When Liz O’Day was a little girl, she made a deal with God that if her big brother were spared from the illness that put him at death’s door in a Boston hospital, she’d devote her life to science. Thirty years later, O’Day is making good on that promise — with an unanticipated twist.
While teaching and practicing science, she discovered a passion for founding companies, starting with a science-fashion business she ran from her kitchen counter. Then as she completed her Ph.D. at Harvard, O’Day felt a calling to take her innovations in the lab directly to patients and founded Olaris, a firm that uses artificial intelligence to improve the diagnosis and treatment of diseases. Resources including Microsoft for Startups Founders Hub connected her with mentors and technology that helped her expand the company and grow as a leader.
“I definitely had this entrepreneurialism in me, but these support systems helped draw it out even further,” O’Day says. “And Microsoft’s backing provided external validation that as a female scientist and CEO has been powerful.”
About 70% of startups fail within the first two years due to a lack of resources, support and knowledge in how to properly scale up. Microsoft for Startups Founders Hub works to improve that statistic. Requiring just a business idea and an active LinkedIn profile to apply, the program is geared to meet entrepreneurs at all stages — even if they haven’t gotten funding yet — and provides access to a multitude of technical resources including Microsoft tools and training, along with curated connections to other entrepreneurial veterans and industry experts.
Olaris, based in the burgeoning life-sciences hub west of Boston, shortened its AI machine learning times to minutes instead of days with help from Microsoft mentors, says Chief Commercial and Operations Officer Laura Housman. Access to experts freed the startup’s team from technical challenges and helped them speed development of a non-invasive kidney transplant diagnostic test, Housman says. And Azure credits freed them from the constraints of their laptops, she says, providing a “tipping point” that helped the group build a metabolomics platform used by scientists to study the role of metabolites in the early detection of cancer.
O’Day says the program also was a boon to her personal growth as a CEO by connecting her with other accomplished women in the startup world facing similar challenges.
“Founders Hub is the notion of democratizing innovation,” says Lahini Arunachalam, who leads the product team behind the Microsoft for Startups platform. “If you have an idea, we want to work with you, and now we have a streamlined process for businesses to work with us.”
Harley Blakeman’s entrepreneurial journey toward launching his company was far from streamlined.
After his drug-addicted mother disappeared and his father died, the teen-aged Blakeman dropped out of a Florida high school and started selling illicit drugs to support himself. He got caught a month after his 18th birthday and was sentenced to jail for 14 months. It was like hitting a reset button for his life.
He was one of the youngest in an adult prison, and older inmates encouraged him to focus on education and build a life that wouldn’t lead back to incarceration. Blakeman soaked up the mentorship, hung out in the prison library and earned his GED diploma. Once he was released, he went to live with his aunt in Ohio and got a business degree from an accredited university.
But when he tried to enter the workforce, his top grades and best efforts couldn’t get him past the barrier of a failed background check. After almost a hundred interviews and just as many rejections, Blakeman tried something new: He proactively told a company’s hiring team about his past. One of the senior managers was impressed with his candor and decided to take a chance on him.
Before long, he was in a role that he excelled in and was proud of, with more responsibility and a higher salary than he’d ever thought possible when he was sleeping on friends’ couches as an aimless teen.
But he couldn’t stop thinking about how hard it is for ex-convicts to survive once they’re released. For most, a failed background check is enough to end the hiring process. The struggle takes a toll on their mental health, making them more likely to give up — and often pointing them back toward criminal activity and reincarceration.
Drawing from his lived experience, along with hours of research and hundreds of interviews with hiring managers, Blakeman created Honest Jobs, a national fair-chance employment network that connects ex-convicts trying to enter the workforce with companies trying to fill jobs that don’t conflict with the applicants’ criminal histories.
“We want to normalize hiring people with criminal records, chipping away at the stigma to where we’re a country of rehabilitation,” Blakeman says. “After you’ve been punished, you shouldn’t be punished for the rest of your life.”
But Blakeman had never imagined his title would go from convict to CEO.
A social media post connected him to Mark Doyle, who quickly became Honest Jobs’ chief technology officer. Doyle learned about Microsoft for Startups Founders Hub and before long was taking advantage of the Azure cloud credits, technical expertise and more to help him accelerate the Denver-based company’s development and growth. The startup now has a team of 17 employees — 13 of whom are felons — and a solid system that has shortened the job search for most of its ex-convict clients to 24 days, from the nationwide average of eight months, Blakeman says.
“Access to technical expertise has been a lifesaver for us,” Doyle says. Even brief conversations with industry experts he reached through the platform “helped us build a path forward and solve some peculiar issues,” he says.
New insight into telemetry and monitoring helped his team fix the code so the system no longer slows to a crawl when the marketing chief sends out an email letting potential clients know about new jobs in their area, for example. And a technical session with Microsoft’s Azure Cognitive Services team gave Doyle’s group “just enough guidance to point us in the right direction, and then we were off and running” with a proprietary algorithm to guide job seekers to roles they’re more likely to be hired for.
Launched in March 2022, Microsoft for Startups Founders Hub gives entrepreneurs the chance to unlock more Azure credits as they’re used — up to $150,000 worth — and access to free tech benefits such as Microsoft 365 and GitHub, along with offers from external partners, to help as their ideas progress from prototype to reality. In addition, four new LinkedIn benefits have been added to help founders with recruitment, sales leads and advertising.
The program is meant to level out the entrepreneurial playing field so the startup ecosystem reflects “the way the world looks,” says Microsoft for Startups’ Arunachalam.
“We need to help people that didn’t go to Berkeley or don’t have an existing network of people they can turn to,” says Arunachalam, who joined Microsoft in 2018 after a successful career as a product leader at several startups. “You need to help the self-taught, self-funded, those that are just learning how to code and want to build a startup that they find incredibly interesting to solve a problem that they’ve experienced in their life.
“Having diverse founders means that you solve diverse problems.”
It’s a mission that resonates with startup founder Janvier Wete.
Born in France to parents that migrated from the Republic of Congo, Wete spent most of his adolescence in London. His cousin in Paris thought he lived a luxurious lifestyle, like the characters in the popular British reality TV show “Made in Chelsea,” filmed in a tony section of London. But Wete’s experience in the working-class, diverse neighborhood of Brixton was far different.
That dichotomy between perception and reality inspired Wete to film a “Made in Brixton” spoof show trailer — and it went viral.
“I couldn’t connect to these characters, living this posh life,” Wete says. “I felt it my duty to create something that reflected the real world. That’s what inspired me.”
The trailer gave him firsthand experience of the limitations of the short-film world. Once film festivals were over, Wete found, there was no good place for a short film to live or be discovered. Large video platforms are deluged with uploads, so content gets lost. And the industry didn’t have a good way for short-film directors to make a living off their work, either.
Armed with a creative background but no business or technical acumen, Wete used social media to find web developers and business partners and founded a free platform called Minute Shorts, designed to highlight short films and compensate their creators through ad revenue and premium subscriptions. The Microsoft for Startups Founders Hub program helped him navigate this newfound world, providing the technical tools he needed to create an app and find connections to mentors and investors.
Launched in London in 2019, just a few months before pandemic lockdowns popularized at-home entertainment, Minute Shorts ballooned from about a thousand viewers a month to a million. The service receives about 400 film submissions a month and hosts more than 3,000 short films, chosen by Wete and his team with the goal of building a global platform to discover and promote diverse talent.
“On the business side, we needed a connection with investors and to be a part of a hub of like-minded people and mentors to give us feedback on our strategy,” Wete says.
He says he also went to “loads” of networking events hosted by Microsoft that helped his startup get the funding and development it needed.
O’Day, Blakeman and Wete are among more than 17,000 entrepreneurs — 75% of whom joined with just an idea — helped by Microsoft for Startups Founders Hub in its first six months.
“The faster we grow, the more services we offer, and that means the more people that we can help,” says Honest Jobs’ Doyle.
Building technical solutions to solve real problems is the most rewarding part of his job, he says, and having access to resources and expertise has greatly accelerated his ability to do that for both the company and its clients.
“It’s a fun challenge,” he says. “The fact that we’re able to do this every day just makes my day.”
Haniyah Philogene wrote this story during her fellowship with the National Association of Black Journalists and Microsoft, a program aimed at developing emerging storytellers.
Lead photo: Liz O’Day, Ph.D., founder and CEO of Olaris, with Chandra Honrao, Ph.D., a metabolite scientist, at the Olaris headquarters in the burgeoning life-sciences hub west of Boston (Photo by Jodi Hilton)