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Horn Entrepreneurship

Horn After 10: Garry Johnson III

HE-2022-10-year-Garry-Johnson (600 × 315 px)His father and stepmother, both pharmacists, wanted Garry Johnson III to have a well-paying, stable career in healthcare. His 2017 University of Delaware bachelor of science in kinesiology and exercise science, leading to a career as a physical therapist, filled the bill, but then he had to have The Talk. 

He had discovered entrepreneurship and wanted to pivot.

A Pitch Party at Horn Entrepreneurship was a spark. So was the Entrepreneurship Club, “a place where I belonged and could be creative.” Ditto Horn’s Venture Development Center. And also First Step Experience, an interdisciplinary extracurricular program run by the College of Health Sciences.

So he added a minor in entrepreneurship and – following advice from Tricia Monnig, manager of academic enrichment at Horn – a 2018 master of science in entrepreneurship and design. He’s now teaching as an adjunct professor at Horn and pursuing his master’s degree in business administration at Howard University.

And he’s building a more inclusive innovation ecosystem. He founded First Founders, a 501(c)(3) organization assisting early-stage entrepreneurs. It has helped more than 200 entrepreneurs around the world raise more than $500,000 in non-dilutive funding. He co-founded Bison Venture Partners, a venture capital firm aiming to be “a leading force for equitable change in an increasingly diverse world,” he wrote on LinkedIn.

Through activities, degrees and startups, “I doubled down on my personal mission of educating other entrepreneurs and making sure that anyone – regardless of where they come from and what they look like – have access to the same quality resources we did at Horn,” he said.

Body and mind

Johnson was born in Chester, Pennsylvania, and moved around the Philadelphia area until landing in Delaware in eighth grade.

His first foray in entrepreneurship, with First Step, was for GoodFoot, an app that tracked steps, reps and other metrics, with users challenging friends and family to meet fitness goals and give to charities.

“I wanted to help people get fit since I was an exercise science major, and that was important to me,” he said, “but also wanted to give back to the community, which is important to me as well.”

After almost two years of work and multiple pitches, he couldn’t prove the business model.

But he had another idea – isn’t that the case with so many entrepreneurs? – for Creative Minds, a way of teaching entrepreneurship to youth. It was based on the volunteering he had been doing in the Wilmington area, including Ferris School, for court-committed boys, ages 13 to 18.

His most memorable pitch was at the Queen in Wilmington, after an all-nighter prepping at Horn’s VDC. “I got on the big stage and totally blanked, but I was able to speak from my heart and talk about what I really wanted to do in the community,” he said. “Then I hid at the back of the room.” That was where Dan Freeman, founding director of Horn, found him, said the sincerity and significance of his pitch appealed to him, and he offered Johnson a scholarship for his master’s.

Studying ecosystems around the country

“Creative Minds essentially morphed into me being a course instructor through my graduate studies at UD,” he said. “I taught entrepreneurship to high school students through UD, through a course where they also get college credit. I was able to execute on my vision, and that set me on this map.

“I want to solve problems for a living, and I want to be unapologetically creative,” he said.

“Horn created this environment where I could experiment, come up with an idea and have resources over the course of a semester to figure out if this is a viable business,” he said. “Even if it didn’t turn out to be a viable business, it wasn’t a failure. It all contributed to my learning as an entrepreneur.” 

He traveled across the country, studying startup ecosystems, attending conferences and interviewing entrepreneurs and investors. “I really wanted to get a perspective of what resources entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds need and what ecosystems are doing the best when it comes to supporting them.”

He focused on entrepreneurs who were people of color, Hispanic, LGBTQ and women, “all demographics significantly underrepresented and underfunded in the startup ecosystem.”

One important early lesson was in the Startup Experience I class taught by Vince DiFelice, faculty director of venture support at Horn. Johnson worked on a team led by Kelsey Kosinski, an apparel design and fashion merchandising major, to develop appropriately fitting clothing for people with disabilities. They learned during customer discovery – a process DiFelice insists on – that styles were not designed well for children with Down syndrome and that Velcro was better than zippers.

Underrepresented, underfunded, under-supported

Another important lesson came in Summer Founders, Horn’s pre-accelerator for students to earn a stipend and work on a venture. His venture tackled what he called “underrepresented, underfunded and under-supported” entrepreneurs. “If we truly want to build a more inclusive and equitable economy, then we have to support more of these entrepreneurs,” he said.

During Summer Founders, he developed a partnership with New Castle County, which in 2019 sponsored the first cohort of these entrepreneurs. The idea became First Founders. “Our support is free, and we take no equity (we create it),” its homepage says.

“Through entrepreneurship, I can solve problems for people and create value for people in really unique ways,” Johnson said on a video on the homepage. “Through First Founders, I’m able to support other entrepreneurs while developing myself as well.” Another goal for First Founders, he said, is for entrepreneurs to develop tech solutions to help local nonprofits to scale up their impact.

“We started by supporting just eight entrepreneurs in Delaware,” he said. “Now, we have a global community of over 300 entrepreneurs,” plus partnerships with advanced accelerators. “We’re able to create this pipeline where we help early-stage entrepreneurs. We take a lot of pride in mentoring people who have been overlooked. Often, we’re the first people to see something in them.”

“One of the biggest startups that have come out of our community is Kiddie Kredit. They’re an app, and they teach kids how to build credit by doing chores. They’re based in Miami, but we found them early. They won two of the pitch competitions we’ve organized.”

First Founders co-organizes a pitch competition called Startup 302 It’s spearheaded by the Delaware Prosperity Partnership and is called Delaware’s premier funding competition for technology-enabled startups led by underrepresented founders. “We attract startups from all over the country and even all over the world, and it’s really this opportunity to highlight what’s going on in Delaware and the fact that Delaware is invested in building a more inclusive ecosystem.”

Crowdfunded venture capital 

First Founders is not enough. His startup experience includes launching KnowCapp, a fintech startup focused on small-business lending and personal financial management. 

In 2021, he began his MBA at Howard and felt a sense of pride being with so many people who want to make an impact and being at one of America’s best Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

At UD, “I took one African American studies course, and it was very affirming, having a class that was based on my identity and learning about my history and culture,” he said.

At Howard, he and three other classmates founded Bison Venture Partners, a venture capital firm named for the school mascot. It has many goals. “We want to support 1,000 women business owners,” he said. “We want to educate 10,000 new angel investors. We want to help create 1,000 new jobs and source $100 million in capital to black-owned businesses over the next decade.”

They also want to raise capital from everyday people. “It’s an investment,” he said. “It’s not a donation. That’s part of our mission of building wealth in our community.” A crowdfunding campaign that went live in April has raised $60,000 from more the 180 people investing as little as $100.

“An African proverb says if you want to go fast, you go alone. But if you want to go far, you go together. Bison Venture Partners is about leading this herd and a community-building mentality.”

A deep appreciation for Horn

“The story that I want to tell about Horn is how I used the resources that were available to me,” he said. “They were abundant and accessible, and I took advantage of everything that I could. There are people at Horn who believed in me, when I sort of barely believed in myself.”

“People like Vince or Tricia or Dan see the potential in you, and they want to provide the resources and the structure to help you turn your ideas into a reality.”

“That’s what I love about Horn. It’s not about your ideas. It’s not about what your startup is, or what it could be. It’s about who you are and what you can be and how entrepreneurship can be used as this tool to help you to get where you want to go.”

“Most people at Horn – most people in general – are not going to be entrepreneurs. Most people at Horn are not going to launch a startup that they continue to develop post-class or after graduation. But they’re going to use the knowledge that they gain to land their dream job and to open new opportunities and doors that they couldn’t have imagined before. And just having that entrepreneurial mindset and actually going out and trying to solve problems will help you stand out.” 

That’s why he’s so committed to giving back to Horn. He served on the Young Alumni Council. He teaches. He mentors through Horn’s Lead Mentor program and returns for all Summer Founders since graduation. He taps into his network from the university’s Center for Black Culture and the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. “I’m very committed to making sure that Horn continues to be an inclusive space.”

Sacrifice now, savor in the future

“Entrepreneurship comes with a lot of sacrifices,” he said, noting the weekends not spent having fun but instead working on pitches and other entrepreneurial tasks in the Venture Development Center. “There are plenty of friendships that have been lost because I wasn’t investing in them. I wasn’t going out to the parties. I wasn’t being as social as I could have been. It was a sacrifice I feel like I needed to make to put myself in this position and I think that’s still true today.”

“I spend a lot of time on my businesses. I have a lot of friends who are entrepreneurs and plenty of UD alumni in the Philly area, and we commiserate. We get together and talk about all our challenges and our problems, whereas someone who doesn’t have a business might not be able to relate.”

His sacrifices include the vacations he isn’t taking. “I don’t regret making that sacrifice. I’m setting myself up for the life I want to live. I live on my own terms, and there’s a certain freedom that I have that my friends don’t. In the longer term, I believe that I will be in a better position than others.”

Perhaps he’ll come up with a lucrative idea. Perhaps his investments in one startup or another will pay off big time. The buzziest term for such a payoff is “unicorn,” referring to when a startup is valued at $1 billion. Of course, he doesn’t know yet if any of his investments will become unicorns.

But he does have a ceramic unicorn statue in his living room. And also owns a business called Black Unicorns, which sells apparel and other merchandise that optimistically say “unicorn.”

About Horn Entrepreneurship

 Horn Entrepreneurship serves as the creative engine for entrepreneurship education and advancement at the University of Delaware. Currently ranked among the best entrepreneurship programs in the US, Horn Entrepreneurship was built and is actively supported by successful entrepreneurs, empowering aspiring innovators as they pursue new ideas for a better world.

Topics: entrepreneurship, careers, success stories, alumni, 10 Year Anniversary