On curriculum day at the Multicultural Innovation Lab, entrepreneurs learn from insiders who work with some of the biggest companies in the world.

“There are specific questions that corporations typically ask, and it’s important to become familiar with them if you plan to win the business,” Shendora Pridgen, Executive Director of the Supplier Diversity Program at Morgan Stanley, told the roomful of entrepreneurs, who snapped to attention and started taking notes.

It was a “curriculum day” in Morgan Stanley’s Multicultural Innovation Lab, when executives at the nine startups in the program learn from leaders inside and outside of Morgan Stanley to help accelerate their businesses. The companies, all founded by multicultural and women entrepreneurs, were a natural audience for Pridgen (pictured above, in blue business suit), whose role is to hire vendors for Morgan Stanley that are majority-owned by women, people of color, veterans and other underrepresented groups.

Pridgen, an aficionado of the one-minute elevator pitch, told the attendees to be ready to introduce themselves, describe their companies, and communicate their companies’ value at all times—and to answer common screening questions, like, “Why should I hire you?” and “What do you bring to the table?” From her years fielding inquiries from eager corporate suitors, Pridgen advised: “Stay calm, be prepared for last-minute meetings, keep your presentation on hand, and always bring your ‘A’ team.”

Go dominate a market niche and expand from there, in concentric circles.
Brett Klein Managing Director, Technology Investment Banking

A Comprehensive Curriculum

Curriculum days are a regular part of the Innovation Lab, providing the entrepreneurs with hands on instruction in every aspect of growing a successful business. These sessions offer the founders a rare opportunity to interact up close with executives and decision makers. The sessions include key topics such as “valuation analysis,” “enterprise selling,” “building your brand,” and “privacy and data protection,” among others. 

Such lessons form an integral part of the lab experience. Each company selected for the program receives office space in the firm’s New York headquarters, a $200,000 investment, and invaluable introductions and networking opportunities, which begin on move-in day in April and culminate in November, with a “demo day” when Lab participants show off what they have learned to an audience of venture capital and strategic investors from across the country.

On the day Pridgen came to speak, the entrepreneurs were particularly riveted by her “best practices” for small startups working with larger enterprises. They asked her many questions about the certification process to qualify for a supplier diversity program. She noted that Morgan Stanley works through several third-party organizations that offer such certification, such as the National Minority Supplier Development Council and the Women Business Enterprise National Council, with which Pridgen recommended developing working relationships. “I’ve noticed that companies that go to more networking events tend to be more successful,” she said.

Insights from a Banker and a Technologist

Later that day, the group heard from Brett Klein, a Managing Director in Technology Investment Banking who works on transactions involving big technology companies—a status to which all the lab participants aspire. His advice to the early-stage entrepreneurs? “Go dominate a market niche and then expand from there, in concentric circles,” Klein said. “You have to build a great, sustainable company and product for the long-term. You can’t just build so that you can be acquired.”

The final speaker of the day was Shawn Melamed, Managing Director and Global Head of the Technology Business Development and Innovation Office, who himself was a serial entrepreneur before joining Morgan Stanley. During the discussion, when one of the company founders shared a rookie mistake she had made involving outsourcing too much of her technology early on, he told her, “I’m having flashbacks to my early days.”

Melamed also shared another hard-won insight: The qualities that a company needs in a Chief Technology Officer (CTO) change over time, as the development team grows. In the early days, “you’re in survival mode, you need someone with a sense of urgency who can quickly iterate with you,” he said. Later on, when the engineering team grows to 20 people or more, the company needs a CTO with a different skill set. “People who are good at running large teams are very good at thinking strategically and don’t necessarily have a sense of urgency—it’s a very different mindset,” Melamed said.

Param Jaggi, a lab participant who is both a coder and a serial entrepreneur, said he could relate to Melamed and appreciated his advice and perspective. He also particularly enjoyed Pridgen’s explanation of how supplier diversity initiatives work. “Those are programs that a lot of companies like mine have heard about, but we don’t really understand how to leverage them to become a vendor to a company like Morgan Stanley,” said Jaggi, co-founder and CEO of Hatch Apps, which has developed technology that lets companies build and launch apps without having to write code.

Jaggi, who aspires to be a client one day for an investment banker like Klein, found the presentation fascinating. “It was incredible to be able to sit down with someone who has taken great tech names public,” said Jaggi. Of the day’s speakers, Jaggi marveled at how they balance everyday experience with the big picture. “They’re looking at the market at a very macro level, but at the same time, they understand what we’re going through day to day, and have solid advice on how we connect the two. I found that very valuable.”

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