EPIC Spotlight: Abby Davidson

Sometimes a new venture needs a jump start, especially in developing countries.

Abby Davidson saw those struggles as an undergraduate student through the study abroad programs with the Sam M. Walton College of Business. She went to both Belize and Mozambique, where students worked with community members, local government, and entrepreneurs to support local economic development.

Davidson has since graduated from Walton with a bachelor’s in international business and a master’s in economics. Now, from her office in Washington D.C., she studies how entrepreneurs from around the globe fare through programs designed to boost a venture, known as startup accelerators. As a Senior Research Analyst with The Aspen Institute, which is a nonpartisan forum for values-based leadership and the exchange of ideas, Davidson conducts her research as part of the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs (ANDE), a global community of organizations that support small and growing businesses with the mission of lifting countries out of poverty.

Unlike business incubators, which are designed to protect young ventures by providing co-working space and shared services, accelerators have a different mission. “An accelerator is a program that brings together high-potential entrepreneurs and helps them identify ways to scale their business quickly,” she says. These fast-paced programs – typically lasting three to six months – involve training and mentorship with a group of entrepreneurs who go through the program together, Davidson says. The goal is to help businesses prepare to scale and secure the investment capital they need.

She works on a project called the Global Accelerator Learning Initiative (GALI), which is a collaborative effort between ANDE and Emory University in Atlanta. In addition to Washington D.C., ANDE has offices in Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, Guatemala, Kenya, India, Nigeria, Thailand, and South Africa, which means Davidson travels the globe to facilitate workshops and attend conferences. Because there are many funds running through these accelerators, it’s her job to study how these programs operate in certain markets and whether they are effective. She says she and her team produce insights for the business accelerator field – including practitioner-oriented publications and online resources, such as benchmarking tools and guidance for accelerator program managers.

“So, if you’re an accelerator, you’ll probably watch for our newsletters to see what research we’ve released to make sure that you’re keeping up with the evidence about what’s working best,” she says.

And, if you’re a donor agency or corporation who’s interested in funding accelerators, the information regarding the effectiveness of these programs can be valuable, she says. In fact, GALI has collected data from more than 19,000 businesses globally and shares its data with researchers and accelerators to explore on their own. Davidson speaks to the increasingly important role that accelerators play in “entrepreneurial ecosystems” consisting of the individuals and organizations that provide crucial support to early-stage entrepreneurs as they grow their businesses. This information can help those behind accelerator programs make what Davidson calls “data-driven decisions” in how they run their programs, particularly when seeking insights specific to a particular region or country. Also, though GALI’s research isn’t necessarily targeted toward entrepreneurs, its website provides a directory of accelerator programs they may find beneficial, she says.

“We share trends that we see in the data and try to make those insights actionable for the communities we work with,” she says.

Davidson says accelerator programs took off around 2005 in the United States, and often focused on software technology companies, but they have since become popular internationally in cities such as Mexico City, Nairobi and Johannesburg. “We’ve seen a lack of venture capital available to entrepreneurs in developing countries in comparison to the United States,” she says, despite the crucial need for innovation and the creative solutions being developed.

She says she’s also finding that more and more accelerators are focusing on how their programs can best support women entrepreneurs, who are typically under-represented and who face greater challenges than their male counterparts in securing investment.

Before working at ANDE, Davidson and her husband, Charles Davidson, created ForgottenSong, a peace-building organization that empowers war-torn communities to become economically self-sustainable. They also founded Hello Cocoa, a bean-to-bar chocolate company that sourced cacao from around the world. Though both ForgottenSong and Hello Cocoa (now Markham & Fitz Chocolate) continue to strive, Davidson has left those ventures to focus on her work with ANDE and advises ForgottenSong, which her husband still directs. She also carries the University of Arkansas with her.

“I’m so grateful for the opportunities I was given by my professors and mentors. In a place like Washington DC, it’s nice to feel like you represent middle America and the capabilities of students that graduate from large schools like the University of Arkansas”, she says. “I really enjoy that.”