Contributed by Phil Gloudemans, Associate Director of the Office of University Communications, Boston College
When the coronavirus pandemic required that Boston College’s (BC) annual spring “Demo Day,” (an event for undergraduate student founders to pitch their proposed start-up companies before a live audience), move online, its student participants demonstrated adaptability and resilience: essential qualities of entrepreneurs.
“I was so impressed with the creativity and flexibility of our student entrepreneurs throughout the nine-week program preceding and including Demo Day,” said Jere Doyle, the Popolo Family Executive Director of the Edmund H. Shea, Jr. Center for Entrepreneurship, housed at BC’s Carroll School of Management. “To finish with such an extraordinary virtual event in such unprecedented times is amazing. It shows the true spirit of Boston College and entrepreneurship.”
Demo Day’s promising entrepreneurs were participants in Accelerate@Shea, a program devised by the student-run organization, Start@Shea, which provides startup initiators with expert advice, space and funding to launch and grow their businesses. Led by Shea Center Assistant Director Kelsey Renda, and Duncan Walker, Shea’s entrepreneur-in-residence, the weekly workshops feature accomplished startup founders who guide teams through researching unmet business opportunities, to design-thinking, to fundraising. The program, which supplies $1,500 to help each team overcome any initial financial barriers, also matches them with Start@Shea’s wide network of mentors.
Manyaqi Wang, a 2020 graduate of BC’s Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences, was one of last spring’s Demo Day presenters. A philosophy major, her source for inspiration was her five-foot-four-inch mother—a “business woman who sacrifices comfort for confidence on a daily basis,” resulting from slacks that are either too long or too short, as she transitions from flats to heels at the beginning or end of the day.
“She’s not alone,” claimed Wang, who interviewed 50 working women and found that 40 of them considered their work slacks constrictive. She saw a need and founded Phoebe Jon, “a female work-wear brand that takes the work out of dressing for work.” Wang’s first product features slacks with adjustable hems to accommodate different heel heights. She has plans to launch her company with a focus on comfortable, versatile and practical business fashion options for women.
Wang’s presentation was one of 11 two-minute video pitches packaged within an hour-long student-produced production that featured a variety of innovative solutions, from a better bug spray to fractional bond investing. The YouTube livestreamed compilation, completed in less than a month, overcame an eight-time-zone difference, as the video’s student “hosts,” faculty, mentors and guests were dispersed worldwide following the BC’s closure last spring.
“We strive to integrate entrepreneurial thinking into the educational and formational experience of undergraduate and graduate students through rigorous academic coursework, co-curricular activities, and experiential opportunities,” said Doyle, a 1987 BC alum. “We also serve as the University-wide focal point for interdisciplinary entrepreneurship initiatives and research, while providing students with the foundational skills and entrepreneurial experience that prepares them to start their own ventures, launch careers at start-ups and small businesses, or follow career paths in a traditional management discipline where entrepreneurship will be important.”
A prime example of BC’s experiential learning, says Doyle, is TechTrek: an undergraduate course combining classroom learning with visits to innovation hubs such as Silicon Valley, New York City and Boston. The courses involve 25 master-class sessions with senior executives, entrepreneurs, and venture partners at such technology companies as Apple and Airbnb. Students learn about tech industry strategy, competition and venture finance, and track how firms rise from startup to blue-chip.
To complement the “treks,” the Shea Center invites a Boston-area entrepreneur to campus each week to share their business launch story (now conducted virtually)—an ideal opportunity for students to make connections with a successful businessperson, and to learn from a veteran who has experienced both the failures and successes of launching a company. The Center also hosts an annual Startup & Entrepreneurship Fair, where more than 50 local, early-stage companies seeking interns or full- or part-time staff can recruit BC students.
Doyle, an entrepreneur who built two companies into profitable and sustainable industry leaders, cites the “Elevator Pitch” and the Strakosch Venture Competition (SVC) as two annual BC contests that thrust students into the reality of entrepreneurship. The Elevator Pitch challenges teams to present a 60-second description of their new-business idea before a panel of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, with cash prizes awarded to the winners. The SVC is a University-wide business plan competition, in which student teams – supported by mentors – develop a roadmap for a new venture. Finalists present their plans to a panel of executives and entrepreneurial experts, and the top three teams win cash.
“We also stage events throughout the academic year that demonstrate that you don’t need to be a business major to launch and run a successful business,” says Doyle. “Everyone has the potential to be an entrepreneur and we want to help make it happen.”