When it comes to launching and funding a business, geography still matters. Your location can determine your access to capital, mentorship, and talent.

That's why Grammy-award winning rapper Lupe Fiasco and Google/Waze executive Di-Ann Eisnor were inspired to launch the Neighborhood Start Fund. The combination accelerator and investment fund draws on aspects of Shark Tank and Y Combinator to bring the kinds of resources normally only available in affluent startup hubs to inner city neighborhoods.

Eisnor says it's easy to hide things at the city level. Startup programs that serve cities don't necessarily penetrate into the nooks and crannies of neighborhoods. When you bring resources to a more targeted area, you can spur transformation from the inside out.

"At the neighborhood level, you have real community, real people interacting. You can't kind of fake the system," says Eisnor.

Eisnor and Fiasco, who is also CEO of record label 1st and 15th Entertainment, hatched the idea after meeting in May 2014 when both participated in the Aspen Institute's Henry Crown Fellowship Program for business and civic leadership. 

Start Fund's first stop will be Brooklyn's Brownsville neighborhood. The application window opened at the beginning of October and closes Oct. 30. Brownsville residents had submitted 140 applications as of a few days ago. Of those, up to 10 will be selected to move on to a Shark Tank-like round of pitching on Nov. 13.

Those who pass the pitch test will win $5,000 in prize money to develop a prototype of their idea, plus access to engineers and mentors including Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh and executives of method, Bronze Investments, and Google.

Start Fund will later hold a demo day for prototypes, at which participating entrepreneurs will be eligible for seed round investments of $25,000 from the fund, plus possible funding from other investors in attendance. Half of any return on Start Fund's investment in these startups will go back into new startups in the neighborhood.

The more startups succeed, the more local candidates for success there will be. The model is intended to function like a virtuous cycle that depends on continuous community participation.

So, why start with Brownsville as the flagship community? Eisnor says that Start Fund initially looked at East New York, where she had connections from her time at New York University, but the momentum wasn't there.

"When starting anything, it's important not to make every battle your battle," says Eisnor. 

Over in Brownsville, the Dream Big Foundation was already providing resources to local entrepreneurs and working on creating the co-working space that will now hold the pitch competition. Dream Big also provides food assistance to residents of Brownsville. The community involvement, in other words, was already in place.

"It was a no brainer for us," she says.

With a Google executive's name attached to Start Fund, it's easy to imagine the program as a tech-centric extension of Silicon Valley. That's not the case, however. This is about getting business ideas that use tech off the ground, says Eisnor.

Another way Start Fund is distinct from Silicon Valley accelerators? "I think 100 percent of our entrepreneurs so far that have applied are black," says Eisnor. She adds that applications are skewing female.

The pool of applicants includes a stay-at-home mom, and a pair of cofounders in which one has a graduate degree from Harvard and the other graduated from a vocational high school and hasn't gone to college. Ideas range from an interactive digital billboard platform to an on-demand beauty and hair service.

The goal is to do Brownsville well and swiftly launch in new locations. Neighborhoods in Fiasco's hometown of Chicago and Eisnor's home base of Silicon Valley are candidates for expansion.

"Hopefully this can be huge, but we're just in baby steps right now," says Eisnor.

Published on: Oct 23, 2015