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On the Job

Bringing startup culture to Lowell and Lawrence

David Parker (center) with Lianna Kushi and Lester Sydney, members of the Merrimack Valley Sandbox team.

Katherine Taylor for The Boston Globe

David Parker (center) with Lianna Kushi and Lester Sydney, members of the Merrimack Valley Sandbox team.

Lowell and Lawrence may not be the first cities that spring to mind when launching a startup. But David Parker, executive director of the Merrimack Valley Sandbox, is promoting a thriving entrepreneurial community in these historic mill cities.

The Sandbox helps early stage entrepreneurs accelerate their businesses by providing support and guidance, including workshops, mentorship, networking opportunities, business competitions, and other resources.

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Parker believes in “entrepreneurship for all,” and said about a quarter of participants in accelerator classes come from non-Caucasian backgrounds, mostly first- or second-generation immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Cambodia, and Puerto Rico as well as Africans and Middle Easterners.

What’s an example of your favorite rags-to-riches Sandbox accelerator story?

I immediately think of Keo Rattana, a first-generation immigrant from Laos and single mom of three boys. Keo was laid off from her job and decided to see if she could come up with a recipe for tasty vegan, gluten-free ice cream. She joined our program, figured out the game plan for KEO Homemade Ice Cream, and is now selling pints and quarts in 22 retailers around Boston — including two Whole Foods stores. She dreams of becoming a national brand someday.

How does the New England area compare to other parts of the country when it comes to accelerators?

The Boston area has many accelerators, from broad-based ones like MassChallenge to vertically oriented ones like LearnLaunch. Mid-sized cities across the US have much less activity, most likely because they don’t have the concentration of industry and investment resources that Boston and most other large cities have. So for cities with 100,000 to 300,000 residents, there’s less of a “tech scene” and thus all-encompassing programs like the Merrimack Valley Sandbox probably are a better fit.

Are your graduating companies raising capital and becoming successful?

Our companies are doing well. We’re seeing 70 percent of our accelerator graduates still up and running a year after finishing our program. Some are doing extremely well – hiring like crazy, growing fast; others are still figuring out their sweet spots. And a number have shut down — but then a few of these entrepreneurs are already working on new ventures.

If you were to give just a few words of advice to startup founders, what would they be?

Keep expenses low; have a vision of where you want to get to, and be flexible about how you achieve that vision. Network constantly, because you never know if someone can help you. And make sure you and your family are prepared for an all-encompassing experience filled with emotional highs and lows.

What’s your go-to business
attire?

I find that the “standard” entrepreneur attire — decent trousers, long sleeve business shirt (usually striped), definitely no tie, usually no jacket — works in Lowell and Lawrence. I want to project a seriousness to my work, but I don’t want to overdo it. Ties these days are generally for formal events, or worn regularly by bankers and lawyers.

Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at cindy@cindyatoji .com.
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