This article was written for our sponsor, Gig East

When you’re running a cohort based largely on in-person collaboration then a global pandemic strikes, things end up looking a little different than anticipated.

At Wilson’s Gig East, a coworking space in the heart of historic Downtown Wilson, the RIoT Accelerator Program — an economic development nonprofit that offers a 12-week program for startups — faced that very scenario. Now hosting its third cohort, RAP started in February 2020, just before the pandemic hit.

“We pivoted immediately to running the program in a fully virtual capacity, but what surprised me at the time was how easily the program and the value that entrepreneurs get out of it translated nicely to a virtual environment,” said Rachel Newberry, the RIoT program director. “It enabled us to continue helping entrepreneurs with their most critical challenges at an extremely pivotal time. We ran all of the workshops and all of our mentoring sessions online, and it added an interesting level of accessibility to the program that helped a lot more entrepreneurs learn about the City of Wilson and the innovation here.”

That extra level of accessibility meant that even though the program was based in North Carolina, Newberry and her team ended up hosting entrepreneurs from across the country — and even internationally, with participants from South Africa, France and England.

Aside from geographic flexibility, the virtual environment made it easier for people with other responsibilities to join, including parents and those with a full-time job outside of the program.

“Virtual programming has this effect of leveling the playing field and creating accessibility for a lot of different folks. It also enables larger teams to access the education that we’re providing to the RAP. We had a team that was dispersed literally across the world and because the program was virtual, they could all participate together,” said Newberry. “On top of that, we worked with a lot of new parents, who were growing their families during COVID. Because our program was virtual, they were able to just hop online and leverage the resources without leaving home. I think a lot of new parents would not have been in a position to join if that were not the case.”

As the world has opened back up, the third RAP cohort has been able to meet in person at the Exchange — but the program has taken lessons learned during COVID and carried them through for future cohorts. By combining the flexibility of virtual sessions with the unique collaboration that in-person communication brings, the program is bringing the best of both worlds.

For Newberry, the hybrid environment reflects some of the nuances of the new working world.

“Our core philosophy at RIoT is that businesses really thrive off of relationships, and relationships are ultimately built and become their strongest when you have that face-to-face time. For an entrepreneur, building a business is extremely time-consuming, and it’s convenient to be able to jump online and leverage a mentor or a workshop. But at the same time, they really get so much from their network — and you build a network by coming together and getting to know people face-to-face,” said Newberry. “Our challenge moving forward is just like everyone else’s: navigating the gray area of what business looks like as we’re moving out of COVID. I don’t think we can expect things to just snap back to the way that it was. Programs moving forward might look more like a mix of in-person and virtual programming, but we’re still holding very tightly to the value of getting people together and building real community.”

Part of the motivation to bring back the element of in-person interaction also comes from the potential that the space at Gig East has to offer. There are conference rooms and suites for private meetings, individual workspaces and quiet corners for spreading out, and even an in-house coffee shop for fueling up.

For entrepreneurs, simply being in the space offers access to unique resources and networking opportunities.

“Entrepreneurs are responsive to challenges. Having places like the Exchange or programs like RIoT provide resources for them, and a place to come and access all of that is part of having a vibrant economy,” said Newberry. “I’m excited for more entrepreneurs to get plugged into the Exchange and, I think spaces like this and resources like this are ultimately how new business opportunities are going to be realized moving on from COVID. I’m optimistic about the ability to thrive and Wilson.”

This article was written for our sponsor, Gig East.