Karen Mishra and I had the privilege of serving as judges for the U.S. Finals of EO’s GSEAs, held in Denver in January. This competition involves more than 2,000 student-entrepreneurs representing 56 different countries who competed for one of the 56 semi-final slots. Students must have a business that generates $500 or more annually or has received $1000 in investments when they apply to compete. The first-place winner of the Global Finals receives $25,000 in cash, and a total prize package worth over $40,000, not counting the free media exposure that follows. All of the contestants receive invaluable feedback and mentoring from the judges as well their peer competitors. The first student entrepreneur we interviewed will be competing at the GSEA Global Finals in Macao, China from May 10 to May 12, 2019.
We asked one of the competitors in each of the two groups we judged to share their insights and advice for fellow student entrepreneurs. The first person was the ultimate winner of the U.S. Finals, Daniela Blanco, a Ph.D. student at New York University, and founder of Sunthetics. Sunthetics is a startup “focusing on helping the chemical industry become more sustainable.” Its initial product is making Adipontirile, which is used in the production of Nylon, using solar energy at much higher efficiency and much lower energy usage. The second entrepreneur, is Kyrah Altman, one of the finalists at the Denver competition. Kyrah is the President and Co-Founder of Let’s Empower, Advocate and Do, Inc. (LEAD) a proactive mental health education and advocacy organization, dedicated to helping K-12 schools improve the mental health of young people. Kyrah is now embarking on an ambitious $100,000 Launch Campaign for LEAD so that she and her co-founder, Lauren, can pursue their venture full-time after they graduate this spring.
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Daniela became an entrepreneur when she realized that there is “no one better than herself to leave a mark, and no one better than an entrepreneur to challenge the status quo and bravely innovate.” Daniela “believes that the hardest part is to make ideas a reality.” Becoming an entrepreneur would ensure her ideas became something real and then she could inspire others to do the same. Kyrah co-founded LEAD while she was in high school. She saw students suffering from mental illness as well as homelessness and felt compelled to help. She then began an effort to create an educational platform to help both students and teachers better understand “how mental health is just as important as physical health.” She wanted to be “proactive in preventing problems before they reached a crisis situation.”
For both entrepreneurs, there have been several key people who have inspired or contributed to their success. Daniela’s co-founder, Myriam Sbeiti, is her co-lead in business development and has been the biggest support on this journey. They met as they worked together in the same research group at NYU and decided to join forces to commercialize the technology Daniela was developing as part of her Ph.D. Daniela’s other co-founder and advisor, Prof. Miguel Modestino has been a role model and a great support as she has learned how to balance my life as a student and entrepreneur. “His mentorship has taught me much more than just science.” Kyrah has had many entrepreneurial role models, including her grandmother and father. Her grandmother has a Ph.D. and continues to teach yoga and volunteers as a docent at a local museum. Her father is the co-founder of mindsetgo, and is a source of business as well as personal support for her as a student-entrepreneur. She met one of her entrepreneurial mentors through EODC, Pramod Raheja, President of the EODC chapter. Pramod has been a coach and mentor to her, coaching her move from 3rdplace in the DC chapter her first year, to 1stplace this past year, which allowed her to advance to the National GSEA finals. Kyrah learned about EO from her campus innovation center at George Washington University.
As an early-stage startup, Daniela and her team have begun conversations with potential investors and consumers. She believes the key to building trust is to be honest about who they are, what they believe in, where they are now, and where they are going. “We acknowledge and are honest about the risks and obstacles ahead of us, but we always present these together with a well-thought plan to overcome them effectively.” Kyrah believes that trust means “being authentic, genuine and honest as well as being willing to help others as they help you. “ In addition, she strives to build trust with her customers so that they know that they are collaborators to help them reach their goals.
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Each entrepreneur has had to overcome obstacles along the way that are common to many student entrepreneurs. Daniela said that “we have felt overwhelmed at times with the business and technology scale up since we have no academic background on business and had never scaled up a technology before. However, we have found the way to stay focused on the goal, relying on accelerator programs and mentors. “ She and her team have worked to “learn as much as we can from every opportunity. I believe the key is to realize that it’s not that you don’t know something… you just don’t know it yet, and there is always a way to learn.” For Kyra, becoming a student-entrepreneur has also not been without its challenges. “It’s not easy having to tell your professor that you will miss class due to a conference or because you will be teaching a mental healthcare class. Not everyone understands the tradeoffs that must be made.” In addition, because she is advocating for mental healthcare, she realizes that she must be an advocate not only for herself, but also for her entire team, encouraging others to take a mental health day when it is needed.
According to Daniela, “EO has an incredible network of successful entrepreneurs that are willing to offer support and mentorship, and has given me the opportunity to share my personal story, allowing me to communicate my motivation and values. I have also been inspired by the stories of other entrepreneurs and we have shared incredibly valuable insights. EO does not only focus on your business, but on you as an entrepreneur. Kyrah told us that EO helped her to separate her venture from herself. “Before EO, I would have a hard time separating myself from my organization. In addition, studying abroad and seeking out other opportunities on campus helped me to see myself as separate from my LEAD business and know when to turn off my ‘work’ brain.”
Both entrepreneurs concluded with some advice for other student entrepreneurs:
- Believe in your idea, and believe in yourself. Love it enough to fight for it, but never too much to refuse to adapt, pivot, and build a better product.
- Don’t forget to take care and find time for yourself. As Daniela told us, there is no business without you! Kyrah said, “avoid thinking that you are successful if you work too much or drink too much coffee. Value your own self-care.”
- Build a team of equals with people you admire and trust. Daniela believes that “no success will come without a capable and strong team,” and Kyra argued that, “we attract such incredible interns/team members because we value them and give them a lot of responsibility.”
We see a great future ahead for the future of entrepreneurship in our world, if these two student leaders are any indication!