Office Hours: I'm a global programs manager at Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator. We have invested in 230+ startups. I'm Iynna Halilou.Featured

Hi everyone! I am Iynna Halilou, Global Programs Manager at Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator (ERA), New York’s leading technology accelerator and seed VC. We have invested in 230+ start-ups since launching in 2011. In my capacity, I lead our global portfolio where I work with startups and scaleups across all continents to enter and successfully scale in the US market. Prior to ERA, I was the Head of Programs for Muhammad Yunus’ social impact accelerator, the cofounder and COO at Enza Academy, a tech startup providing STEM education to Black and Latinx high school students. I started my career at the United Nations where I worked for the Under Secretary General for Global Communications. I have a BA from Durham University (UK), a Master in International Development from NYU. I am originally from Cameroon and Madagascar (a proud African product), and also lived in Paris, London, Dakar and Moscow. Ask me anything about building early stage startups, fundraising, investing, breaking into VC, tech in Africa and more!
Thanks so much for joining us @iynna!Elphas – please ask @iynna your questions before Friday, September 18th. @iynna may not have time to answer every questions, so emoji upvote your favorites 🔥👍🏾➕
Hi Iynna!! You have amazing experience! What should people focus on when building a startup? What helps ensure success? Thanks!
Hi @CassieWat - thank you so much for your kind note!Great question. First of all, before thinking about building a startup, there needs to be an actual problem to be solved, and think about how big that problem is (how many other people are facing that same issue etc.), then it is important to think about your experience with the problem and maybe why is that you are the best to solve it. Then after that, just do it -so many times I see people "thinking about" starting companies but they spend too much time thinking and not enough DOING. As far as success - it really depends, some would say closing a round is success, others might say it's keeping the business afloat. Wearing my VC hat, I'll say it's important to have a strong team -coming back to my above points - a strong team is made up of people with industry expertise (to some extent), but also coachability - as a VC I see my involvment with a startup as a partnership, I want to make sure I add value and that they will at least consider my feedback and advice. It is important that they are willing to at least listen!
Thank you so much for having me @ElphaStaff!
@iynna ! Awesome, thanks so much for doing an AMA!What are the common qualities you have seen in successful startups and scaleups at ERA?
HI @silviaem thank you for your question! For us at ERA we really really really care about the people - our organisation was founded on this idea of "community" so we want to make sure that we invest in people not just mere ideas. Now don't get me wrong of course the idea and the market etc count BUT we do believe that ideas and product can change, people don't :) In my particular role, I see founders from abroad so obviously there is a bit of a cultural difference, that said, regardless of where they are from - be it Korea or Italy, they have to be coachable meaning they need to be able to take the feedback, listen to our advice on their go to market strategy or anything (if we tell them it sucks and we give our reasoning for it, then it means it probably does) They also need to have some traction in their existing market because that signals me that 1) someone likes what they do because they are paying them REAL money aka product-market fit 2) they have built out a repeatable model and are ready to take it further in a new market where they can focus their attention ie. the US
Thanks @iynna this makes so much sense. Esp the cultural perspective you mentioned is something that I can relate to - I think you hit the nail on the head articulating this ability to respond productively to constructive feedback. Thanks again for taking time for this AMA!
Hey @iynna for joining us. Please pardon me if this is the wrong question but I'm doing reserach on this topic.My question is regarding Partnering with the accelerator program and VC firm to sell your SAAS to their Portfolio companies? What are the criteria for this
Hi @shreya - thank you for your question. So if rephrase it and if I understood it correctly you are wondering if you could sell your solution to startups - and to reach a larger network you want to work with accelerator/VC funds (that naturally have a large network of startups) Sure - we work with different organisations that have some good offering for startups (think of AWS, Carta, Salesforce, Justworks etc) depending on the needs of the startups and one thing that I do is to create partnerships with those organisations.I can't speak for everyone however I have seen the following trends1- Accelerators decide to partner directly with an organisation and become a client and bear the costs ($)2 - Accelerators decide to partner and become a bridge between the org and its startups, however the org has to be willing to give some form of a discount for the portfolio companies to make it an interesting offering - this way startups bear the cost but at a reduced fee.As a startup founder, you also have to think about what makes the most sense for your business!
Iyanna, thank you for rephrasing and sharing the detail answer. Point 2 is something, I'm interested in. We're an early-stage startup and ready to ship. My startup is helping the Software team to build APIs faster than ever before so that team can focus on building software and we handle the API development process. We do have a unique benefit, especially for a startup, and being a startup my aim is to empower other startup teams.Are there any criteria or something I can apply to your accelerator? If possible please share your email, I can send you a brief. I'm sure, most of the companies are facing the API development and collaboration problem.
Hi @iynna , So great to have you here to share your experiences. I would love to hear your thoughts on the role of mobile in Africa and especially trends you are seeing in the currency and payments space that bridge rural and city. I too am a proud African originally from Somalia and Ethiopia, but after 30 years, I have to admit, I am mostly a proud product of Minnesota :-)
Hi @Khullani - wonderful to meet you and you are still a product of the motherland ;)Mobile in Africa is not only needed, it is ESSENTIAL! Mobile phones are getting cheaper to acquire, in 2025 84% of the pop ie. 1BN people will have access to a sim connection which equates an increase of $150BN in the Sub Saharan economy! These numbers just show how huge the opportunity is!I think the payment space has been popping since the early 2000s (MPesa is a case in point) but now we are seeing a new wave of mobile tech innovation for service-driven industries so not necessarily payment (or even fintech as a whole)-driven - and to your point, connecting the rural to the urban e.g in health tech how can we ensure that folk get the right kind of medication, not counterfeit using QR code - they have started this in Rwanda but I am excited to see this being democratised!
@iynna Thank you for such a detailed answer! You've given some key insights I can use to better understand mobile in Africa. All the best!
Thank you for joining us. I am an undergraduate from non-finance/business major who want to break into VCs. Do you have any advice for people like me in terms of skills and knowledge necessary to work in VCs? Additionally, how can we boost up our CVs to get VCs' attention? Thank you.
Hi @TranNgo! I come from a completely non finance/quant background and yet :) so I always say if I have made it to VC, anyone can! I actually answered a similar question a few weeks ago and I will share a few of my thoughts hereFirst off, VC is very relationship-driven so first thing first build the network (LinkedIn, Elpha and all the other groups out there) Second thing and this is applicable to anyone: you want to know what the other side of the table is looking for! So in this case you want to know what VCs care about - which is ROI - find the best startups to invest in and bring in money back! As far as your skills: it is quite simple actually - knowing what VCs are looking you can apply the same to you - try to see a large amount of deals, show your hunger to succeed. It is also helpful if you have a good understanding of current trends and show passion and interest - so many people want to get into VC but what makes you different than the next person?
Thank you very much!
Hi @iynna Your career trajectory is remarkable and inspiring. I am the Founder and CEO of Zora, an ethical chocolate company supporting farmers in Ghana. I am seeking support as I prepare to go to market early next year and I was wondering if there are any accelerators that you could recommend that are open to F&B CPG products, social impact, Africa and female founders. Thanks so much for your advice and guidance.
Hi @fzhakam- first off I have to check Zora (as a true chocolate and Africa lover!) As far as accelerator programs - I am not too familiar with CPG independent focused accelerator, but you may want to check large CPG firms that have corporate incubation program e.g Unilever As far as African/women founders there are some orgs put there and it will really depend on what you want - funding vs connection vs mentorship vs all of the above. For the last point I feel compelled to plug in my own fund / accelerator which may be a fit!
What an interesting and impressive career path! I'm curious, what inspired you to move from the UN to venture? And what do you think are the biggest lessons or learnings from your UN career that you apply now in the vc space - or just in life?
Hi @meganrichards, thanks for your question! At the UN, I realised the place was not a fit for me, at the same time I was conducting a project on the role for technology in the war in the DR Congo - so I was leveraging crowdsourcing platforms and geomapping to predict conflicts at the Eastern border of the DR Congo. My research was actually used by NGOs on the ground to protect women and children and so I realised how much impact and good I could have with tech. I left the UN and decided to consider tech opportunities, from there I moved back to Cameroon for a little and started an edtech here in the US, from which I struggled to raise money and realised it was not just me, and that's how I came across VC as an industry. I told myself I need to get into VC because I will make real change there. The rest is history :)
@iynna you are amazing!!!!! Thank you for all you do.
Thank you so much @alyssapetersel for your kind words!
Hi Lynna - Thanks for sharing your experience. Truly inspiring! I'd love to learn more about your current role as the global programs manager at ERA. What does your day-to-day work look like? What kind of help or guidance do you provide for the portfolio startups or how do you work with them? Ex: fundraising, hiring, operations, growth etc. Also, I'm curious about ERA's venture fund. Is it separate from its accelerator? How is it run differently from those investments in a regular VC firm? Thank you!
Hi @SarahLiu - my days are SO SO different :) I work a lot with companies for operational/one-on-one to review their decks, sales/materials collaterals, sometimes I do read their emails to make sure it is business-friendly :), I interview potential candidates for jobs (especially BD or sales roles) including anything else they need help with - it's super hands-on! I also spend a lot of time on calls with founders looking for money or to enter the US market. I also spend time with other partners interested in offering perks to our companies.We run our accelerator fund and a separate fund for follow-on investments.
Hello Iynna - thank you for you time!What advice would you give solo-founders from outside US, who are interested in joining an accelerator in US? What increases / decreases our chances?
@MonikaStarzyk I came across this thread because of a notification and realised I hadn't gotten to your question! How did it end up for you? Happy to share thoughts if you still need hehe!
Wow, thank you for coming back haha :)Your thoughts on this would be actually even more timely for me now than 1.5y ago x)The pandemic killed my first early-stage but the changes I had to make turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I still plan to apply an accelerator but no earlier than Autumn 2022. Any advice from you will be very important to me and might help me plan the following months better.Thank you ver much for your time!