During spring break (March 2019), the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship and BrownConnect took 6 students and 2 staff on an immersive Synapse trip to explore the startup culture in London, as a part of their international collaborative offerings. The five-day, all-expenses-paid trip was made possible through the generosity of a Brown alum. The trip provided students with the opportunity to visit companies that encompass a wide spectrum of entrepreneurial activity, as well as time to explore the city and its rich history.
The trip expanded the students’ professional networks and exposed them to nuanced perspectives from founders, private equity financiers, and CEOs. Max Easton ‘16, co-founder of Willie’s Superbrew, welcomed the cohort over dinner before their immersion days to provide them a unique perspective on the startup scene in London as well as provide the cohort with high tea recommendations. On Monday, the day started by walking through Kensington Garden and the Palace grounds, as they headed to our first stop at the Founders Factory (FF). Winnie Akadjo, Talent Community Manager at FF, guided the group through their mission to work with corporate sponsors and 60 of their own operators to help founders build companies. The group then headed to Leadenhall Market for lunch where the cohort explored the old and new architecture before heading into Lloyds of London to learn about the history of the world’s oldest insurance company and their innovation lab. The group ended the day with the founder of AebeZe Labs, where they discussed the nuances of startups, mental health, and technology.
Tuesday, the cohort’s day started off with an introduction to design thinking through the perspective of founders of Holition Charles Bonas ‘91 and Jonathan Chippindale. Then Rhea Kalogeropoulos ‘06 (pictured above in the center), founder of Prettly, provided the students with her personal narrative of what it means to be an entrepreneur and make entrepreneurship work for you. The students headed to the Net-a-Porter’s London headquarters to meet the president of the company, Alison Loehnis ‘92. She walked the students through her intrapreneurial journey from working in retail to the head of the company. They then headed to the Houses of Parliament to meet the Earl of Erroll for a roundtable discussion on international entrepreneurship. Students got to meet other students and professors from local universities and explore the historical building.
On Wednesday the students had coffee with the founder of Searchlight Capital, Oliver Haarmann ‘90, an open discussion on women and entrepreneurship with Goya Gallagher ‘91 of Malaika Linens, Dafna Bonas of Indie Bay Snacks, Tamara Arbib ‘05 of Rebel Kitchen and Cynthia Kaufmann Gabay ‘92 of the Duet Group. The day ended with an alumni networking event hosted by Alla Bashenko ’98, AM’98 at a beautiful WeWork space, followed by dinner with Robin Doumar ’85, P’20, P’22, P’23 of Park Square Capital.
Our immersive, educational, and life-changing Synapse trips from Barcelona, to London, to SF, are possible due to the generosity of alumni donors. We thank them for continuing to support entrepreneurial endeavors that take students off of College Hill and transport them to new cities and startup ecosystems.
If you are interested in getting involved please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Continue reading to learn more from the cohort and their own reflections on the trip.
Applications for London 2020 open in November. Check back here for more info.
Dana Kurniawan ‘22, Environmental Science, I.C. in User Experience Design
If being an entrepreneur is partly determined by how creative and resourceful we can be, going to London and witnessing the startup ecosystem reconceptualized the types of creativity, resourcefulness, and philosophies we can infuse into our work.
Be it hearing from an early stage startup like Prettly, or a scaled organization like Net-a-Porter, London Synapse helped me realize the kind of team I want to work in: multidisciplinary; the work I want to do: interdisciplinary.
As a buzzword, entrepreneurship has connotations of risk, burnout, and an all-consuming nature that eclipses the nuances and diverse personalities that define it. Without a doubt, there is no trend, no consistent relationship, or sure-fire way of charting a path in entrepreneurship. What I took away from the intimate nature of the roundtables we had the privilege of participating in was this — if we do not keep teasing out the meaning for why we do what we do, as you evolve as a person, you will lose the reason for grit and resilience.
Especially in building something from the ground up, the practice of entrepreneurship advocates that you live and breathe your idea. But the co-founders and alums offered an additional nuance, that you will be defined not by the results of your work, but how you do it. In a place where early-stage funding is more difficult to secure and patents require a more rigorous level of definition than the US, there is also the relief of knowing you do not have to start now. Work experience, active listening, and witnessing is integral. In many ways, London Synapse was an opportunity for us to do just that.
Xinru Li ‘22, Music and Economics
The London Synapse was a wonderful experience that it is difficult to define the most impactful part for me, but the highlight was definitely the amazing people I got to meet and know — both from our site visits as well as the students and staff in the London Synapse cohort. The memories, advice, and inspiration I received will remain with me for the rest of my life.
Before going on this trip, I had a vision of an entrepreneur as someone starting a business out of their college dorm, perhaps dropping out of college to pursue their passions. This trip really made me rethink what it means to be an entrepreneur.
We met entrepreneurs who started right out of college as well as entrepreneurs who didn’t start a company until they were in their forties. We’d talked to “intrapreneurs” who started their ventures within a larger organization, which was not something I’d thought about before this trip. But even with this diversity in entrepreneurial experiences, a major trend I noticed throughout the visits was that entrepreneurship was a team effort. The myth of a single entrepreneur starting a multi-million dollar company out of their garage was quickly debunked throughout our trip as we spoke to founders or leaders of companies in various industries and spaces, of various sizes, and with various backgrounds.
Apart from all the lessons I learned about entrepreneurship, I also received amazing life advice. I learned it’s okay to not know what you want to do with your life and that it’s okay to pursue your current passions even if it doesn’t seem practical. It really reminded me that not everything I want to get done needs to be done in college, I should embrace spontaneity and really enjoy the remaining three years of my time here at Brown. During our free time in London, I saw Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Part 1 at the Palace Theatre with George and Julian. Watching the beautiful choreography and the magic of the story come to life on stage made London seem like a place of endless creativity and possibilities.
Renny Ma ‘20, Public Health
Being in London was an incredible experience; not only was I in complete awe the entire train ride from the airport to our hotel and nearly every moment afterwards, it was extremely refreshing to meet such a wide range of companies, such kind and welcoming Brown alums, and to spend time with such an insightful and interesting cohort.
I think one of the most important lessons I learned through this experience was echoed by Brown alums Alison Loehnis at Net-A-Porter and Tamara Arbib at Rebel Kitchen — that entrepreneurship is not just limited to starting companies; there is a lot of room for innovation from within organizations as well.
As someone who hasn’t actually started a company, it was encouraging to recognize that there are actually more entry points to entrepreneurship than I expected.
Another memorable moment from the trip took place while eating ramen with the cohort at Kanada-Ya, where I had an opportunity to share about challenges I’d been experiencing in linking my concentration and career interests. Even though we had only met a couple days before, I felt a lot of support from my peers, and was surprised by how easily they helped me pinpoint the things I was most passionate about back on campus, including mental health and working at the CareerLAB. In thinking about the lessons I learned from Alison and Tamara, and in reflecting on the advice I’d received from many of the entrepreneurs and my peers, I was inspired to think about my academic path in a way that was much more open, flexible, and true to my interests and strengths.
I am so grateful to have been a part of London Synapse. Being in such an entrepreneurial city was rejuvenating and eye-opening, and it led me to people I probably never would have met otherwise. I am so excited to channel this energy into the rest of my studies, to keep building upon my relationships, and to continue pursuing my ideas.
Julian Vallyeason ‘20, Chemical Engineering, Applied Math-Economics
The breadth of organizations and people we met – from Brown alums launching small businesses to venture capitalists investing in new ideas – showed me the sheer diversity in the venture community in London. As a college student, I have had a skewed perception of “entrepreneurship.” I had seen other college students building products from their dorm and launching companies immediately after graduation. But over the five-day program, I saw that simply wasn’t always the case. We met Brown alum and private equity financier Oliver Haarmann, who worked in the financial industry for decades launching Searchlight Capital. We met external advisors, like Lmarks, who worked on short-term projects to promote new practices in large, established companies like Lloyds of London. And we met many “textbook” entrepreneurs, who were looking to raise capital and grow their businesses.
It was the conversations and interactions that we had with the people we met and the places they worked, that struck me as fascinating. Many of the founders we spoke to had worked in large companies before entering the venture space; a clear consequence of this was a more measured and practical approach in the way they built companies, as well as a strong air of professionalism in their offices. Many of them shared stories of how their background, both through their prior work and the people they met along the way, helped them grow to where they were now. I hope to take a similarly measured pace as I consider my post-Brown career, rather than rushing toward a goal.
London is a beautiful city, but having the opportunity to experience it with the Synapse cohort added a new dimension to our experience. On the first day, a group of us went to watch Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, followed by an organ recital at Westminster Abbey.
As we walked around the city, we noticed that the city mixed very old, historic architecture, with brand-new 21st-century offices in a seamless way. Walking through the city seemed almost like straddling 1000 years on a timeline.
And of course, walking between companies and exploring the city was made infinitely better by the friendships everyone in the program made with one another.
Natalie Feinstein ‘20, Chemistry
For me, the most impactful moment of London Synapse came when we sat down with Rhea Kalogeropoulos ’06, founder of mobile beauty services startup Prettly. Rhea spoke candidly about having to figure things out as you go, for example when she had to make the difficult decision to end a marketing campaign and sacrifice growth for revenue contrary to the Facebook model of first growth, then profitability. She also shared with us what it was like to pitch to a room full of venture capitalists while visibly pregnant (VCs become uncomfortable to say the least). In other words, Rhea made the life of a founder feel tangible in a way it never has before. It was also eye-opening to hear Rhea say that being a founder is the best possible job for a new mother, a sentiment echoed by the wonderful Brown alumnae we met at the Women-Owned Ventures Luncheon.
Popular wisdom would have it that to be successful, a founder must sacrifice several years of their life, but actually, being a founder allows you to set your own hours and arrange your life alongside your other commitments.
In addition to meeting cool founders, there was London itself. Hyde Park on a sunny spring day is paradise. Even though none of us knew each other before the trip, bumbling around the city together made it feel like we had been friends for years. Thank you to everyone at the Nelson Center, CareerLAB, and beyond who made this trip possible. And finally, thank you to Liz Malone of the Nelson Center and the aforementioned Matt Donato of CareerLAB, our “chaperones”, who with their humor and sense of adventure, made London Synapse what it was.
George Lee ‘21, Computer Science
Without a doubt, the London Synapse Trip has been one of the highlights of my time at Brown so far. In just a short few days, I learned so much about the cultural beauty of London, the various different forms entrepreneurship can take, what it takes to be successful, and just how many different paths one can take in their career. I had the immense pleasure to meet and speak with so many amazing people, not just the entrepreneurs we met, but also the other members of the cohort. Some of my fondest memories were our nightly dinners where we unpacked the day’s events or the small conversations we had on our way from destination to destination.
London was absolutely amazing, a true cultural melding of old and new. Centuries-old taverns stood proudly alongside gleaming skyscrapers while ancient cathedrals sat next to towers of steel and glass. I had a blast visiting ancient wonders in the British Museum, listening to an organ concert in Westminster Abbey, and a true highlight, getting to experience the magic of Harry Potter first hand by catching Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at the historic Palace Theatre in London’s West End. I could go on and on about how amazing that play was and how we just showed up with no tickets and managed to snag some right at the door, but alas, as fun as the sight-seeing was, that was not the true purpose of the visit.
Visiting startups and companies from all different stages and industries really opened my eyes to just how many opportunities for innovation there is in the world. Entrepreneurs can come from any background, from any place, with any idea. You can start right here on Brown’s campus-like Max Easton did with Farmer Willie’s or you can start in your 40’s and build a successful private equity firm like Oliver Haarmann. You can decide to move to Egypt, fail to create a magazine company, learn from it, and develop a thriving linen empire like Goya Gallagher or work your way up from the security of a large company and innovate from within like Alison Loehnis of Net-a-Porter. You can find innovation from 300-year-old insurance companies trying to support inventions with an internal incubator like Lloyds or help early-stage startups build from the ground up like Founders Factory.
Entrepreneurship defies definition, and as long as someone wants to make something happen in the world, with enough drive, resilience to failure, and perseverance, they can do it!
Although there is no denying that building a company is hard, extremely hard, the people we visited are proof that it can be done. I felt like I’ve always been interested in entrepreneurship as a possible career move, but after this trip my interest has only grown. So if you have an idea and need a Software Developer or are interested in my Beef Wellington recipe (I was inspired to make it shortly after not being able to actually taste it in London) hit me up at email@example.com!