How 36|86 inspired an unconventional founder

Chattanooga entrepreneur Marsha Roberts shares her experience as a 36|86 Fellow, from a new view of PR to speed dating and capital ideas.

Years ago I had a darkroom for developing black and white photos. It was a magical process watching the image emerge from seemingly nothing on the paper. It never ceased to amaze me how the starkness of black and white somehow brings out a clarity not apparent in color.

That’s what 36|86 was like for me. Over the course of two intense days, a new picture of our company emerged and I saw my startup, Aysha’s Friends, with unexpected clarity.

I ended up at 36|86 after Charlie Brock, LaunchTN’s former CEO, kindly forwarded me information about the conference fellowships LaunchTN was awarding to underrepresented groups, including women founders.

The organization’s website says: “36|86 is for … .” One of the options is “the unconventional founder.” That’s me!

Aysha’s Friends was inspired by the idea of a special-needs girl who envisioned a doll that could be altered to match any disability. We combined that with the invention of a multi-jointed 18” vinyl doll that could be modified for a limb-different child. Along the way, we’ve discovered there’s a great therapeutic need in hospitals and clinics for a doll that moves more like a child.

I knew we had a unique concept, because no one has ever done this before. But it wasn’t until 36|86 that I had the full picture.

Wednesday morning I began my day at Ole Red and found out how much the PR landscape has changed since my previous startup. Panelist Ben Kurland of BillFixers was a hoot and shared some practical PR solutions he had discovered as he built his company.

Then to Wildhorse Saloon for a quick investor meeting, which was encouraging. When I began to talk about how much our dolls are needed in hospitals, his eyes lit up and he pulled out a pad to jot down a few notes. Interesting!

A bit later, as I was grabbing a bite to eat, a young man with a huge smile and hair that looks like the swirl atop an ice cream cone joined me. No wonder his company is called Good Good Good, since Branden Harvey practically exploded with enthusiasm as I told him about Aysha’s Friends. I went to my next event with energy restored!

“You don’t have to relocate to raise big” was a fascinating discussion with Cam Doody, the founder of Bellhops, which is known to us who live in Chattanooga as the most successful startup coming out of our beautiful city. He described the huge advantages of staying in Chattanooga, along with a few of the challenges he’s had to overcome. Since we plan to stay in Chattanooga and scale Aysha’s Friends nationally and eventually internationally, this was valuable information for me.

At the Student Pitch Competition I was delighted to hear Chattanooga’s own Chantz Yanagida, founder of eLab Repairs. I had not met Chantz, but as I listened to his animated pitch I realized he might be able to help us solve a problem — a surprise bonus. On top of that, he won second place: $15,000. Way to go, Chantz!

I went to as many seminars about raising capital as I could, because that’s where we are right now. “Founders + funders + communities,” “Do’s and don’ts of raising capital,” and “An investor’s perspective: Founding teams, achieving scale” were all chock full of information.

At this point, Aysha’s Friends isn’t the type of company a VC firm would typically invest in, but before listening to investors at 36|86, I really didn’t understand why. It wasn’t until I went to the discussion “Capital that matters” that the picture was complete for me.

Now I know that what we will accomplish with our company undoubtedly belongs in the category of Impact Funding. We can deliver a Double Bottom Line. We can show a straightforward path to a 10x ROI an investor is looking for, but we’ll also provide a positive social return on investment. It’s embedded in the DNA of our company, in how we think. We breathe it.

Before heading home, I watched 10 founders pitch their companies at the LaunchTN Pitch Competition, a perfect way to wrap up my trip. All of the entrepreneurs were passionate, well-spoken and inspiring. Nashville’s edtech startup Possip took home both the Crowd Favorite and the Grand Prize for a total of $60K, with LaunchTN CEO Margaret Dolan presenting the honors. I love seeing hard-working founders being awarded money!

It was a beautiful drive home to Chattanooga, with bright, blue skies. I had a lot to think about. 36|86 was a great experience, full of information, energy, and promise. Aysha’s Friends is quite different than any other company there, and I like that. But we are very much a part of this dynamic Tennessee startup community. That picture has come very clearly into focus.

Thank you, LaunchTN.

36|86 brings together innovators, pioneers, investors & visionaries to shape the future of business.