Heartland Forward and Builders + Backers Award Over $1M to Aspiring Entrepreneurs


In 2022, hundreds of entrepreneurs across 10 states received $5,000 grants with opportunity for additional funding

Bentonville, Ark. – Today,  Heartland Forward and Builders + Backers announced they have given over $1 million in Pebble Fund grants to aspiring entrepreneurs throughout 2022 as part of the Idea Accelerator program. Heartland Forward partnered with Builders + Backers to bring the Idea Accelerator and Pebble Fund to the heartland in the fall of 2021, and over 300 participants, called builders, in 16 communities across 10 states have since participated. In total, over 200 $5,000 pebble grants were awarded in 2022 to idea-stage founders in the heartland.  

The Idea Accelerator is centered on the premise that there are promising ideas everywhere — from solutions that spur local development or address the challenges Americans face everyday to the novel innovations that can become game-changing, high-growth companies of tomorrow. Through a strategic partnership, Heartland Forward is enabling the program to be run throughout the heartland, defined as the 20 states in the middle of the country, while historically, 75% of venture capital has gone to just three states, all on the coasts. 

Of the Idea Accelerator participants and Pebble Fund recipients, 58% are individuals of color and 51% are female or gender non-conforming persons. This is particularly notable, as women-founded companies received less than two percent of capital invested in VC-backed startups in the US, and Black-owned startups received just over one percent. 

“The Idea Accelerator opens the opportunity for entrepreneurship to anyone with a good idea, but it thrives with enthusiastic people who are complete newcomers,” said Donna Harris, CEO of Builders + Backers. “It’s designed around taking action and eliminates the barriers — from fear to finances — that keep most of us from getting our ideas out into the world. Overwhelmingly Builders report that they would not have taken action on their ideas without this program and the Pebble Funds. Those lost ideas would also be lost opportunities for significant economic impact and growth.” 

The cohort-based program combines a 45-day virtual Builder Bootcamp to introduce participants to the latest, most effective entrepreneurial approaches to building a venture, followed by 45 days of actively executing their ideas by running experiments. The Builders use the Pebble Funds they receive to test their ideas, build products, and launch new ventures. Almost 100 new ventures have launched as a result of participating in the program. For example, Tiya LaCroix launched Zelma Health, which uses blockchain technology to help hospitals better manage their medical supply chains. Brent Robinson launched Greenway Bike Company in the rapidly growing electric bike sector. And Jenae Goodin built and launched BaB, a browser extension that acts as a digital shopping bag across multiple e-commerce sites. 

The program is effective in that it matches this education and networking opportunity with real capital that is used to run experimentation, giving entrepreneurs the tools, experience, resources, and real-world insights they need to succeed. Building a venture is more accessible today than ever given the digital tools available. By not requiring pitch decks, business plans or technical expertise to participate, the program doubles down on the accessibility of this moment.

There is no cost to participate for the Builders, thanks to the generous support of on-the-ground partners, including the George Kaiser Family Foundation, Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, Inasmuch Foundation, Durant Industrial Authority, Iowa City Area Development Group, MOKAN Partnership, Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce, Arvest Bank-Joplin, Office of Mayor Emily Larson, Northland Foundation, Duluth Chamber of Commerce, Grand Farm, Walton Family Foundation, Go Forward Pine Bluff, Elevate Rapid City, Niswonger Foundation, Eastern Shawnee Tribe, Oxford-Lafayette Chamber Foundation, The City of Oxford, Lafayette County, the University of Mississippi, Health Science Center and John Peter Smith Hospital. 

“Aspiring entrepreneurs across the heartland have ideas to solve the problems not only facing their communities, but to address some of the biggest issues of the 21st century. They just need the resources and support to make those ideas a reality,” said Katie Milligan, Program Manager, Innovation and Entrepreneurship for Heartland Forward. “That’s why Heartland Forward is proud of our work with Builders + Backers and our great community partners to provide over $1 million to Builders in 2022. This real capital enables Builders to put their ideas to the test and helps them set a path forward, and we look forward to watching the continued success of this exciting program.” 

The Idea Accelerator also opens opportunities for Builders to access additional funding. 10 Builders in Tulsa will receive an additional $10,000 in funding as part of the Stepping Stones Program, a pilot designed to help alumni Builders get their newly launched ventures on a pathway to growth and profitability. Builders whose ventures go on to demonstrate scale potential also have the opportunity to receive pre-seed, seed and Series A funding from the Builders + Backers Cornerstone Fund.

Sinch launching, the Idea Accelerator has run cohorts in Northwest Arkansas, AR; Pine Bluff, AR; Helena- West Helena, AR; Iowa City, IA; Duluth, MN; Oxford, MS; Clarksdale, MS; Joplin, MO; Fargo, ND; Oklahoma City, OK; Durant, OK; Tulsa, OK; Rapid City, SD; Northeast TN; Fort Worth, TX, and the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma.


About Heartland Forward:

Heartland Forward is a nonpartisan, 501c3 organization whose mission is to improve economic performance in the center of the United States by advocating for fact-based solutions to foster job creation, knowledge-based and inclusive growth and improved health outcomes. Heartland Forward conducts independent, data-driven research and programs to facilitate action-oriented discussion and impactful policy recommendations. To learn more, visit https://heartlandforward.org/.

About Builders + Backers:

Builders + Backers is a distributed venture studio that invests in exceptional entrepreneurs who are building global-scale ventures to power an entirely different future – one where technology creates value for many instead of capturing it for a few. Through proprietary programming, Builders + Backers also inspires and equips people to best seize the opportunities of our digital era – from experimentation and solving problems in their local communities to starting new ventures that could scale. By backing the most creative builders across the country, we can shape the digital future to be one in which more people participate and thrive.