Start Me Up: The business of student startups

September 18, 2014

Christina Libre

It was a pleasant winter evening in Rwanda, where the temperature rarely dips below 60 degrees no matter the season. Ann Yang (SFS ’15) and Phil Wong (SFS ’15) took a moment from their busy schedules to unwind from a day of work. 

Yang, a Culture and Politics major, was working on a service project funded by a fellowship through the group GU Impacts. Wong, a Science, Technology, and International Affairs major, was researching the impact of cooking stoves on respiratory health.

During one of the many conversations they had during their time in Rwanda, Yang and Wong contemplated the beginning of senior year and what their career paths would be after graduation. “One of the nights, people were partying and whatever,” Yang said. “We were just talking—you know, catching up on life. The conversation turned to what were we going to do post-graduation It was then that we decided that this was something that we were really serious about and something that we would go forward with.”

Two months later, Yang found herself buying cosmetically imperfect fruit from the Georgetown Farmer’s Market as part of preparation for what would become her own joint venture with Wong: Misfit Juicery.

Student entrepreneurship at Georgetown has been tenuous for some time now. Various alumni have founded and maintained impressively successful companies all around the world. Recent notable alumni startups include the successes of sweetgreen, founded by Jonathan Neman (MSB ‘07), Nicolas Jammet (MSB ‘07) and Nathaniel Ru (MSB ‘07); Luke’s Lobster, founded by Luke Holden (MSB ‘07); and Lulu’s Ice Cream, founded by Luisa Santos (COL ‘14). 

But in an age marked by the emergence of successful startups like Facebook, the risks involved in starting a business from scratch are hard to ignore. According to Shikhar Ghosh, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School who specialized in Entrepreneurial Management, three of every four startups ultimately fail. For a multitude of reasons, entrepreneurship has, until now, attracted only a handful of Georgetown students over the years.

 “A lot of Georgetown students have never failed,” says Jeff Reid, director of the Georgetown Entrepreneurship Initiative. “[Hoyas] are type-A personalities, people who [were] really successful in high school or else they wouldn’t be here. Fear of failure can be a big challenge.”

And yet, something is quickly changing. On a campus of only six thousand undergraduates, more than five companies are being taken straight off the Hilltop and into the entrepreneurial world at large, and the masses are starting to take notice.

When Katrina Vassell (MSB ’17) arrived at Georgetown, she was eager to start a career in the sciences. “I’m a huge biology nerd—I was going to major in Health Care Management in the School of Nursing and Health Studies,” Vassell said.

Like many other students at Georgetown, she eventually realized that she needed to find a part-time  job.

 “I was looking for a job on campus and I felt like there was a problem: it was really hard to find one. All of the applications, including the Corp’s, were really long. But there is no guarantee that you are going to get anything. You can waste a lot of time going through the application and the interview and then just not get anything.”

Last summer, Vassell decided to take an alternative route to the job search: she created her own line of work. After waiting an hour for her Chinese food to arrive from Wisconsin Avenue, she teamed up with her classmate Sam Kleinman (COL ‘16) and started Nosh, a student-to-student food delivery service. [Full disclosure: Sam Kleinman is an assistant editor for the Voice.]

Student entrepreneurship first gained an institutional presence at Georgetown six years ago, when Reid, former director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the University of North Carolina, was hired to pioneer the Georgetown Entrepreneurship Initiative in 2007. “This university was ripe for an entrepreneurial explosion,” Reid told the Voice. “Georgetown attracts brilliant, ambitious young people who want to change the world.”

Since then, Reid has seen the Georgetown Entrepreneurship Initiative, also known as Startup Hoyas, grow dramatically since 2007. The initiative now offers entrepreneurship classes, a startup incubator program, and events to entice investments from venture capitalists, among other resources for students. This coming Friday will kick off Startup Weekend, a networking and professional development event for student entrepreneurs. The University will also host Entrepreneurship Day and TechBuzz on Friday, a set of professional development events presented by the Mid-Atlantic Venture Association.

Though the startup boom at Georgetown seems to have gained traction lately, students who started their business only a few years ago reaped huge benefits from the mentorship at Startup Hoyas. This was the case for Rahul Desai (MSB ‘17), whose startup is in the market of reviewing the potential success of other startups—colloquially called a meta startup. Startup Hoyas provided him with unprecedented attention from faculty, local business leaders, and even the entrepreneurs-in-residence. 

“I’m competing less for a fixed amount of resources than someone in a large pool of entrepreneurs at say, UMD,” he said. “Because they’ve [UMD] got a virtual reality lab, they’ve got a prototyping lab, they’ve got a giant incubator space—they’ve got a lot of people working there. They’ve got about 150 on average working in that space—that’s a lot of competition.”

The relatively small size of the entrepreneurial community means that Georgetown has sufficient resources to meet the demands of all the Hilltop’s startups, regardless of the founders’ academic interests. “We offer a bunch of courses and a whole bunch of extra-curricular programs, and we actually don’t limit any of these,” Reid said. “Nothing that the Startup Hoyas program does is limited to business students. That’s one of the big myths out there that people just assume … because many other things at Georgetown are siloed.”

Today, some entrepreneurs themselves are seeking to increase a sense of community among student business leaders. Tammy Cho (MSB ‘16) is currently taking a leave of absence from classes to work with her business partner James Li (MSB ‘13) full time on their company, Encore Alert, a startup that does strategic marketing. But even with their busy schedules, they find time to give back.

“James and I started a co-working session that is open to any student, [alumnus], or faculty [member] that is interested in entrepreneurship. We meet together every Friday and share what we need help with while also helping each other,” Cho said.

The roundtables are attracting a wide variety of entrepreneurs. Connor Bernstein (COL ‘16), a regular participant in these discussions, started his business making science kits over 10 years ago.

 As a fourth grader with a love for science, he recalled saving up his allowance in order to buy science kits. 

“As a kid, I was frustrated with the science kits I bought—I was always really curious … But it really frustrated me. They were really expensive, they didn’t include enough materials to do things multiple times, and they were hard to use. … They didn’t even have kid-friendly directions… My mom helped me make a business out of it [in the fourth grade].”

According to Bernstein, the decision to go to Georgetown made sense because it would complement his social entrepreneurship venture.

 “Georgetown is really into service and men and women for others. … There’s a focus on community service and doing things for others.” Now, this service has the potential to turn into his livelihood.

In an economy where it is increasingly difficult to find a job even with a degree from an elite institution, startups are providing jobs for graduates at an incredible rate. Reid commented, “Government officials are now recognizing something that’s been true for decades, and that’s that entrepreneurs create jobs, entrepreneurs create value.”

With the multitude of events occurring this weekend concerning entrepreneurship, it’s evident that Georgetown is eager to improve its offerings to prospective entrepreneurs in the immediate future.  

 “On Friday, we’re going to announce the Startup Hoyas Reverse Scholarship Program,” said Reid. “So, if you are a senior and you think you want to start a company, but you have student loan debt and you’re really anxious … we will give you money that you can use to pay your loans off for the first couple years when you’re out of school, so you can then afford to at least not worry about that while you start a company. So, as long as you continue to work on your start-up, we’ll make periodic payment to you that you can use.”

The reverse scholarship program has enabled Startup Hoyas to champion new companies based on their merit and potential, and reveals how far the group has come in the short time since its inception.  

But even with this positive financial news at hand, Reid acknowledges that money is not the only necessity for a successful startup. “The program does not invest in your company or solve all the other problems that an entrepreneur has, but at least it allows you to pursue your own entrepreneurial dreams.”

Some other student entrepreneurs still have to circumnavigate bureaucratic blockades.

Vassell initially hoped to create a startup similar to Birchbox, a company that delivers beauty product samples to subscribers. But she quickly realized how the Corp’s on-campus student vendor monopoly impeded her ability to have any business space on campus. “The Corp definitely inspired me, … but there are things that really inhibit entrepreneurship on campus. [The Corp’s] exclusivity charter is very difficult to work with. If you are trying to think of a startup here, it really limits you. If we wanted to have a storefront or anything like that, we just wouldn’t be able to. Many ideas are scratched off the drawing board.”

More importantly, the seeming invisibility of resources makes it difficult for students to grasp the opportunities of opening a student-run business. Vassell has experienced this first hand with Nosh.  

In the incubator program, offered by Startup Hoyas, students are given the opportunity to more or less set up a company in about two days. Unfortunately, she didn’t find out until after the application deadline for the competition. She and Nosh were left to fend for themselves.

Still, Vassell feels accomplished with what she’s done so far. “College is really the ideal setting for a startup,” she said. “It’s a time to focus just on your own individual growth and development. It’s really just an educational experience. Even if it fails, I still feel like it was worthwhile.”

Even with students like Cho taking time off from school to manage her company and Desai considering doing the same, they still respect the value of higher education. Many student entrepreneurs feel that the pressure of running a business while pursuing an undergraduate degree is well worth the extra time and effort. 

“The company is, at this point, the main thing in my life. It supersedes everything else. And that’s a factor of the fact that we’re one of three [meta startups] in an $18 billion market, so there is that. Basically, if I decide to leave Georgetown for any amount of time, it’s going to be based on how much revenue we’re making,” said Desai.

Georgetown, though lacking in a legacy of entrepreneurs, still provides a nurturing environment for aspiring entrepreneurs. Even indirectly, it is encouraging the kind of leadership spirit that is needed in entrepreneurship. Misfit Juicers Yang and Wong, who are not in the business school, believe that their Georgetown educations are actually contributing to their success.

Thinking about how Rwanda ended up being the birthplace of their juicery, Yang and Wong defended their Georgetown educations. 

Yang said, “I don’t know if I would say that this is really a transformation away from SFS things into business. I think it was more of a realization that there are market based solutions to issues of inequity—and that is a very SFS concept.”

Wong agreed, “In the day to day operations of the business, [STIA] certainly isn’t the most helpful. But it certainly is helpful on broader things. The SFS is all about having an international view and being responsible to the international community. This [project] is just one of the ways of accomplishing that.”

For now, the entrepreneurs of Georgetown are left figuring out the ins and outs of programs that are only recently getting the attention they deserve. Speaking of the future, Wong said, “This is probably the time in our lives when we are the most untethered. … Entrepreneurship is more than just a buzzword for us. It’s a career path.”

Dayana Morales Gomez
Dayana Morales Gomez is the former editor-in-chief of the Georgetown Voice. She graduated from the School of Foreign Service.

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