Kamber Parker Bowden – THE YoPro Know Journey

On the “right” path

After graduating from Furman University, Kamber Parker Bowden embarked on her professional career with the “right path” ahead of her. Graduate, get a job, and be an adult. She moved to Chattanooga, TN to start on the first rung of the corporate ladder. It wasn’t long before she realized that her true calling lay beyond the confines of traditional employment.

Working just 10 months at her corporate job, Kamber realized that many of her friends, even those who were older and on their second and third career moves, were experiencing dissatisfaction and frustration in the workplace. Why? Moving back to Greenville to work for a small non-profit, she began digging into this question. Kamber started a blog as a creative outlet, interviewing other young professionals. Working for a small nonprofit provided Kamber with a much better work-life balance even though it came with a pay cut. This also provided flexibility for her “side hustle.” For two years, Kamber posted an interview every single week.

Little did she know that this humble blog would lay the foundation for YoPro Know—a platform that would redefine her trajectory and impact countless lives in the process.

From chaos and uncertainty to impact

Fast forward to 2020; Covid happens. Amidst the chaos and uncertainty of the times, Kamber found herself presented with an opportunity to pivot and expand her platform’s reach through the power of podcasting. The YoPro Know Podcast was born—where she could amplify the voices of young professionals and provide meaningful dialogue and connection in a virtual landscape.

After two years of collecting stories from young professionals, or “YoPros”,, Kamber realized there were overlapping themes and messages she was hearing from young professionals. Her network started pointing out the quality of her data and encouraged her to use it. Monetize it! But how? The first model was offering memberships to young professionals, but she quickly learned there was not enough individual interest based on the size of her audience at the time. She needed to pivot. 

Surround yourself with mentors

Kamber has always surrounded herself with mentors and it was one of those mentors that suggested she sell her content to companies instead. In 2021 she got her first company clients. A handful of remarkable leaders played a pivotal role in her journey, providing valuable experience and testimonials as she developed her consulting services aimed at helping employers develop strategies to attract and retain young professionals. With the support of several key clients, she reached a milestone enabling her to transition to full-time entrepreneurship in the summer of 2022.

However, as Kamber navigated the uncharted waters of entrepreneurship, she encountered her fair share of challenges and setbacks. The pressures of entrepreneurship, coupled with the relentless pursuit of success, challenged Kamber and led to what she calls “the emotional rollercoaster that is entrepreneurship”. She says, most entrepreneurs will know what she means there!

“The first 6 months of entrepreneurship were really tough for me. Some months I really did ask myself, what am I doing this for? It was lonely and sometimes depressing, which I am open about, but I always remembered what I was here for – and that really got me through.” 

Entrepreneurship and mental health

Entrepreneurs face higher rates of depression and anxiety, often attributed to the stress, isolation, and financial pressures of running a business. Despite these challenges, the stigma surrounding mental health can deter entrepreneurs from seeking support, impacting both their well-being and business success.

Kamber feels like founders face a dilemma between prioritizing self-care and managing the demands of running a business. She incorporates yoga and running into her routine and relies on her husband, family, and friends for support to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Recognizing the importance of relationships and well-being, she tries to prioritize her health, even if it means sacrificing other aspects of her life. She shares how fortunate she is that her now-husband was all-in on her business from their very first date, even acting as a financial coach at times, his area of expertise. 

“Mentoring is why I have gotten where I am. I don’t think that this would be the case if I lived somewhere other than Greenville, where senior leaders are genuinely interested in paying it forward and offer to buy someone you look up to a coffee – I was always taken aback by how willing people are to meet with me and hope I have the chance to do the same one day”

She credits her mentors with getting where she is today citing various programs like Pacesetters with the Chamber of Commerce and NextGEN’s VMS program. Mentors like Tim Justice, Minor Shaw, and Derek Pederson have played pivotal roles in shaping her business decisions. She learned of NextGEN in 2022 and pitched for the VMS program shortly after taking her business full-time. She remembers thinking, are you sure it’s free?! At that time one of her biggest struggles was loneliness. After finding the local entrepreneur ecosystem and meeting more and more people, she realized she did not have to go it alone. She also wants to shout out her NextGEN VMS mentors today: Ken Brower, Jo Hackl, and Michael Mino.

What’s next for YoPro Know?

As for where Kamber and YoPro Know are today? Well, their challenges are constantly changing, and there are a lot more successes today than there used to be! They are looking to scale and continue to build their team of nine. With such a “hot topic” as their focus (young professional recruitment and retention) there is a wealth of future opportunity and her team is right at the cusp of big goals that were set at the company’s beginning. She is focused on creating a business where people love to work, working with the strengths of her team. Her people want flexibility and Kamber provides that flexibility as well as the opportunity to shape their own dream job. 

“We have to practice what we preach, right? Once you find good people, work towards what they can own and create.” Trust her, she’s the expert!

When we asked what excites her when she gets up in the morning, there was a litany of things! Speaking, consulting, strategy, helping small to mid-sized businesses, and ultimately the impact she gets to make daily. YoPro Know is at the crux of a big problem in their society. Companies are not engaging younger generations in a way that maximizes that talent. YPK has a huge potential impact that will be measurable in the future and we will all see it. “Young professionals are the future of our workforce. If we don’t tap into their strengths and develop them now – with an aging workforce and declining birthrate – we’re going to face some major challenges ahead.”

Kamber can’t see her life without YoPro Know. It’s funny looking back because she did not get A’s in her college public speaking class and now gets paid to do just that. Where she and YPK are today is not at all what she envisioned in 2018 and the path has not always been smooth, but for those of you who have met Kamber at the many networking and ecosystem events she attends, you know she is doing what she is meant to do and she will have a long-lasting impact.

Want to learn more about YoPro Know? Check out their website! https://yoproknow.com/ 

Pedro Escobar: The American Dream meets Fintech

pedro escobarPedro Escobar’s journey is more than just a story of professional success; it’s a deeply personal account that intertwines his roots, challenges, and pursuit of the American Dream. Born in Brooklyn to Honduran immigrant parents with limited education, Pedro’s story begins with a modest upbringing. His parents, with no education beyond grade school, worked as a janitor and housekeeper during Pedro’s early years modeling a work ethic Pedro exudes today.

What is a Susu?

The Susu Lend story starts with a practical need: Pedro’s family needed to purchase a new refrigerator. Denied a loan at a local Sears, Pedro’s father reached out to their community and formed a susu, a lending community common in African and Hispanic cultures. A susu involves an informal savings club where members take turns contributing, a practice often used by those considered “unbanked” or “credit-invisible” in the traditional banking system.

“Unbanked” or “credit-invisible” refers to individuals or entities facing challenges accessing conventional banking services. Pedro empathizes with these individuals, understanding they are hardworking people deserving of opportunities for a better life. This empathy led to the creation of Susu Lend, driven by Pedro’s desire to assist individuals in accessing financial opportunities, whether for starting a business or meeting basic needs.

Pedro’s father’s first Susu venture was successful, leading to more, and eventually, the establishment of Wendy’s Grocery Store in New Jersey. Despite the family having to sell the store, Pedro credits his parents for instilling resilience and persistence in him. Eventually, his parents moved to Greenville, SC, and have since invested in real estate in the Upstate. 

From IT to Business School, Surviving 2008

Pedro began his IT career in 2003. The challenges of the ’08-’10 recession led to losing his corporate IT job. In 2010, Pedro and his family moved to Greenville, SC, following in his parents’ footsteps. This move proved successful for Pedro’s career and his wife and children, who graduated from Clemson University. After successfully launching an IT consulting business in Greenville, Pedro returned to school and graduated with a degree in IT Business Management from Western Governors University in 2021. He kept the momentum going by enrolling in business school to focus on launching his next venture. 

While pursuing an MBA at Cornell, Pedro turned his vision for Susu Lend into reality through a class project bringing in founders with varied backgrounds in finance, banking, and data science. Today, Susu Lend is a thriving company that completed its first cash beta. Pedro is working on a digital MVP with plans to launch the app in 2024. Recognizing the complexity of finance and legalities, Pedro diligently seeks advisors and investors to ensure compliance.

Accelerating Business in Cohort 2

In 2023, Pedro completed the NEXT Accelerator program as part of cohort 2. His story, empathy, and kindness made an impact on the entire group. His parents, who inspired him so much throughout his life, were able to come to his final presentation. 

“The NEXT Accelerator was more than a typical startup program; it was a gateway to a thriving community of innovators, mentors, and experts. As the founder and CEO of Susu Lend, a fintech startup aimed at empowering the unbanked and credit invisible, I found unparalleled support and guidance here. The program managers and staff’s dedication and expertise were instrumental in refining our pitch, making it resonate more strongly with our audience. NEXT didn’t just help us grow; it connected us with mentors and partners who shared our vision. Any entrepreneur in Greenville looking for a supportive, dynamic environment would find NEXT an invaluable resource.” Pedro Escobar

Pedro is committed to addressing the trust deficit in his first target market by focusing on his roots. He understands the skepticism within communities, particularly toward institutions and banks, and believes that building trust is paramount for sustainable growth.

Bridging Cultural Gaps

Maintaining a strong connection to his Hispanic roots, Pedro envisions Susu Lend bridging cultural gaps. He acknowledges the challenges immigrants face and aims to fast-track financial stability, especially within the Hispanic community. Pedro’s personal touch extends to Susu Lend’s operations, where he incorporates cultural nuances into AI-driven decision-making. He imagines what AI can do with the cultural data he is collecting and how it can benefit other industries and companies in the future.

As Pedro continues raising funds and engaging research experts for Susu Lend, his journey is a source of inspiration. A living embodiment of the American dream, Pedro overcame challenges and actively empowered others through financial education. His involvement in the Hispanic Alliance and mentoring youth through the SDA program reflects his commitment to the community and nurturing future entrepreneurs. Pedro’s story, filled with personal details, stands as a beacon of hope for aspiring entrepreneurs facing adversity and striving to positively impact their communities.



Jon Scott, ScopeStack: It’s all about connections and culture

For Jon Scott of ScopeStack, it’s all about connections. Connections have not only had a major influence on the success of his business but they’re integral to his company culture. Being fully remote, he believes it’s important to intentionally plan moments to connect with colleagues, as well as the community. Most of their team is located in Greenville – they didn’t want an office but they wanted the option to all meet in person. Flexibility is great but proximity is helpful to accomplish this. They are intentional about their values, being upfront from the beginning of each hiring process. They believe in authenticity and being action-oriented as well as giving back to their community through serving. 

There has to be a better way. 

Before there was a team culture to consider, Jon was working in the IT services space scoping out services projects. And the process was painful. “There’s got to be a better way.” (We’ve heard this before!) Jon, and his technical co-founder, Andy Vanasse (one of the smartest guys he knows), put their heads together intending to create a lucrative side hustle. 

Jon remembers sitting in a hotel room when Andy sent a prototype over to him. “I clicked on it and it sent me a statement of work. Wow, that’s legit!” It gave him hope that it could be bigger than a little side project. Jon was used to having a lot of ideas but this one felt right and even his wife agreed!  

ScopeStack launched in 2018.

In March of 2018, they onboarded their first client, who is still on the platform today. A testament to the great service ScopeStack is known for. 

Although Jon had been around the business and tech world, this was his first startup. When asked what the biggest learning curve was, he referenced all the hats entrepreneurs have to wear. There is a lot of learning to be done and for Jon and Andy, it was important to pursue and maintain a high level of integrity.

“I don’t have all the answers and I need to have people around me that I can ask questions.” Jon started with the NEXT VMS program early on in the business. He remembers pitching the idea in front of the mentors. It immediately clicked for Scott Millwood, former board chair and mentor, who knew the problem they were solving because he lived it. 

You need to sell something!

ScopeStack ended up with a core group of experienced advisors. In their first meeting, Jon mentioned that he would not be able to pay himself. Their advice? Well, you need to sell something! More than just advice, the connections made through that mentor network were critical. A member of their executive team was a direct connection from these initial mentors and he has been an amazing addition. “We never would have made these critical connections if not for our mentors. Everyone has always been super supportive at every single stage.”

Jon Scott, Cliff Holekamp, Cultivation capitalAnother introduction through his mentors was Cliff Holekamp of Cultivation Capital. We were fortunate to get the two of them on the NEXT Venture Summit stage talking about the founder/investor relationship. His mentors encouraged him to meet Cliff even though he wasn’t ready to raise. Even early on, you can tell investors where you’re going and start building that connection. Building relationships and trust early on allows for the ultimate ask to be easier. Jon and his team focused on hitting goals and building credibility to show they were a good investment before they were ready to ask for an investment. They also worked to build a cash flow-positive business model. Jon’s advice for future founders? Don’t just meet someone and then ask for money. You need to plan for that. Go ahead and make connections now so when you’re ready to raise, it’s just a conversation of how much you need. 

His relationship with Cliff started as more of a mentor/mentee relationship which did put Cliff in an interesting position. Oftentimes his investor goals did not align with his mentor’s guidance. The transparency on both sides of this relationship helped build a lot of trust in the relationship so when it was time to raise, they both knew what they were getting into. 

Building relationships and trust before the ask. 

SCRA was a great partner to ScopeStack as well. They received two rounds of grant funding which is a great option for a capital infusion early on. Why did they raise? They had hit $1MM in revenue, were cash flow positive, had lots of runway, and wanted to scale faster. To do this, they wanted to build a team to take them to the next level. SCRA and Cultivation Capital worked together with ScopeStack’s round. The fact that they all knew each other and had strong relationships was critical to making the raise successful. It took about a year and a half to close the round but the time it took to build relationships was worth it. 

Jon got his undergraduate degree in business focusing on computer information systems from Anderson University, where he was recruited to play soccer. (He is one of those rare people actually using their degree!) Jon has leaned on those Anderson connections as he has built the business. He also received an MBA from North Greenville University. But, he says that nothing can beat the education he has received over the last several years as a business owner. “I have learned so much. How to set expectations to how to have difficult conversations. I’m so grateful even though it was really hard.”

Overcoming challenges and decisions fatigue

Today, Jon’s biggest challenge is making all the decisions he needs to make every day.  Decision fatigue can lead to burnout so he does what he can to protect himself. He recommends taking a day off each month for just your mental health or maybe taking off Fridays. 2023 brought a lot of other challenges due to incredibly fast growth. They hired 10 people in 2023 going from a team of 6 to 16. Getting everyone on board and having the right people was challenging and he learned that he was not the right person for the job. “I used to hire people like me, that I liked and could hang out with. But, you quickly learn you need different types of people to run a successful business.” They now use Predictive Indexing to make sure they are onboarding the right people for each role. 

Now with a bigger team, they have additional expenses so the focus is on sales. Their number one thing to solve is the top of the funnel – how do you get more leads in the door? It’s a math game. You have to have so many leads to get so much revenue. This is a common challenge for founders.

Learning to delegate is a skill that entrepreneurs must master to scale their companies. As you grow a team, understand the difference between accountability and responsibility. Jon spends time focusing on the accountability chart – this helps set the appropriate expectations for the team as well as lead to delegation when possible or necessary. In 2023, Jon led a Founders Founder on the Entrepreneurial Operating (EOS) system that he uses day in and day out. Figuring all of this out is what keeps Jon coming to work every day. 

Don’t overcomplicate it.

One of the best pieces of advice he has received is: “Don’t confuse important decisions with difficult decisions.” In other words, don’t overcomplicate it. Clarity seems to be key. Jon loves the challenge of a puzzle, turning chaos into clarity. He loves how quickly they can move as a startup, and how nimble they can be. And, he appreciates that while he is a visionary, he’s found a great complement in co-founder Andy who is wired to get things done.

Jon will never forget the moment it hit him that they had a real business. They had multiple customers and had landed their first enterprise account. People were actually paying them! He encourages business owners to put money back into the business. Companies will never grow if they don’t invest back in themselves.

Accelerating Success: Checking in on Cohort 1 graduates

Where are they now?

As we reflect on the journey of our inaugural accelerator cohort, it’s thrilling to witness the remarkable strides made by these ambitious ventures. Let’s take a closer look at where they are now and the milestones they’ve achieved.

  • Bottle Titan:
    • Team Structure: New team in place with a software engineer, logistics engineer, patent writer, electrical engineer, and a previous professor at Clemson with expertise in patent writing.
    • Collaboration: Undertook a project with another cohort grad
  • Custom Donations:
    • Strategic Partnership: Established a joint venture with another company in their space
    • Next Steps: Ongoing progress and updates are expected, making it worthwhile to stay tuned for further developments
    • New Look: Worked with local company, Designli, a connection from the Accelerator program, to redesign product 
  • RAAMP:
    • Sales Impact: Showcased tangible sales improvements directly attributed to the accelerator program
    • Team Development: Expanded their team to support increased business demands
    • Support: Joined the VMS mentor program 
  • Ruffian Software (TechID Manager):
    • Investment: Received investment from SCRA and engaged in discussions with other potential investors
    • Team Expansion: Made strategic hires to fuel the company’s growth
    • Growth: Continued with the VMS mentor program 
  • TestedHQ:
    • Funding: Secured $300,000 from SCRA
    • Strategic Shift: Maintained headcount stability while strategically altering their revenue model. The focus is shifting towards a majority subscription-based model next year, emphasizing recurring revenue
    • Operational Enhancements: Dedicated efforts to improve internal efficiency, establishing repeatable and scalable processes
    • Mentorship: Joined the VMS mentor program 
  • Pixlmob:
    • Strategic Focus: Transitioned towards a more focused product approach, with an emphasis on a specific niche within the industry
    • Talent Acquisition: Added two new hires and currently seeking additional talent
    • Funding News: Received funding from Founderville; gave impressive report to investors at end of the year 2023 holiday party 
  • skillsgapp:
    • Recognition: Participated in Furman University Hill Institute Bootcamp; and was named one of the 10 Most Exciting Startups in the region at the #StartupGVL Night at the Drive
    • Future Prospects: Currently exploring additional accelerator programs and funding opportunities
    • Suite Stuff: Actively adding more games to their suite of games
    • Fun news: Co-founder, Tina Zwolinski traveled to Ireland in the fall of 2023 to speak on a panel at Saastock
    • Check out Tina’s full founder feature! 
  • Vicinity:
    • Team Growth: Welcomed a new co-founder, a strong market leader, reinforcing the leadership team
    • Support: Participated in the Furman University Hill Institute Bootcamp, assigned a team of students to complete a project
    • Funding news: SCRA and Founderville funding announced; and announced updates at the Founderville holiday party, updating investors
    • Good PR: Trueline case study was a tangible example of what they do by helping another business come onto the landscape 
  • WAVS Custom:
    • Progress: Successfully closed a funding round, including a significant contribution of $200,000 from SCRA
    • Growth: Expanded their team with two new hires, reinforcing their commitment to advancing WAVS’s innovative vision
    • Fun news: Recently exhibited at CES in Las Vegas and looking forward to launching new products (currently top secret – keep an eye out for the news); and gave inspiring update to investors at Founderville holiday social
    • Homerun: Was named one of the 10 Most Exciting Startups in the region at the #StartupGVL Night at the Drive
    • Read more about founder Ric Hoke


Update 2/13/2024 – we’re excited to announce that Mapsheet.com has sold! This is exciting news for founder, Willz Tolbert. We know it was a lot of hard work getting the company to this point.

The accomplishments of our first accelerator cohort are a testament to the dedication, innovation, and resilience of these ventures. We eagerly anticipate witnessing their continued growth and success in the evolving landscape of entrepreneurship. Stay tuned for more updates on their remarkable journeys!


Nicole Johnson, Co-Founder of Boyd Cycling: A trailblazer’s journey through entrepreneurship and cycling

Nicole Johnson’s career trajectory took an unexpected turn after her experience selling radio ads and interning with ABC – she realized she did not want to be the next Barbara Walters after all. Moving south to Charlotte to join her brother, she found herself in the world of high-tech recruiting, eventually transitioning to a startup led by three college entrepreneurs she met at a trade show. (If you have met Nicole, you’re not surprised that they called her the day after meeting.) This marked the beginning of her exposure to the excitement, intricacies, and challenges of the startup world. She experienced firsthand lightning rod success but also how bringing on investors can lead to losing control of company direction, which ultimately led to the closure of the company. 

Seeking mental and physical health and well-being, she found cycling

Amid the stress and rapid growth of her job, Nicole’s health and well-being suffered, prompting her to seek an outlet in an unlikely place—cycling. Introduced to the Leukemia Society, she embraced the sport with a purpose, raising money for a child in remission. She then dove right into the world of triathlons. A newbie, she received some direct, yet sound, advice: “You should really learn to swim before you sign up for a triathlon.” Again, we’re not surprised Nicole was ready to embrace this new challenge fully despite not really knowing how to cycle OR swim! 

Undeterred, Nicole, in a brave and determined move, accepted an offer from a now-good friend to teach her how to swim. They swam together three days a week, showcasing Nicole’s commitment to overcoming challenges. However, cycling was still a hurdle; she hesitated to clip into the bike, feeling like a true beginner among experienced triathletes.

From doggie-paddling to professional cyclist

Starting a group ride from a local bike shop marked a pivotal moment. An encounter with a seasoned 70-year-old mentor who recognized her tenacity left a lasting impression. He pulled her aside and, impressed by her determination, offered to train her through the winter. The winter training sessions, coupled with 80-mile weekend rides on the Blue Ridge Parkway, transformed Nicole. In the spring, she emerged as a different person, ready to face new challenges in the cycling world.

Introduced to criterium racing by her mentor, Nicole found herself under the guidance of a cycling professional. This led to her joining a big-name professional women’s cycling team. She remembers it being the time of her life. Still employed full-time, she was able to train and ride without the burden of racing to support herself. It was during this phase that she crossed paths with Boyd Johnson, a fellow cyclist chasing his dream of becoming a professional racer.

Nicole & Boyd, a meet-cute, and mom’s advice, “You’ll figure it out.”

Boyd not only eventually became her husband but also a pivotal figure in her cycling journey. Despite the financial constraints of professional racing, Nicole’s mother offered sage advice: “You’ll figure it out.” Juggling a full-time job with 20 hours of training per week, Nicole exhibited a relentless drive that would later define her entrepreneurial endeavors.

Following a decade of racing, Nicole and Boyd decided to make Greenville their training ground. Nicole transitioned from the high-tech industry to work for the Chamber of Commerce where she focused on building a strong, local network. She subsequently joined Hincapie Sports, where she deepened her understanding of the cycling industry. In 2008, Boyd and Nicole married and, a year later, took the plunge into entrepreneurship with the establishment of Boyd Cycling

Nicole reminisces about a phone call from Boyd while she was traveling for work: “Hey, when you get home, I have some stuff I want to show you. I think I want to start this company. While you were gone, I created the website and I’ve been talking to these guys in Asia…” This may not have been verbatim the conversation but the gist is he was already all in. The rest is history! 

From home to international success

Nicole Johnson, Boyd CyclingStarting the company out of their home, Nicole played a crucial role in the company’s early days, focusing on sales, business development, and even delving into finance and HR. An early challenge was coming to grips with all she didn’t know. We have no doubt that Nicole had a smile on her face throughout her personal development – we can count on her for kind words, big smile, and a bright laugh at any event she attends. 

“Founders have an idea and they don’t realize there are so many other factors in running a business. A lot of things I didn’t know how to do and it was unnerving to figure things out. We wanted to make sure we were doing things right and following the rules. I’m very resourceful and found people I could talk to and found experts, like our [VMS] mentors.”

Another notable challenge occurred in 2012 when a manufacturer in Asia delivered subpar products three different times – Boyd prides themselves on their quality control process. Prior to this, the Johnsons were debt-free, having been incredibly savvy with their finances. The manufacturer ultimately ghosted Boyd and kept their money while also stealing their IP, forcing Boyd Cycling to go back to the drawing board. This adversity, while painful, instead of thwarting their progress, became a catalyst for growth. 

Challenges abound but lead to significant growth

Manufacturing in Taiwan and Asia dominated the industry. To mitigate risk and costs, the company shifted operations onshore during COVID-19. Instead of buying inventory, they invested in machines, gaining a 50% competitive advantage. Having foreseen the severity of the pandemic starting in Asia, they took a risk to build up inventory. This decision paid off during the strained supply chain, especially in shipping. Overcoming challenges, they grew 1.5 times during COVID-19, maintaining this growth. The outdoor industry also thrived as people rediscovered outdoor activities. 

Boyd Cycling’s success is not only a result of overcoming challenges but also of the support they received from mentors, notably through the Venture Mentoring Service (VMS) program. Nicole emphasizes the importance of seeking help and acknowledges the crucial role mentors play in their journey.

Nicole’s commitment to community extends beyond the cycling world. Involved with organizations like Moms for Motion, she actively participates in initiatives like the paved pump track project, aiming to provide a safe space for people of all ages to ride.

Nicole Johnson, Boyd Cycling

As Nicole reflects on her journey, she advocates for education about the local entrepreneurial ecosystem, emphasizing a deeper understanding of a company’s role within it. She actively contributes to organizations like NEXT, recognizing the pivotal role they played in their journey. Boyd Cycling was chosen as one of the 10 Most Exciting Startups featured at NEXT Venture Summit in 2023. She was also featured on the Women in Innovation Founders Forum panel alongside other female innovators. 

Nicole Johnson’s story is not just about co-founding a successful cycling company; it’s a narrative of overcoming challenges, seizing opportunities, and embodying the spirit of a true trailblazer. Her journey, from the radio ad sales offices to the cycling tracks and the helm of Boyd Cycling, is an inspiring testament to the transformative power of passion, perseverance, and the support of a dedicated community.

Tina Zwolinski of skillsgapp: tackling workforce & economic development with video games

Tina Zwolinski’s dedication to workforce development has its roots in her career beginnings at the Greenville Chamber of Commerce. During her time on the marketing team, she witnessed the transition to manufacturing in South Carolina and the establishment of BMW in the Upstate. Her work in economic development exposed the importance of cultivating a sustainable workforce to meet industry’s needs, and underscored the impact workforce has on attracting new companies and in building thriving communities.

Tackling Economic Development & Workplace Challenges

skillsgapp, Tina Zwolinski, skillionaire games, startups
skillsgapp was named one of the 10 Most Exciting Startups in 2023 at the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Night at the Drive

In 1997, Tina founded ZWO, a branding and marketing firm headquartered in downtown Greenville. Tina’s focus on relationship-building, forged during her Chamber tenure, became the cornerstone of her career. The firm tackled challenges in economic development and workforce across the US and within multiple industries. ZWO also focused on marketing to youth– both nonprofit and for-profit global brands. It was the combination of this work that exposed the gap, the skills gap, where youth and industry were not communicating effectively, jobs were going unfilled and youth were unaware of the opportunities after high school graduation for postsecondary pathways or jobs right around them, specifically in underserved communities.  

Around 2018, the inspiration to address this challenge took hold, and the concept for skillsgapp began evolving after working closely with Gen Z. Faced firsthand with the challenges her adoptive son encountered while navigating the educational and career landscape as an English as a second language student in high school, Tina recognized the need for a more effective approach. After leading ZWO for 23 years and expanding the firm to three locations, including a West Coast and Central American office, Tina transitioned from ZWO to launch skillsgapp in 2020 with cofounder Cynthia Jenkins (who also worked with ZWO), driven by a determination to create a better solution for individuals facing similar challenges.

The hurdles, particularly for those with English as a second language or from underserved communities, create barriers to progress, hindering access and pushing students into low-wage job cycles after high school graduation. Recognizing that 50% of high schoolers face such challenges, skillsgapp’s Skillionaire Games aims to break this cycle while supporting industry with a more vetted pool of early career talent to recruit from to meet their unfilled job needs. 

“The skills gap challenge is not a lack of talent but rather a lack of engaging career and pathway awareness earlier and barrier-free access into the career opportunities.” – Tina Z.

Tina recognized the need to communicate with youth (ages 13-22+) on their terms, using tools and language that resonate with them. Gen Z is on their phones 7+ hours a day, 97% of Gen Z has access to smartphones and gaming is their #1 form of entertainment. Skillionaire Games’ free-to-play virtual environments mirror real-world jobs in the in-demand industries of advanced manufacturing, cybersecurity, life science, healthcare, etc., providing an engaging space for youth to explore industries, understand job requirements, and make informed career decisions without barriers or bias.

Let’s Talk Gaming

skillsgapp is a two-sided model focused on growing players and in growing their paying partnerships with companies and colleges that can promote their brands and opportunities in-game and even recruit the players to fill their seats and jobs. They are innovating early talent recruitment. Ideally, players will have learned through “hands-on virtual experiences” what their new job entails becoming a more qualified individual leading to better retention for companies. They currently have their life science, cybersecurity, soft skills, and healthcare games live with advanced manufacturing deploying Spring of 2024. Skillsgapp faces hurdles common to startups, including speed to market, player acquisition, and shifting industry mindsets. 

They’re early to the game although they have already had some big wins with receiving five global awards including Facebook Gaming’s People Choice Award in 2022 and EdTech Digest’s Top 100 Companies in Workforce and Education in 2023. Other notable traction includes the successful deployment of games into four regional markets, 25,000 players, growing revenue and renewals from paying partners, a national deployment partnership with American Student Assistance in the Fall of 2023 and the games have just begun. You can find their games on the App Store or Google Play under Skillionaire Games or at skillionairegames.com.

Unable to attend the Accelerator Showcase in person, Tina found a way to virtually present

Throughout this journey, Tina Zwolinski has drawn guidance from programs like NEXT VMS and the Accelerator cohort. The networks formed within these programs have become invaluable resources, offering diverse perspectives and expertise that contribute to skillsgapp’s ongoing growth. In January of 2024, Tina was selected to participate in the national Youth Skills First Cohort with Jobs for the Future (JFF), a national nonprofit that drives transformation of the U.S. education and workforce systems to achieve equitable economic advancement for all. After an extensive interview process, six companies were selected to participate from over 500 applicants.

As skillsgapp continues to evolve and the Skillionaire’s movement begins to grow, Tina Zwolinski envisions exciting partnerships and case studies that showcase the platform’s transformative impact on lives of players and the company and college partners. With a dedicated team with lived experience, passion for the mission, and the support of a robust network, Tina Zwolinski’s skillsgapp stands poised to nurture careers from early vision to global impact.


Kanga Coolers, from Shark Tank to Mr. Beast with lots of hard work and a little luck

Kanga Cooler impresses the Sharks

Kanga Coolers came to fame when featured on Shark Tank season 10 (2019) and they’ve recently risen in notoriety after a featured ad on Mr. Beast’s YouTube channel. Their signature product is the Kase Mate which wraps around a cold case of your favorite beverage but they’ve diversified their products with different sizes and a bookbag cooler. With a team of over 40, this college dream has turned itself into a multi-million dollar company with lots of hard work, great mentorship, and a little bit of luck.

What’s the real story?

What you saw on Shark Tank, for the most part, is the “real story” behind Kanga Coolers. Logan LaMance had a wild idea for a class project, recruiting partners who would eventually become the founding members of Kanga Coolers. Among them, Ryan Frazier stayed on board, while Austin Maxwell and Teddy Giard, of backflip fame, hopped in later. (Get it? Hop…)

Their flagship product, the Kase Mate, was conceived during this project – a koozie-style cooler wrap for your favorite drinks. What started as a college experiment soon turned into a full-fledged business. It wasn’t all smooth sailing.

How did this concept of a cardboard wraparound cooler get off the ground? Logan got right to work developing strong relationships to find manufacturing partners and did a test run of the product here in Greenville, SC. They sourced their materials from a supplier in Alabama and produced the first coolers at Carolina Manufacturing in Greenville, the only bandanna manufacturer in the US and the official producer of Willie Nelson’s bandannas. And, that my friends, is how Kanga Coolers and Willie Nelson are connected – someone send Willy a cooler and merch!

Kanga put out 200 custom-sewn coolers at Clemson and they sold out quickly. They also won a Pitch Smackdown competition for students through the Spiro Institute (now Clemson Launchpad) winning $8,000. They thought they were rich! Each founder, to date, has only invested $833 of their own money so 8k helped but they noticed quickly that it wasn’t much when starting a product company. After some additional investment, Kanga Coolers decided to launch a 60-day Kickstarter campaign in 2018. On day 30 of the campaign, Logan went to a class talk at Clemson featuring a Shark Tank alum, Daisy Cakes. Logan spoke to the owner after class and mentioned his dream to be on Shark Tank. She told him “You’ll never feel like you’re ready. Just go for it.” The guys skipped a final exam to go (don’t tell Mom), auditioning the day their Kickstarter campaign closed. 

In 2018, Logan, Teddy, and Ryan filmed an episode that aired in April 2019, marking a big moment for their startup journey. Despite some hiccups in cooler production, they miraculously got everything ready just in time—a stroke of luck that seemed to be a theme in their story.

Logan remembers the hustle during the time after the show aired—shipping boxes from his parent’s garage, loading Uhaul trucks with help from neighbors, and making sure deliveries reached the post office on time. The journey had its ups and downs, but Kanga’s ability to roll with the punches and adapt shines through.

From Covid to Shopify to…Mr. Beast?

After Shark Tank, Kanga got a lot of attention, but it came and went quickly. They were into selling promotional items to companies like Anheuser Busch, but when Covid hit in 2020, that market dried up. Facing the need to adapt, they shifted their focus to e-commerce, diving into Facebook ads and digital marketing, a previously untapped market. Kanga had to figure out a whole new customer acquisition strategy. Logan remembers having to pivot, “How do we show our product to potential customers in a way that will resonate and create an impulse buy online? Who are our customers; why do they want to purchase? It was a lot of trial and error, YouTube, podcasts, and duplicating what stuck.”

kanga coolers, mr. beast youtube
Logan LaMance & Austin Maxwell

Part of this focus on e-commerce led Kanga to Shopify, an e-commerce platform for their website. Shopify and is one of Mr Beast’s sponsors. Who is Mr. Beast? Only the most viewed YouTube channel in the world with 216 million followers. Shopify decided to feature one of its clients through a social media contest. And get this, all you had to do was comment to enter. One single comment. Austin saw the post, was quick to comment with a short elevator pitch, and they were selected. Now, that is a lucky break and some incredible ROI. They got a shout-out during the “$10,000 Every Day You Survive in a Grocery Store” video on the Mr. Beast YouTube channel and had over 80 million views in just a few days. See Kanga’s reaction to the press. (Check out Clemson’s take on the news.)

This ad was the single biggest moment of exposure in the company’s history, about 10x the exposure of Shark Tank. But, this time they had experience and warning to make sure they were ready for an influx of orders. “It was the craziest week we’ve had,” reported LaMance. Being featured on not just Shark Tank but Mr. Beast will open the door for much bigger opportunities in the future for the Kanga team.

LaMance’s advice to future and early founders is something he takes seriously, “Seize the opportunity when it’s there. Put your name out there even when it seems impossible. Always take advantage, always apply, and approach like you have a good shot.” 

Logan recalls their early challenge was finding their product fit in the market; figuring out demand and pricing. Covid was clearly another challenge they were able to tackle with nimbleness, determination, and a willingness to pivot. These days the company is figuring out how to scale their infrastructure, consistently improving systems and processes to run at a “big business rate with small business resources.” One thing Kanga has been great at is not letting fear get in their way. They aren’t afraid to quickly scale to capture opportunity even if they don’t have it figured out. 

Logan and his cofounders believe you have to lead from the front. They show up early and stay late. As founders, they are the last line of defense and they understand the importance of that position, not just for team culture but because it’s a logical business choice. They have worked every job in the business and step in when needed, trying to strike a healthy balance between doing all things and delegating. “The biggest thing that helped me was having an unshakable faith that it would all work. All I had to do was find the path. Success was a foregone conclusion in my head and I work from that. Do whatever it takes to walk that path.” – Logan LaMance

Rockstar mentors through VMS

Logan relies on his VMS (Venture Mentor Services) “rockstar” team of mentors. Having mentors early on at Clemson proved to him the benefit of these relationships. Experienced mentors can give advice, and helped them bridge the gap from college to real life. “It has been one of the biggest drivers of growth to push and provide guidance and coaching. I don’t feel like I’m on an island. The tactical advice has been incredibly helpful – having a team that is trying to help has been huge.”

Kanga Coolers has 17,000 square feet of office & warehouse space in the Merovan Center off Woodruff Road in Greenville. You can stay in touch with all they’re doing through their website, social media, and even by text.

Rich Johnston, Performance Enhanced Delivery: “I’ve always found a solution.”

Visual Communications to Plant Nutrition: A Unique Journey

Rich Johnston, the founder of Performance Enhanced Delivery (PED), brings a unique blend of creativity, business acumen, curiosity, and a deep passion for agriculture to the table. Literally, the NEXT Accelerator Cohort table. 

Hailing from Pennsylvania, Rich initially pursued graphic design at Pittsburgh Tech starting his career in the world of marketing before the internet era, honing both traditional and modern strategies. His journey took an unexpected turn when he found himself working for a rink facility management company in Michigan doing branding and marketing. Fun fact: Rich got to drive the Zamboni. This diverse background in graphics, marketing, and facility management set the stage for Rich’s eventual foray into agriculture.

From Penn State to Mango Farms: Nurturing a Passion for Agriculture

Back in Pennsylvania, Rich established his own branding agency. One of his potential clients was Penn State, a land grant university with a strong focus on agricultural programs. The university counter-offered; offering Rich a job instead of an account. This led to a unique position in outreach marketing and communications at Penn State where Rich worked in a visual communications role supporting online education, continuing education and cooperative extension initiatives that offer children programs like 4H, sports camps, continuing education, etc. This is when Rich’s advertising and agriculture experience converged.

From Florida to South Carolina: Growth Scripts and Growth in Knowledge

Relocating to South Florida, Rich lived on a mango farm while running his own agency. He began collaborating with a micronutrient company, managing their brand. His mentor guided him through the intricacies of plant nutrition, and Rich became intimately educated in the challenges faced by the agriculture industry, such as citrus greening, a disease impacting citrus trees. Through working with large manufacturing products, Rich started to think about how homeowners should not have to buy massive amounts of plant nutrition (bulk-size) to care for their own plants. Rich, always a tinkerer and an inventor, started turning that problem over in his head. Rich, is not just an idea guy. He’s an inventor, very product-focused in his solutions. He likes to have something tangible at the end of the day. 

Introducing GrowScripts. With a focus on citrus care, he partnered with manufacturers to provide plant nutrition to homeowners, in personal size care kits, aiming to simplify plant care for individuals. He repackaged the products into smaller portions… And this paved the way for Rich’s exploration of his own formulas and products.

Performance Enhanced Delivery: Bridging the Gap in Plant Nutrition

Rich did not want to depend solely on manufacturers for his products. Also, Rich is the guy that nothing is ever good enough so he goes into his workshop to experiment on how to make things better. Performance Enhanced Delivery (PED) was born out of these needs, to improve the quality of his product and to diversify his product base. Eight years of persistent experimentation with coating technology resulted in a patent-pending product that enhances plant nutrition. The innovative bio-based coating allows for a delayed, slow-release of nutrients (specifically fertilizers), reducing the time spent in the field, labor costs, and environmental impact by reducing micro-plastics.

While Rich was working on his time-release coating, his family made the move to Greenville, SC. We love the story of how Rich and his wife divided their research. He took on the best place to build a business and his wife focused on the best places to raise a family. It came down to Greenville or Raleigh, and ultimately Rich could see the budding entrepreneurial community in the Upstate. You can say he wanted to add some fertilizer to our ecosystem. 😉 They made their decision and moved to Greer in just 2 weeks! We’re so glad they did. 

Rich’s “what if” attitude and dedication to understanding each plant’s unique needs have led to his breakthroughs in plant nutrition. PED’s focus on bridging the gap between conventional and regenerative/organic practices reflects Rich’s commitment to sustainable agriculture.

Next Steps and Mentorship: A Community Approach

As Rich navigates the evolving landscape of agriculture and product development, he acknowledges the importance of mentorship and community support. The NEXT Venture Mentoring Service (VMS) program has played a crucial role in connecting him with mentors and a supportive network.

Rich’s journey has been shaped by his curiosity, obsession with improvement, and the desire to create something new. As he envisions a future that combines PED with GrowScripts products, collaboration with fellow founders, and ongoing participation in the NEXT ecosystem, Rich remains committed to pushing the boundaries of agricultural innovation.

In the face of challenges and the occasional bout of imposter syndrome (don’t we all?!), Rich stands as a testament to the resilience and creativity required to make a mark in the agricultural landscape. His story exemplifies the power of community, mentorship, and a relentless pursuit of knowledge in driving innovation and success in the business world. No matter what industry we are in…


Scott Pancoast: From Venture Capital to CEO; A journey of perseverance and innovation

Embarking on a journey that spans venture capitalism to CEO roles to board memberships, Scott Pancoast’s career epitomizes resilience and adaptability in the ever-evolving business landscape. 

Venture Capitalist to CEO

Scott Pancoast, Zylo Therapeutics

Scott’s professional trajectory started after Harvard Business School with a decade at Chemed, a Fortune 500 company headquartered in Cincinnati. He played various roles and eventually sought new challenges. A pivotal encounter in 1994 with an entrepreneur who sold the first ear thermometer company ignited Scott’s interest in high-growth tech startups. This marked the beginning of his foray into venture capitalism: Through a family investment firm in San Diego, he began investing in RFID, software, and life science companies. He not only invested in these companies, but was an active board member, guiding them through Series A and B (and sometimes C, D, and E) rounds, and wrapping them up with a nice little bow for future investments and exits. 

In 2004, one of these companies asked Scott to be the CEO, so he pivoted, becoming the CEO for the then-private company…a company that had no money.  So, he recast the business plan and raised $8 million, and shortly thereafter, took it public. Over the following ten years, he raised an additional $50 million and forged worldwide partnerships with Pfizer, Merck-Serono, J&J, and Biogen, which brought in another $40 million. After a failed phase 2 study, however, he stepped down and moved to Greenville, SC where his son was attending Furman University….thinking that he had retired. 

Retirement was not meant to be. In 2017, through a series of fortuitous introductions, unlikely heroes, unsavory events, and some legal drama, Scott found himself with a licensing agreement with Einstein College and access to $800k in funding that he had raised. And, Zylö Therapeutics was born! If you’re ever interested in learning all the details, we have found that Scott is an open book, believing we can all learn from each other’s pitfalls and failures. Ultimately, what began as the “worst year of his life” turned into a true “lemons into lemonade” story. Over the next two years, Scott raised an additional $3M in an oversubscribed Series A round and followed that up in 2021-2022 with an additional $5.2M in an oversubscribed Series B round. 

Zylö Therapeutics

Zylö Therapeutics is revolutionizing topical drug delivery through patented silica particles called Z-pods®. Licensed from Einstein College of Medicine, this technology forms the basis of a topical delivery system addressing bioavailability challenges. Zylö can load “active” ingredients into Z-pods®, which then get incorporated into a cream, lotion, or gel and provide a slow release of the ingredient.

Navigating Challenges and Pivots

In an industry marked by challenges, Scott’s leadership at Zylö has been defined by resilience. Zylö recently received their largest order, and, to say it was a saga to get the goods delivered is an understatement. From machinery not functioning, to working weeks on end (nights and weekends included), to making the drive (yes, the drive!) from Greenville, SC to Minneapolis, MN in the middle of winter (cue freezing rain in the mountains!), Scott and his team have proven they are willing to work to get it done. 

As Zylö advances, Scott faces the daunting task of scaling up operations and simultaneously instituting quality control. As far as the future, Zylö is focusing on the non-pharmaceutical cosmetic industry, with products boasting impressive results for hair growth, anti-aging, and UVB-protection (we’re raising our hands for the anti-wrinkle products!). Many of these products will have “Powered by Z-pods®” on the packaging, a la “Intel® inside.”

Apothec—Spinning Out Pharma Assets

Scott plans to spin out Zylö’s pharmaceutical assets into a new venture named Apothec, short for Apothecary. This strategic move aims to independently fund and advance pharmaceutical programs, providing a unique focus on areas like lupus, severe burns, erectile dysfunction, and diabetic foot ulcers. The objective is to realize an even larger ROI for the Zylö investors. Scott, as Co-Founder of Apothec, plans to remain Executive Chairman until he can get the right CEO in place, at which point he will remain an active board member. 

Mentorship and Community Engagement

Scott actively engages in mentorship programs. His recent participation in NYU Stern School of Business’s Endless Frontier Labs where Zylö was one of 78 accepted out of 1400+ applicants reflects a commitment to continue to learn despite all his experience. Scott’s involvement with NEXT highlights his dedication to connecting, educating, and providing mentorship within the business ecosystem. Scott’s name is synonymous with SC Angel Tax Credits as a local expert and advocate for improving the system. 

Scott’s journey from venture capitalist to the helm of Zylö Therapeutics is a narrative of tenacity, adaptability, and visionary leadership. As he continues to pioneer innovations in drug delivery and venture into new territories, his story serves as inspiration for entrepreneurs navigating the intricate landscape of business and innovation. 

Putting the Rebel into Rebel Rabbit

Rebel Rabbit was born out of a need for alcohol alternatives in the space—a rebellion. Drinking alcohol is one vice where you get judged for not doing it – it can be hard to be the only one at a party or a brewery (because everything is at a brewery!) without a drink in your hand. And, people are pretty comfortable with asking why you’re not drinking. Coming at this from mental health and substance abuse backgrounds, the founders of Rebel Rabbit found themselves tired of answering all the questions and decided to do something about it! Their guiding principle is simple: “You do you.” The outcome of this rebellion is a cannabis-infused seltzer, swiftly gaining popularity nationwide, with the added perk of leaving consumers hangover-free.

Rebel Rabbit extracts the legal D9 THC compound from the cannabis plant and integrates it into an all-natural blend. Founder Billy Goldsmith crafted two strengths and three all-natural flavors to counterbalance the occasionally bitter taste of cannabis. All their seltzers are natural, low-calorie, and boast minimal sugar content.

Having recently acquired the Brewery 85 space in Greenville as part of their second company Upstate Beverage Consultants, LLC, Rebel Rabbit directly sells its products to consumers and also distributes widely. Achieving remarkable growth since its inception in 2021, the company is on track to earn its third million. Operating in a relatively new industry, Rebel Rabbit faces unique challenges but provides valuable insights to fellow founders in the adult beverage sector in Greenville. They actively contribute to a series of meetings for adult beverage company founders in Greenville through NEXT, sharing industry insights to benefit others on the entrepreneurial journey.

Upstate Beverage Consultants has a contractual agreement to do production for Rebel Rabbit as well as for other non-alcoholic beverage brands. This allows their team to control their production schedule and change directions quickly as rules and regulations shift around the hemp market. It also opens them up to having other non-intoxicating products in our portfolio.  They have plans to expand the brewery later in 2024 to up their production capacity.

Co-founders Pierce Wylie and Billy Goldsmith, both alumni of the NEXT Accelerator cohort 2, sported Rebel Rabbit gear throughout their participation, emphasizing their brand identity. Pierce presented their journey and entrepreneurial challenges at the NEXT Showcase, shedding light on the sometimes isolating path of a founder. “It’s tough being a founder and figuring all this out. So when you can share stories and hear stories of people who have been there before and they can shed light on what you’re doing through it’s great. Leadership helped connect dots and also connect to people and building relationships that will continue to show dividends.” If you attended, they were also giving out samples!

Where can you find Rebel Rabbit locally? Check out Garners, Greenville Beer Exchange, Drop In Store, Palmetto Hemp Provisions, and their website for more locations. Or, just buy it online!