Written by Andrew Seale

Growing up, Aïko Thurlow vividly remembers the excitement in her household as her parents opened an art gallery, turning their deep passion for art into something physical, a brick and mortar space. But she also remembers the tension that filtered through the home from the challenges of running a business, the isolation and emotional difficulties.

It stays with her to this day, even as her parents look back fondly on their time building the art gallery.

“Growing up I was always perplexed as to what made it so hard, and why it was so fantastic for them despite all that hardship,” says Thurlow, founder of InFounders, an organization which curates tightly-knit support groups for entrepreneurs.

That experience at home, she says, drove her towards stability – an education in economics from McGill University and a stint in financial services as a consultant. But the gravity of entrepreneurship was too enticing.

“I started thinking – ‘great, I've figured out how to run a business, (I’m ready to) start my own business,’ ” she says. “It was an extremely humbling experience… I realized that corporate and startup are so very different.”

After a few misfires, she started to connect with the startup community in New York where she was living. She got involved in the organizing committee for Propelify, one of the largest innovation festivals, and from that realized her calling was in the educational side of the startup world.

“I started doing consulting for startups and helping people launch,” she says, adding that it put her close to the grassroots experience of building a company. “One of the things I realized very quickly is that there are a whole lot of institutions and government programs that help entrepreneurs succeed, but the process is still really solitary and hard.”

She started researching the “Masterminds” concept, a peer alliance studied by self-help pioneer Napoleon Hill in the 1930s. He’d examined business tycoons and what made them successful, discovering they were often involved in these so-called “mastermind alliances” behind the scenes. “People got together in a very private setting and spoke about what they needed for their business or where they were having struggles,” explains Thurlow.

On further research, Thurlow realized there were tons of these groups existing but most catered to high net worth individuals or were incredibly exclusive. Thurlow decided to bring the concept back with her to Toronto’s budding startup scene to leverage the talent here.

“There's a huge community to tap into and we're not doing this very well,” she says. “Maybe this is a better way of doing this than trying to attend a workshop… there is knowledge all around you.”

InFounders groups are typically around 10 members and curated so none of them are in direct competition and all of them are open to talking about the real issues they’re facing.  “There's a huge concept of trust and confidentiality that goes on there,” she says. “Everyone signs an NDA and we go through icebreaker exercises so people practice talking about what's hard in their personal and business life.”

She says that when you give people permission and the right setting to talk about whatever’s on their minds, they start to form bonds and promote knowledge sharing. It elevates the entire community.

“I think a lot of the time in life we talk about the shiny top of the iceberg, what's in the sun and happily out there… we end up being alone together,” she says. “When you bring them together in a group and have them working with one another there's something really powerful that happens – they realize they're not alone, far from it, and they find people like them.”

Photo credit: Cameron Bartlett (www.snappedbycam.com)