Spring 2016
BY MARK WALDEN

 

20 Students, 5 Days, 5 Apps, 1 Mission

 

Dropping into chairs circled around long classroom tables, 20 Colgate students inhaled bites of bagel and caught their breath after a pedestrian’s commute through midtown Manhattan to the offices of education company General Assembly (GA). A wall of windows gave them a view into cubicles in the building across East 21st Street, where die-hard employees of online businesses would rather eat the competition’s lunch than take a lunch break. But there was no time for people watching. These undergraduates were on deadline. With no prior entrepreneurial experience, they had just five days to create a new app and pitch it to veteran entrepreneurs June Choi and Scott Paladini.

Each day, January 4–8, students worked late into the night developing concepts that ranged from a new campus calendar system to a meal plan for millennials foraging for healthy food in the frenzied, pricey real world. Intense focus can make time fly. Someone blinked, and Monday became Friday.

In the open workspace outside GA’s classroom, Fjordi Mulla ’19, Jenny Robinson ’18, Araven Tiroumalechetty ’19, and Rohan Chaudhari ’19 pace and intone their pitch points to themselves while staring at the hardwood floors. As a team, they huddle around laptops, fine-tuning the wireframe of their new software. Time’s up.

June Choi and Scott Paladini speak at the front of the room

June Choi and Scott Paladini are veteran entrepreneurs as well as teachers of the trade. Choi is the founder and CEO of Serval Ventures, while Paladini is the founder of online mattress company Bear Mattress.

Getting started

GA is a company that teaches would-be tech entrepreneurs the skills of a constantly evolving trade. Spurred by conversations with business-leading alumni who reinforced the need for new graduates to bring hard skills to the job hunt, Colgate’s associate vice president of institutional advancement and career initiatives, Mike Sciola, sought out the company and worked hand in hand with its staff to build a business accelerator boot camp–style course. Classroom time included lessons in marketing and PR strategy, app creation, pitch development, and living the entrepreneurial lifestyle. Funds from the university’s Robert A. Fox ’59 Management and Leadership Skills Program helped make it all possible.

Sciola believes that these kinds of initiatives will enhance Colgate’s already demanding academics and complement the Thought Into Action entrepreneurship program, setting the university’s graduates apart during the job interview process.

“If you’re called in for an interview, you’re qualified for the position,” Sciola said. “But so are twelve other people. To be the successful candidate, you’ve got to get into the mind of the owner. What’s the talent deficit that they need to fill?”

Possibilities

When Fjordi Mulla arrived on campus last fall and started taking notes in his classes, he wasn’t writing in his native Albanian. He wasn’t even writing in the second language he’d learned — Greek. He was using words that he picked up during after-school English classes as a grade-schooler in Athens.

Mulla’s family moved from Albania to Greece in 1996. When the Greek economy began to crumble in 2009, the family resettled in Waterbury, Conn. Mulla’s father took a job as a maintenance worker in a local hotel, where Mulla’s mother also found work as a housekeeper. At age 13, Mulla was helping his parents navigate both the roads to work and the path to American citizenship. “It’s not the easiest thing when you have to help your parents with the different laws and the language barriers,” Mulla said.

Mike Sciola gestures while speaking to the classroom “If you’re called in for an interview, you’re qualified for the position. But so are twelve other people. To be the successful candidate, you’ve got to get into the mind of the owner. ”
— Michael Sciola, AVP of Institutional Advancement and Director of Career Services

 

 

Observing Mulla’s passion for social engagement, a counselor at his high school suggested that Colgate might be a good college fit. “It was as if, when I came to Colgate, I was at the top branch of a tree,” Mulla said. “Whatever didn’t work, I could try another branch. If I like this branch — entrepreneurship — there are two more branches that would open up. There’s always another branch at Colgate.”

During Mulla’s first semester on campus, students were invited to an information session on the Colgate-GA partnership. GA sent a member of its staff to Hamilton to pitch the opportunity. Mulla sat in and decided that the class would be an ideal way to start edging out onto that entrepreneurship branch.

But first, he had to make it through his finals. By the time December rolled around, he was overwhelmed by the volume of his class notes. What was important and what could be set aside? What information did his classmates find important, and would the professor agree? These questions were still on Mulla’s mind after his exams, when he took his seat in the first GA classroom session on January 4.

“It was as if, when I came to Colgate, I was at the top branch of a tree,” Mulla said. “Whatever didn’t work, I could try another branch.”

GA instructors randomly split participants into project groups — that’s where Mulla met Robinson, Tiroumalechetty, and Chaudhari — and told them to think of a consumer problem. Then, students were asked to invent an app that would solve the problem. As they brainstormed, Mulla talked about his note-filtering frustration. He suggested that they create a product that would help students manage notes in a collaborative way. The group agreed, and Shave, “the clean-cut way to study,” was born.

Tiroumalechetty was the chief technology officer, in charge of developing the Shave web platform and making sure it was user friendly. Chaudhari was the tech guru behind the Shave mobile app. Robinson was the project manager. Mulla, as CEO, interfaced between the group and the outside world, asking Colgate friends for sample class notes, passing ideas by the GA instructors, and making sure that his teammates had what they needed to complete their duties.

Mulla’s original concept had students inputting their notes into a system that would generate weekly quizzes to reinforce course material. “When I got with this group,” Mulla said, “they helped me understand what is possible and what isn’t.”

Chaudhari pointed out that the technology to translate answers into questions doesn’t exist, so they began to pivot. GA instructors encouraged them to focus on customer needs and make sure that their app’s functionality addressed them, because, in the end, customers don’t care about your product — they care about their own problems.

“I was a little scared at first,” Mulla said. “But I understood that you have to be willing to let go of features of the original product or you’ll be doomed. Some of the things you think when you first have an idea might be ludicrous.”

Showtime

The five days passed in a whirlwind of activity.

After last-minute technical adjustments and presentation rehearsals, Mulla’s group was suddenly standing in front of a packed room. Shave, he promised the audience, would “leverage the intelligence of the classroom.”

Here’s how it works: Students input notes, then mark them as private or public. Public notes are viewable by the entire class, including the professor. The notes are searchable, filterable, and indexed by keyword. If one classmate has a particularly good handle on the topic, you can acquire that person’s notes. If you miss a class, you can see what you missed, even if you’re too shy to ask for help. Have a gap in your understanding? Classmates can help you fill it. Professors can see if their students are missing concepts and react. A study guide generator lists the most cited topics, helping to prioritize the volume of notes from any given class — the answer to Mulla’s original problem.

The presentation ended. Applause, then silence and the shuffling of papers.

A student turns around to speak with a peer behind him
“I understood that you have to be willing to let go of features of the original product or you’ll be doomed. Some of the things you think when you first have an idea might be ludicrous.”
— Fjordi Mulla ’19

 

“We thought the critique was going to be like Shark Tank,” Mulla later said. But June Choi and Scott Paladini were there to teach rather than entertain. They broke the nervous tension with challenging questions and suggestions. Mulla and his group had to defend their sales model: students could sign on individually but universities would purchase the software for campuswide use. They also had to explain why students would be willing to let classmates see their notes. “The exchange of notes already exists,” Mulla said. “We just want to maximize that experience.”

Choi provided macro and micro critiques — some of which could force Mulla and his team to pivot even further as they move their application forward. For Choi, getting the notes wasn’t the problem.

“The hard part is studying and taking in the notes,” she said. “I wanted to see interaction among the students, because that’s where the taking-in of the knowledge comes. That’s going to help you pass the exam.” What if there were universal notes with everyone weighing in, evolving together?

She zeroed in on the mechanics of the group’s presentation, too, reordering the segments so that, in a real pitch scenario, venture capitalists would find it more engaging and easier to follow. “I don’t know who you are,” she warned, “and until I see what you’re proposing, I have no interest in you.”

Guard your lunch

You’ll see people seated in the GA building, but you won’t see anyone sitting still. The constant forward movement of ideation is relentless. Eight million New Yorkers teeming on the streets outside are an ever-present reminder of potential consumers and pervasive competition.

But what happens when business accelerator students like Mulla return to the lush and quiet Chenango Valley?

They keep starting up.

“When I came back on campus, I asked people questions about the problems they were having,” Mulla said. “I was soaking in the information.” (A professor told him about turtles laying fragile eggs beneath Caribbean sands just before hurricane season, and Mulla’s first thought was how to design systems to find and conserve them.)

“This is the time to explore if entrepreneurship is the space for me,” Mulla said. “GA taught me to have space for imagination, and it helped me get into a leadership position, to step up into uncomfortable roles and reach out to people. I brought those skills back to campus.”

Mulla and his crew continue to develop Shave, taking into account the comments they received in Manhattan and the insights they hear from classmates. And, he’s pondering a handful of new ideas on his own.

“This is the time to explore if entrepreneurship is the space for me,” he said. “GA taught me to have space for imagination, and it helped me get into a leadership position, to step up into uncomfortable roles and reach out to people. I brought those skills back to campus.”

Not every student who attends a business accelerator course will decide to make a living as an entrepreneur. But entrepreneurial skills — the ability to listen closely, think analytically and creatively about solutions, focus on human need rather than potential payout, and proceed logically in the face of pressure and doubt — reinforce the core values of a liberal arts education.

Someday, Mulla might be his own boss. But should he decide to join a going concern, he will be able to point to his Colgate transcript, with its distinctive core curriculum and interdisciplinary spirit. He will note that he has learned to learn. He will also be able to highlight the leadership he demonstrated with a group of new friends in their fast-paced, learn-as-you-go attempt to develop a pitch-ready viable product in just five days.

The dozen other applicants don’t stand a chance.

Jimmy Anim ’19 speaks with Rohan Chaudhari ’19 and Araven Tiroumalechetty ’19

Jimmy Anim ’19 (left), Rohan Chaudhari ’19 (center), and Araven Tiroumalechetty ’19

(Left to right) Fjordi Mulla ’19, Jenny Robinson ’18, and Araven Tiroumalechetty ’19

(Left to right) Fjordi Mulla ’19, Jenny Robinson ’18, and Araven Tiroumalechetty ’19

Entrepreneurial App-titude

Students embraced the wisdom of nimble flexibility. “You’re always going to have to change your plans,” said Jimmy Anim ’19, co-creator of Quick Eats, a meal plan for millennials. “It’s not out of indecision, but to make your product better.” “Every single person in our group brought something different to the table,” said Jenny Robinson ’19. “We used those differences to make the product better and more accessible. It taught us a lot about teamwork.”