are outside activities to listen to, such as the How I Built This podcast, and they discuss that. The sessions highlight case studies and founder stories and teach them about business models.
Kieran: Is there anything I didn’t ask about that is important to know if you’re considering Georgetown Ventures as a founder or someone who wants to join the internal team?
Michael: GV is a super special community. It is a home for countless students at Georgetown, including myself. We don’t pride ourselves on being exclusive or sending the most kids to Citibank, although we do send a few, but it really is a strong community of students who love startups and entrepreneurship. As a student or founder that’s interested, please reach out. It’s easily been the best thing I’ve been a part of at Georgetown.