When a startup business can succeed outside of its shared workspace at Launch Chapel Hill, Dina feels like dancing in her office.
After all, she’s done it before. The Launch program manager partied in the Rosemary Street building in 1992, back when the now-thriving business incubator was a nightclub, and she was a freshly minted MBA graduate. She and colleagues from the nation’s top business schools trained in the space by day to prepare for overseas assignments – she was on her way to Poland – and returned at night to drink and dance.
“It was my first time in Chapel Hill,” says Dina, a New Orleans native whose eyes survey the sunny, brightly colored office that bears no trace of its seedy past. “There was something about this place, about Chapel Hill itself. I always hoped to return.”
She came back to Chapel Hill in 2001, considering it the ideal place to raise her young family. In 2008, she and a partner started LunaPops, a line of frozen treats. Now separated from that venture, she convinced UNC in March 2013 that she was the right person to run its new community-based business incubator.
Funded by UNC, the Town of Chapel Hill, Orange County and donor Eric Becker, Launch opened its doors long after similar models were booming in Durham and Raleigh. However, the structured program already has sent several successful startups out into the real world – notably, Keona Health, which is expanding at the Europa Center.
Launch itself already has outgrown its 3,500 square feet of mostly communal workspace. Just in time to welcome a new group in July (applications will be accepted through June 1), it will break through a wall to add another 1,500 square feet.
“Companies here couldn’t afford to pay rent on a space like this on their own,” says Dina, who in October became associate director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. “By bringing them together at Launch, it works.”
She also leads UNC’s 1789 Venture Lab, a “hackery” that helps students develop initial business plans, and the Adams Apprenticeship, a mentorship network that pairs top students with some of the university’s most successful alumni.
Mentoring plays a significant role at Launch, too. Depending on business type, one of three “entrepreneurs-in-residence” are assigned to 10 or so new startups that join Launch twice a year. Members also are encouraged to collaborate with peers.
“This is a spectacular place,” says Jim Siplon of RethinkH20, a member of the January 2014 cohort that works with large-scale water users across the country to reduce their environmental impact. “I never want to leave because of the energy. The relationships we build form an extraordinary resource.”
While most projects are supported by Launch for six months, Jim has stayed on as a co-working tenant to help mentor new businesses. On a recent Friday, he was brainstorming with Non-Scents Flowers, which creates fragrance-free arrangements containing uplifting messages, and Perserver8, which provides job and life-skills training to persons with high-functioning autism.
The leadership training is invaluable, says Perserver8’s Linda Varblow, who also appreciates the work of UNC student interns. “Without them, we wouldn’t have any social media presence, which is very important to our growth.”
Including its current roster, 34 companies have come through the program, creating 44 jobs and raising more than $3.6 million in 2014 alone. Not all have succeeded in the marketplace, and some partners discovered they could not work together, but Dina says that failure in a controlled environment like Launch exacts a lesser emotional and financial burden.
“We’ve already seen students take what they learned here, pivot and move on to the next project,” she says. “One is with a really cool startup in California doing the same kind of work. It’s the right option for him right now, but I believe he’ll have his own business in the long run.”
Dina lives in a historic Chapel Hill home with her 13-year-old triplets – Emily, Rebecca and Nathaniel – and 12-year-old son Noah. They share their home with Luna, their dog, and Mr. Fishy, a fish. Dina’s first entrepreneurial experience came in operating a snowball frozen treat stand. After earning her MBA from the University of Chicago, she joined a group of all-stars from the nation’s top business schools to work overseas. Upon returning from Poland, she chose to settle in family-friendly Chapel Hill. She recently joined the board of Carol Woods Retirement Community and is a self-described “enthusiastic” member of Tar Heel Tempo, the official fan club of the UNC Women’s Basketball team.