With an engineering background and a passion for entrepreneurship, Monica Wheat aims to foster diversity and inclusion in the startup space
By Claire Zulkey
Photography by Erin Kirkland
“My parents don’t know what I do,” laughs Monica Wheat, the executive director and co-founder of the Detroit management consultant firm Venture Catalysts, which describes itself as an “ecosystem development group.”
What exactly is an ecosystem, in the world of business, and why does it need to be developed? “The way I usually explain it, it’s strategy,” says the Birmingham resident. “I’m finding the pieces that aren’t connected and connecting them. We’re helping to find out, ‘What is the machine?’” Money and ideas go in, and profit and more opportunities come out, she says. “We should create that machine [and make it] go faster and faster if we’re doing it right.”
Machine-building is actually in Wheat’s blood — her father is an automotive pattern-maker and her mother worked as an electronic technician for automotive companies like Delphi and Delco. Wheat studied engineering at the University of Michigan, but while working with General Motors and studying abroad in Shanghai, she realized her passion lay elsewhere. “I was in China to continue this engineering path, but I didn’t see that as being fun,” says Wheat, who declines to give her age. Whenever she was assigned the task of explaining the bigger picture, or conducting a presentation, she realized, “I loved being front facing. I got the innovation, entrepreneurship bug.”
Wheat eventually got a job at Delphi in corporate engineering, where part of her role was working with the company’s innovation team. She also saw an opportunity to bring more equity to the field. “There were very few women and people of color, but everyone in engineering and tech, innovation and entrepreneurship seemed like they were doing fun and cool stuff,” she says. “How do we fix this pipeline? It’s a relationship-based business, but it’s hard to get those relationships if you don’t have the network.”
Her perspective wasn’t welcomed at first. “A lot of people were like, ‘Race is a bad thing, talking about gender is a bad thing. Why are you bringing these uncomfortable topics into the conversation?’” she recalls. “It’s a deviation from what makes people comfortable.” Wheat says it also wasn’t uncommon for her to be asked questions that wouldn’t be posed to a man. She remembers attending a conference to represent GM, and a man said, “Why did GM send you?” Her answer: “Because my title is Global Lead of social media teams and I’m the lead.”
Today, Wheat is specifically focused on empowering minority business leaders in Detroit, investing in local companies through Venture Catalysts (which she started in 2016), helping build local minority and LGBTQ startups through Backstage Capital (where she’s been managing director since 2018) and leading Detroit Startup Week at Techstars. She’s pleased that Detroit is no longer a novelty in the business world. She says that when she used to participate in global calls with a large staff, someone would ask, “Why is Detroit on this call?” Now, she says, “They’re looking for us to answer questions. I love that shift.”
Wheat says her colleagues in the VC world gave her a hard time at first for staying in Detroit, but she wasn’t enticed by a life in New York or San Francisco. “Because we were underestimated, folks didn’t think [Detroit] would thrive, or come back, or be as strong as we are. We banded together. We are more open and accepting of folks. We wanted people to win. I didn’t get that in other spaces.”
With Backstage Capital, Wheat is excited to boost local minority-run startups like Alerje, a mobile epi pen that fits into a cellphone case, and Brand XR, a no-code platform that allows anyone, even if they have no development or engineering background, to create augmented reality, virtual reality and mixed-reality apps. Before that, in 2011, she founded the nonprofit Digerati Girls/Digerati Kids, which creates connections, programs and opportunities to increase the number of women and young girls in digital entrepreneurship. She was inspired to start Digerati when she noted how paltry coding education opportunities were for her niece. “We wanted to create an open, fun environment that girls can vibe to, and for it to be a place where it’s OK to ask questions.”
Wheat’s support also includes tough love. She wants her protégés to know that just because VCs sound sexy, they’re not always the ideal, or only, business model.
“Many people think what they’re doing is super unique,” she says, whereas her reaction might be, “‘I saw that twice before; we invested in it last year.’” She also wants founders, especially those who receive pro bono advice and space, to understand how to operate in the real world without help. “It’s great that you’re making $10,000 or $100,000 a month, but if you have no costs, you’re really not making that,” she says. “We need to help people build businesses that they can sustain.”
True to her roots, Wheat is machinelike herself in that she operates on very little rest: She only sleeps two to three hours a night, although this isn’t some sort of workaholic brag. “I had some health issues when I was younger,” she says, which resulted in her becoming what is known as a polyphasic sleeper. “I usually sleep from 11-1 in the morning and I’m up.”
If she has one regret about her career, it’s that she didn’t take better care of her health the way more companies encourage these days. “Right now, there’s a movement in the corporate world of wellness. No one cared about that when I was coming up,” says Wheat, who, pre-COVID-19, preferred working in Starbucks, fueled by the buzz of the atmosphere and Matcha Lemonades.
A good day now, she says, is one “where I checked off more things than I added to my list.” She admits it’s hard to stop a mind like hers. Some nights, “I get lost and end up surfing on the web,” she says. “Sometimes I get crazy and [I decide] I’m going to start a business in 12 hours and see how far we go.”