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Helping Gen Z Social Entrepreneurs Change the World

Target Incubator propels mission-driven Gen Z startups into the marketplace.

Founders of Trill Project apply UX learnings after an insightful mentor meeting.

It’s a common belief that if you put good into the world, the likelihood is, you’ll get it back. This holds true for individuals and corporations alike, and one company pioneering this trend is Target. One of the retailer’s meaningful corporate responsibility efforts includes a series of Accelerator programs catering to different types of entrepreneurs. Target Incubator is designed to support young, socially conscious innovators whose bright ideas aim to achieve critical goals. Thanks to Target’s mission, Gen Z entrepreneurs get the support they need to nurture and grow businesses that are better for people and the planet.

To ensure the Incubator’s inaugural class of startups matched the retailer’s commitment to change, a group of eight was hand selected from a pool of 400 applicants. Each company was awarded $10,000 to develop their business, and representatives were invited to spend eight weeks at Target headquarters this summer. During their time on-site, founders and principals of the startups huddled with Target mentors and executives to discuss marketing, negotiating, idea pitching, and other entrepreneurial skills.

“The Incubator experience has fueled us on our path as social entrepreneurs,” says participant Ahva Sadeghi, one of four young women who launched Symba, a company that empowers contingent workers in the gig economy, and, according to Sadeghi, “further proves that Target has values that are aligned to generate social impact and positive change.” 

Why Gen Z?

Historically, Target’s Accelerators, under which the Incubator program lives, generally emphasize boosting startups that will shape the future of the retail industry. What makes Incubator unique is its purposeful emphasis on Gen Z, the demographic cohort comprising up-and-coming adults and inheritors of the “it” reins long held by millennials. As with generations before them, Gen Zers are being assigned all types of attributes, many based on growing up during the Great Recession and under the influence of smartphones, e-commerce, and social media. And although entrepreneurship still spans the ages, Gen Z appears to be embracing it across multiple sectors, not just retail.

Gen Zers are also committed to social consciousness. They’ve shown themselves to be hyper-focused on solving the world’s issues, from climate change and justice reform to LGBTQ+ rights and food sustainability. By establishing this first-of-its-kind program, Target is staying true to its purpose in order to join forces to reach mutual goals.

“The Incubator program is an acknowledgment from Target that we don’t need to be the one to solve all problems and come up with all the new ideas,” says Caroline Wanga, the company’s chief culture and diversity and inclusion officer. “Rather, there are other thinkers, doers, creators, and innovators out there who can sit in partnership with us.” 

Consider Kaitlin Mogentale, founder and CEO of Pulp Pantry, a Los Angeles–based startup that turns pulp left over from juicing fruits and vegetables into granola bites and other plant-based snacks. The idea sprouted from Mogentale’s knowledge of the global food industry and its harmful effects.

“In a college environmental studies course, I learned how much the meat and dairy industries negatively impact our planet and our health,” Mogentale recalls. “Conversely, the production of plant-based foods reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and a vegan diet can lead to lower rates of chronic diseases.” 

For Mogentale, now a vegan and self-avowed “waste warrior,” that exploration resulted in starting Pulp Pantry. She carefully sources pulp and other ingredients to comply with food-safety regulations and meet consumer demands for high-quality products. Comparing it to business school, Mogentale came away from the Incubator program “with a much stronger understanding of pricing, product differentiation, packaging, marketing, the retail landscape, and food-industry trends,” she asserts. “I came into the program fully loaded with questions, and my Target mentors were invaluable in answering them.”

Modern Entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurship has always espoused the ideal of being your own boss, yet for Gen Zers, that goes beyond starting a company to the concept of employment itself. They’ve dived deeply into the gig economy, which allows them the freedom to take short-term jobs in one or several different industries. But freelancing can be an unpredictable career path to navigate, something that the young founders of Symba recognize—especially because they all have past experience as gig workers.

“Contingent workers must often fend for themselves, and we empower them with a variety of resources,” says Nikita Gupta, cofounder and chief technology officer at Symba. “We recognize the challenges they face in job security, especially finding new work. Our proprietary software includes a portfolio feature that showcases an individual’s various work experiences and feedback from employers, and offers workers help with professional development.”

Gupta and CEO Sadeghi were both invited to participate in the Incubator program, where they benefited from guidance to help grow Symba, headquartered in San Francisco. “It was a unique opportunity to connect with mentors and leaders from Target departments related to our business, including HR, procurement, and technology,” Sadeghi reports. “Equally valuable,” Gupta adds, “was our interaction with the other entrepreneurs from a wide range of industries. Target created an ideal atmosphere for collaboration.”

Without the pressure of competition, the Incubator cohort could focus on growing personally and professionally. Left: Symba cofounders Nikita Gupta, CTO, and Ahva Sadeghi, CEO. Right: Trill Project cofounders Ari Solokov, CEO, and Georgia Messinger, COO.

Another distinction of the Incubator model is its appreciation for the diversity that characterizes Gen Z, as demonstrated by its selection of Los Angeles–based Trill Project for the program. Cofounders Ari Sokolov and Georgia Messinger have developed an anonymous and free social-networking app that offers moderated peer support for users across the globe, regardless of gender, age, sexuality, race, or any other factor.

“Trill connects users to more friends than followers,” CEO Sokolov explains, “and we’re intent on keeping trolls off our platform. Our app’s ‘open to talk’ option allows users to make new friends and start conversations.”

Indeed, a mission to overcome bullying, injustice, and other social pressures drove Trill’s development. After hearing about a friend’s struggle coming out as a bisexual teen and discovering that nearly 40% of transgender people attempt suicide, Sokolov and Messinger were inspired to address those and other deeply personal issues by using their mutual passions for technology.

“Our machine-learning models have a 99% accuracy rate at detecting if a user plans on self-harming, is being harmed, or is harming another,” COO Messinger says. “In such cases, Trill prioritizes getting users the best support and resources possible through our community, trained moderators, and crisis resources. Still, we see technology as an add-on, not a replacement, for human interaction.”

It made perfect sense for Target to engage its chief culture and diversity and inclusion officer Wanga as a mentor for Trill during the program. “As a Kenyan girl who is also a corporate executive, I have some inherent privilege and power based on my identity and role that I get to choose how to leverage every day. Ari and Georgia have the inherent privilege of seeing a future many can’t imagine, and their lens on the world is critical to my ability to live in it,” says Wanga. “They are the blueprint of what it means to take courageous action and solve problems within your realm of influence.”

To the Future

Through Incubator and other Accelerator programs, Target is using its unparalleled mentorship to motivate the next generation of entrepreneurs and empower them to change the world. “The Incubator program helps Target accomplish those goals,” Wanga says, “in a way that is authentic to our brand and purpose.”

The program culminated with a three-day Incubator Conference, during which the entrepreneurs mingled with more than 100 changemakers from across the country. Attendees participated in workshops, networked, met mentors, and listened to speakers such as Minsok Pak, Target’s chief strategy and innovation officer.

“[Through the program] we get access and visibility to some really exciting innovation, technology, products, and brands,” Pak says, describing Target’s return on investing time and resources in Incubator. “But, also, by having our teams work with and mentor those companies, we’re getting some of that startup culture infused [into how quickly Target can] develop a concept.” The energy and enthusiasm of the Gen Zers in the program, he added, was particularly infectious and inspiring.

Indeed, this first Incubator cohort left Minneapolis feeling even more motivated to continue their entrepreneurial journeys. “The program was an incredible opportunity to learn business operations from a Fortune 50 company’s thought leaders, as well as our fellow founders,” Sadeghi says, “and we are all deeply appreciative.”

   

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