Ask an Innovator: How to Balance Your Startup Founder Role with Academic Responsibilities

Drop in on conversations with students and entrepreneurial mentors who have connected through Ask an Innovator, a tool that up-and-coming entrepreneurs at UNC-Chapel Hill use to get online advice from a network of Carolina-affiliated innovators.

November 30, 2020
By Shellie Edge

As a growing entrepreneur, wouldn’t it be great to have access to experienced entrepreneurs from diverse industries around the globe to ask questions, get advice and foster new relationships? Ask an Innovator, a free, powerful online platform, offers a simple way to get advice from Carolina-connected innovators. Powered by Innovate Carolina in partnership with the Entrepreneurship Center at Kenan-Flagler Business School, Ask an Innovator finds the most-relevant experts in the community to assist with entrepreneurial questions and challenges facing UNC students, alumni, faculty and staff who have entrepreneurial aspirations.

Learn how this student entrepreneur and mentor pair used the Ask an Innovator tool to connect and collaborate.


Leah Gallant is pursuing her doctor of philosophy in psychology at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is an aspiring entrepreneur who loves designing and developing social impact businesses.


Jill Willett is assistant director of entrepreneurship programs at Kenan-Flagler Business School. Willett is an entrepreneurial thinker, leader and coach, helping startups overcome the tremendous challenges they face when launching or growing their business.

How did you discover Ask an Innovator?

Leah: I am part of the social innovation program and came to UNC after working in the San Francisco Bay area in a variety of roles. That’s where I caught the startup bug. Now that I’m at UNC, I want to immerse myself in the available opportunities with Innovate Carolina, 1789, Cube and Launch Chapel Hill. As soon as I saw there was an opportunity to use Ask an Innovator, I wanted to take advantage of the tool. I am trying to determine how to balance my relationship with a startup I’ve been working with for the past five years with my academics at UNC. I also have a new idea for a business and needed someone as a sounding board to talk through what I am interested in developing.

Why is Ask an Innovator an important tool?

Jill: I am so excited that we have Ask an Innovator and was an eager adopter for this tool. I’ve been the director for the Adams Apprenticeship Program for almost two years, and that’s a program deeply rooted in mentorship and being able to connect people who need support in a lot of different areas. I’ve been eyeing this tool because it allows students to ask meaningful questions. When I hear questions like, ’What should I do in this moment, because I’ve got two paths I’m considering, and I’m not sure which path is right for me right now?” I know I can help because I’ve been there so many times. I certainly don’t know that I have the answers, but I always like exploring that conversation. Because the tool is question based, it forces people to be clear on their ask, and that’s one thing I try to hone with students. It’s not just connecting for connecting sake. It’s what you are hoping this person can help you with, and I was excited to explore that with Leah.

Tell us about your experience using the tool?

Leah: I thought it was super easy in terms of filling out the online form and then getting an answer by having someone reach out to me within 36 hours. It was a very, very efficient turnaround. And from there, Jill and I were able to schedule a meeting.

Jill: Yes, it was a streamlined process. It has a nice ease to it, which is really great. Ask an Innovator is designed in a way that makes is really easy for an advisor to answer questions directly or pass them along to another advisor who can help.

Leah, how did the advice you received help you? 

Leah: Jill was really helpful in guiding me through two different options I’m trying to figure out. She helped me understand the pros and cons of each option and, more importantly, think through how I approach each one as well as the next steps and tools I need to follow through. It was really helpful to talk through the different paths. One of the things Jill was really great with was asking me directly, ’Do you want to be the founder for this company?’ I initially hesitated, and I thought about it in terms of my own history of talking to people who have started companies. It was helpful for me to say, ’Oh, I think I do want to do this.’ And when I look at the tools and mechanisms that other people have in place to start companies… I have those tools, and it helped me process what the roadblocks are and how I would address those. So, it was very helpful to speak with Jill and clarify all those points.

Jill: That’s nice to hear, Leah. Not always, but it’s often helpful just to talk with someone who’s not involved in the situation that has a real objective view. There’s no judgment.

Was there anything about the tool that surprised you?

Leah: I was really impressed by just how natural it felt and comfortable. I really appreciated that organic, authentic feel.

Jill: That’s a great point. And I think for me… we come in because we want to support you. There’s no judgment, and I hope that the people who choose to continue to be part of Ask an Innovator come with that energy, because I feel like that’s what we need. There’s enough judgment and hardships for entrepreneurs and so many uphill challenges. You need allies and sounding boards. You need people who can be really honest with you and ask hard questions, but not do it in a way that takes the wind out of your sails. Because that’s totally counterproductive.

Leah and I had a really, really good conversation. A nice added benefit of the tool is that it forces the user to ask a question in order to participate, so you are already 10 steps ahead in the conversation. It’s very nice to know that focus, because I can come to the conversation already prepared. So, it’s really nice to have that clarity ahead of time.

What does it mean to mentor aspiring student entrepreneurs?

Jill: I’ve had two companies, and they were both solo businesses. I felt like I had everything going for me. I had money saved. I had an education. I was a white female. I had these advantages, and I struggled so much. It’s just hard. And when I reached out for help, so many people were giving of their time. A lot of people helped me, and I want to pay it forward. I think that mentorship becomes a critical part of your support system as you are growing or starting a business.

Would you recommend Ask an Innovator to others?

Leah: Definitely. The opportunity to receive mentoring is the reason I came to UNC.

Jill: I would definitely recommend Ask an Innovator. I always tell people that finding a mentor is like finding a good therapist: you have to date a bunch of them. And I feel like it’s similar with mentorship. There’s a chemistry that can happen with different mentor relationships. What’s nice about this tool is that it’s a low-pressure way to try out different mentors. It’s okay to just have one awesome touchpoint. Sometimes it’s just one call or one email or one mindset shift that can be really helpful. We can put a lot of pressure on ourselves to find mentors, but maybe just a collection of smaller conversations is what matters. Ask an Innovator is a good tool for that too.


Want to connect with an entrepreneur? Submit your questions or challenge and tap into this global network of UNC connected entrepreneurs. Ask an Innovator is powered by Innovate Carolina and created in partnership with The Entrepreneurship Center at Kenan-Flagler Business School.