Special Alert
Isa Watson

Isa Watson

5 Questions with Isa Watson

Durham's history and future are based, in part, on the entrepreneurial spirit of its diverse community. This Black History Month, we celebrate the legacy of Durham's Black Wall Street and tip our hat to the innovators who are making Durham one the best places in America to start a business.

We teamed up with American Underground to bring you a series of profiles of African-American entrepreneurs in Durham who are changing the business landscape. Meet Isa Watson, a scientist, businesswoman, and now, entrepreneur.

1. What is Envested?

Envested is a technology platform that connects local community members with local charities and what they need. It's a meaningful way to engage people with their local community. A big focus for the platform is also on transparency -- knowing where your money is going is important and the fundraising asks come directly from the nonprofit.

One of the big differences in what we're doing is that we're using an analytics and data-oriented approach to facilitating philanthropy. We've teed up a partnership with MIT to build the algorithms embedded in the platform to promote certain fundraising challenges that will best resonate with a particular user. With that, our technology is patent pending.

2. You have a background in finance and biopharma, having worked at both Pfizer and JPMorgan Chase. What's the inspiration behind Envested?

I was always a math and data geek, my dad was an engineer, and I loved solving problems and dealing with complexities. I was a chemist at Pfizer, then I went to business school at MIT where I studied economics and finance, and transitioned to Wall Street, where I mostly did strategy and business development, but in very data-heavy ways.

The reason I was inspired to create Envested was for a combination of professional and personal reasons. On the professional side I was really interested in the fact that a lot of companies struggle with millennial engagement. I thought I had really interesting ideas about solving that problem.

On the personal side, my parents have been very influential in my life. They always taught me to do the right thing, to work hard, and to give back. My parents did that by focusing on education and sponsoring a lot of education initiatives in the community, including bus trips so kids could visit colleges every year. Three years ago, that bus ran off the road and ejected both my parents and killed my dad. It was a lot to digest, but at the end of the day it gave me the opportunity to reflect on the type of impact I really want to have.

When I think about the way my parents raised me, it was the right time to transition. JPMorgan was a great experience; I built a lot of skills there. Being able to take those skills and translate them into a meaningful impact on local communities was very important to me.

3. Why did you decide to start Envested in Durham?

I was living in New York City until September 11, 2015. I said, I'm going to cut my costs and go home. I'm a native of Chapel Hill, so that's where my mom is. I'm going to live in the Triangle for two months, and then I'm moving to Silicon Valley, because that's where you need to be to do tech well.

But I got here, and I was so overwhelmed by the support I received and the level of talent - it's probably one of the world's best kept secrets. You have a constant talent pipeline with the universities, especially on the engineering and business sides, which are two very important functions in the company.

I'm now an Expert in Residence at Duke; I have strong partnerships with UNC and senior level banking and government officials in the state, so it made sense staying here. I happened to find American Underground by chance; I googled co-working spaces in central North Carolina so I could find a place to sit. The community turned out to be incredibly supportive, collaborative, and non-pretentious.

4. What's the best advice you've received as an entrepreneur?

One of the best pieces of advice I heard in other contexts, but it really materialized now because of the role I'm playing: make sure you identify your gaps quickly and surround yourself with the people who can give you the right insights.

From engineering, marketing, risk, operations -- I'm not an expert in everything, but I pull the things together and help direct the vision. It was an interesting experience coming here and having access to experts in all of those different functions. I now have the ability to cull my gaps really quickly. The resource I need to fill that gap is only a phone call away. That cannot be said for every region.

5. Tell me about your recent award.

We just won the Innovate Raleigh Makers + Doers contest, which identified and highlighted the top five startups out of central Carolina and the startups with the best stories. With that comes regional recognition, but we'll also be part of a documentary film series that will be promoted nationally.

The entrepreneurs featured in this series are members of American Underground, a Google for Entrepreneurs Tech Hub and startup community based in Durham.

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