Startup Challenge Social Venture Division winner breaks barriers to tackle rural unemployment
Full-time student. Full-time parent. Full-time worker. Full-time entrepreneur?
Meet Kirsten Dorenkamp, founder of WorkArk and 2022 Startup Challenge Monterey Bay Social Division winner.
“I always kind of knew I was going to do something entrepreneurial. I didn’t know if we’d be starting a business, starting a nonprofit or what exactly, but I’ve always known.”
Dorenkamp is an undergraduate student at the College of Business at California State University of Monterey Bay (CSUMB). Her dream? To uplift those living in rural communities by helping them use existing skills and talents to enter the remote workforce.
“WorkArk is a hybrid business,” said Dorenkamp. “On our non-profit side, we take rural citizens, and we retrain them to be able to do remote work. Then on our for-profit side, we reach out to business clients and source remote work for the people that we just trained.”
For Dorenkamp, this work is personal. She came up with the idea for WorkArk after her own unemployment experience while living in the Central Valley.
“I was born up north on Travis Air Force base and lived there most of my childhood, then moved to SoCal with my family for a couple years until we all moved to Hollister. My mom lost her job in May 2017 and we became homeless.
“We ended up in Chowchilla. I learned the USDA offers a special type of loan to assist people in rural areas and those willing to relocate to a rurally designated area. I was able to buy us a home at a fixed rate with no money down. That was in August 2017 and I’ve lived in the Central Valley since.”
Dorenkamp was also unemployed for a considerable amount of time, and struggled to find remote work.
“That experience kind of just has been simmering beneath the surface,” she said. “It’s very hard to find remote work unless you already have experience,” she said. “Then it was also difficult to find in-person work, because in a lot of rural communities, the major industries are manufacturing or educational work. I’m a business major, so I’m doing accounting. It was a little bit hard to find the right kind of work.”
In Spring 2022, Dorenkamp took a class at CSUMB where all students were required to develop a business to enter Startup Challenge.
“As soon as I knew I was taking the class, I knew exactly what business I wanted to start,” she said. ”I needed to do something that was social, something that helped people, that helped my community because I live rurally.”
Startup Challenge is an annual competition for new businesses that teaches, coaches, mentors, networks, and connects entrepreneurs to the knowledge and resources they need to succeed in the marketplace.
With Venture, Social Venture, Main Street, and Student Divisions, the Challenge is open to startup businesses in Monterey, San Benito, or Santa Cruz counties. Those accepted to the challenge attend workshops and work closely with experienced mentors to prepare to compete in the final round to win additional opportunities and cash prizes.
The WorkArk Mission
Dorenkamp developed WorkArk to remove barriers to employment in rural communities.
“There’s a hidden unemployment in rural communities, in that a lot of families don’t have an opportunity for both parents to be working,” she said. “They rely on one income. Obviously, this can put women specifically at a disadvantage, because typically they are the people who end up staying home with the children.”
As a single mother, Dorenkamp knew first-hand how difficult it is to balance work and family, as well as the financial demands of childcare. She realized that, to truly follow her mission, WorkArk had to supply childcare.
“That way, we have fully trained people who can be fully present at work and not have that outside concern of, “Well, I couldn’t get childcare today,’” she said. “The idea is to remove as many barriers as possible to provide as much economic opportunity for people who live in economically depressed areas.”
Learning to Juggle
In addition to WorkArk, Dorenkamp is currently pursuing a degree in business at CSUMB, while working full time, caring for her 19-month-old, and starting WorkArk.
“It’s kind of like climbing a metal slide in the summer. You’re constantly having to grab onto things but then you let go and you slide down a little bit, but you’re still working up towards your goal,” she said. “It’s difficult, truly.
“My son is 19 months old and he’s rambunctious. I am a full-time student, graduating this December. I also work full-time at a regular job because obviously I have to support my family while I’m starting up my business. Then the business itself is a full-time job. I work in between all the other time that I’m giving to my son, and to school, and to my family in general, and to work. It’s an amazing experience at the same time. It’s showing me skills that I didn’t realize I had.”
Despite the struggles of balancing work, home, studies and entrepreneurship, Dorenkamp is grateful for the experience of pushing herself in so many directions.
“It’s allowing me to experience just things I didn’t know that I could do. It’s allowing me to really grow with myself. I’ve always known, ‘One day I’m going to do something amazing.’ I am now putting my effort into this and I’m pretty positive it is going to be amazing. It is a juggling act, but I do appreciate it. I appreciate every moment I have in each little compartment of my life.
According to Dorenkamp, being a student while simultaneously founding a startup is a huge advantage as it grants her access to resources and connections.
“It’s that intangible community that’s also available to me, where if I have a question, I can reach out and I can say, ‘I don’t understand something. Has anybody else had this experience and can you help me figure it out?’ Usually, I can get one or two people to be like, “Yes, I can help you,” which is really, really great.”
The Startup Challenge Experience: Try, Try Again
While 2022 was Dorenkamp’s winning year at Startup Challenge, it was not her first rodeo. She originally entered the Startup Challenge in 2018 as part of Professor Brad Barbeau’s Entrepreneurship class at CSUMB. Though her group did not place, she remained determined to start her own business.
“One key thing I remember about the time though is during that class our professor, Brad Barbeau, mentioned to all of the students, ‘If you guys don’t succeed, don’t worry. Most entrepreneurs don’t really get started until their mid to late thirties.’”
Five years later, Dorenkamp re-enrolled in the same class, and entered Startup Challenge, this time more focused, experienced, and connected.
“You have to amass enough experience and understanding of what you want, what your passion is, and how you can make it work, as well as developing a network that allows you to reach out to others for support in order to actually build something. I really felt that this time when I did the Startup Challenge.
But the night of her pitch, she hit a snag.
“For the Startup Challenge, you submit a five-minute pitch in order to make it to the final round. That’s reviewed by the judges. I submitted my pitch like a minute before midnight the night it was due. I thought it was the worst thing in the world. I literally sped-talked for five minutes. I was like, “This is horrible, terrible. I’m submitting it.”
When Dorenkamp discovered WorkArk made the cut, she was pleasantly surprised.
“I got signed by my [future Startup Challenge] mentor, Shalini [Gopalkrishnan]. She’s like, ‘Yes, your five-minute pitch was terrible, but your idea is amazing and so is your passion. I fought for you. We are going to do this.”
According to Dorenkamp, the mentorship provided in Startup Challenge was invaluable to her WorkArk pitch, and the business’ current situation.
“She is now actually on the board of my nonprofit. She is ride or die with me on WorkArk, which is excellent. She has a lot of experience and I really appreciate her as a mentor. She’s amazing and has just been absolutely indispensable for this project.”
When Dorenkamp stepped on the Otter Tank, she felt ready.
“Getting to the finale was amazing. I was really excited. I felt really prepared this time. I was ready for this. My classmates showed up to my pitch. They were cheering for me silently in the back, which was really great. I gave my pitch. I was like, “I did the best I can.”
Shortly afterwards, WorkArk was named winner of the Social Venture Division.
“They called WorkArk as the grand prize winner. I started full-on crying. I got to go on stage, and I got the check and everything.”
But, regardless of the result, Dorenkamp had already decided to push forward with WorkArk.
“Afterwards, Brad [Barbeau] asked me, ‘Even if you don’t win anything, are you going to keep on this?’ I’m like, ‘You know what? Absolutely. Doesn’t matter if I win because I’ve got Shalini behind me, and this is a great idea.’ I knew it was a great idea.”
Making the Most of a Good Situation
Since Startup Challenge, Dorenkamp has continued to work with Shalini, and utilize the many resources offered by iiED.
“It’s amazing. They offer a lot of resources for new entrepreneurs. They have a monthly meeting, which I try to attend when they offer it via Zoom. If they don’t have it over Zoom, then I get the recording afterwards. I like to watch that and see what other businesses in the area are doing to help start up. It gives me insight into ideas that I can bring over to WorkArk.”
Dorenkamp has also taken advantage of iiED’s mentorship program, where she was paired with iiED Program Manager Mary Jo Zenk.
We meet every few months to kind of go over my goals, have I met any of my goals? Recently, we just met at the beginning of October for some three-month goals. I am proud to say, I have a business license, I have fictitious business name, I completed a grant program to get the California Dream Fund grant. I’m working on acquiring that to help grow WorkArk.”
According to Dorenkamp, participating in the mentorship program has helped her gain crucial information she otherwise would not have known. When Dorenkamp began to run into some walls dealing with WorkArk’s hybrid—and thus legally complicated—business structure, she was not sure where to turn. When she asked Zenk for advice, she pointed her in the direction of UC Hastings Startup Legal Garage, a free legal cohort based at UC Hasting Law School.
“I was kind of floundering a little bit on my own,” she said, “They’re helping me set up the basic legal structure of the hybrid business, so that way, once I have that set up and I’ve acquired our non-profit status, I can start offering the workshops. We can start our non-profit side of training people. Once I have that set up, the non-profit side, then I can start reaching out to business clients and start building up the for-profit side. We can start really meeting the goals of WorkArk.
The Future of WorkArk
Always on task, Dorenkamp is set on meeting some serious short- and long-term goals.
“By the end of this year, I hope to have everything kind of settled in place,” she said. “I hope to have our nonprofit status. I am friends with our local head librarian at our local branch of the library. They have an arrangement where if you are a nonprofit, you can use the library space for free. By having our nonprofit status by the end of the year, I’m hoping in the beginning of the year, we can start offering our first workshops at the library until we find real physical space for WorkArk.”
Dorenkamp projects WorkArk will have matriculated people through the entire process by the end of 2023.
“We have trained them, and they are working for us, and we are providing their childcare, and we are helping grow and uplift our community. Then our long-term goal in the future is once we’ve established ourselves and shown that the process and the model works, we want to start expanding to other small rural communities.”
If all goes as planned, WorkArk could become a national movement, benefitting rural communities across the country.
“Part of the structure that’s built in is an automatic donation, giving back to the city. Because we exist in each city, we’re paying the city taxes, we are committed to also providing charitable growth to other programs in the city to make sure that there are plenty of opportunities, not just for people working for us, but that we are giving back to communities and growing them.”
“Then lastly is our for-profit side feeds into our non-profit side, to help keep it all alive at the same time. By doing that, I’m hoping that we can provide a lot of resources to underserved communities who truly, honestly, I think would benefit from this. That’s what we’re excited about right now.”