On September 27, 2019, The Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship and Brown EP proudly hosted Riche Holmes Grant ‘99 (pictured above center) for a roundtable discussion as part of the Roundtable Discussion Series moderated by Chuck Isgar ’21 (center in, from the right). In the first roundtable hosted in the new Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship Building on Thayer Street, Grant discussed her experiences and key takeaways from building various entrepreneurial ventures, including BambiniWareand “The Riche Life” web series.
From Columbia Law School to starting an education venture
Following her time at Brown, Grant attended Columbia Law School. She came to the realization that the traditional corporate lawyer track might not be right for her after not receiving an offer from her summer firm to return after graduation. As a result, Grant was pointed in another direction: entrepreneurship. In the grand scheme of things, Grant recognizes that this worked out great as it not only launched her on an exciting path, but also allowed her to establish her resilience of dealing with rejection. In the discussion, Grant stressed the importance of fighting through failure.
Back when Grant was doing test prep while waiting for her bar exam results, she realized it could be done better. She also saw that test prep players, such as Kaplan, weren’t competing in markets such as her hometown of Prince George’s County, Maryland–the most affluent African-American county in the country. There was an opportunity in Grant’s head. In 2003, Grant founded Innovative Study Techniques, an education company focused on test preparation and education counseling. This venture was just the start of Grant’s entrepreneurial career.
Understanding your strengths and identifying who can help you
In 2013, Grant launchedBambiniWare, an innovative baby and mommy accessories brand with patented designs and fun and unique prints, inspired by her experience as a new mom. When developing BambiniWare, Grant was aware that she didn’t know everything that it would take to grow the business. Along these lines, Grant shared with the discussion participants the importance of finding experts and making them your mentors.
As Grant worked on BambiniWare, she learned a major lesson: whoever you go into business with, make sure they are committed. Along these lines, Grant advised the participants to not be afraid to start as a solo founder.
Within one year of launching BambiniWare, Grant had established a partnership with Martha Stewart. Since 2015, she has been a writer forMarthaStewart.com. In addition, she is a Culinary Expert for Williams Sonoma, Inc., writes for Subaru, and serves as a Digital Ambassador for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital – ALSAC.
Starting “The Riche Life:” a lesson in the importance of listening to those around you
At Grant’s core has always been the desire to help people. Over time, Grant heard from multiple people that they thought she should consider sharing some of her thoughts and advice on a video platform. Along these lines, Grant shared an important lesson for the aspiring entrepreneurs in the room: when multiple people tell you the same thing, you need to start thinking about it.
Without even knowing where the record button was on the camera, Grant began her series“The Riche Life.” As usual, Grant was willing to seek advice along the way. Grant shared some advice that was given and believes is important to keep in mind when establishing a media platform: don’t worry about your early numbers, likes, etc. Rather, Grant stressed the importance of creating great content, a principle that has driven her work with “The Riche Life.”
Given that she is not just the show’s host, but also her own makeup artist, production assistant, and more, she has been very careful about the message she is sending. Grant has has placed an emphasis on exploring what makes a person’s life rich — not just money, but also happiness.
Utilizing your resources and advice for the journey ahead
You know the phrase “how can I help you” that you might hear from mentors, peers, and others? Grant has heard it many times before, and you might have also. She encourages people to take advantage of this offer.
Grant remarked that at the end of the day, no matter how well-known someone is, people are just people. There’s no harm in asking for help; the worst-case scenario is someone says “no.”
In the spirit of Grant’s emphasis on continued learning and mentorship, she recommended that you find the best people in your industry and see how you can learn from them, whether through books or other means.
Grant provided many pieces of advice for participants who want to pursue entrepreneurial ventures: you have to have tough skin as most days aren’t rosy and you have to be prepared for bumps in the road.
Another takeaway really stands out: if you’re not afraid, it’s not enough of a challenge for you.
Jessica Murphy ’00, co-founder and chief customer officer of True Fit, discusses pitfalls and pure entrepreneurial joy with B-Lab 2019 cohort
Jessica Murphy ’00 spends most of her time racing from airport to airport on her way to solve problems on a global scale for True Fit Corporation. Understandable, considering the company boasts offices from Boston to London to Mumbai.
True Fit began as an idea during Murphy’s time as an MBA candidate at Babson College, prior to which she studied international commerce at Brown and spent a few years’ stint as a buyer for Filene’s (the department store later succeeded by Macy’s). After enough time on the work force and in business school, Murphy was ready to go “all-in” with True Fit. She threw everything she had at the idea — including $5,000 in repurposed student loans — and chose to forgo the typical post-MBA route.
It paid off. True Fit came into its own as one of the first data platforms for enhancing style and comfort in the retail clothing experience. Most recently, it secured a Series C round of funding for $60 million, no doubt due to Murphy’s combination of business acumen and pure grit.
Murphy visited the Nelson Center’s new Thayer Street building last week to deliver the keynote presentation to this summer’s Breakthrough Lab cohort on the opening day of the program.
Her extensive technical knowledge was evident as she fielded questions encompassing everything from the viability of startups in nascent markets, to evolving your solution through countless iterations. Yet the key takeaway of Murphy’s presentation was what appears to be the secret to her success: a seemingly innate understanding of the emotional workings of both consumer and employee.
“What is that pain point you’ll be focusing on?” she asked the audience of young venture founders. The pain point. The issue that ruins your customer’s whole day. The heart of the consumer’s problem that you can’t lose sight of.
The pain point at the center of True Fit after all these years? To “help people find clothes and shoes they’ll love and keep.” It’s a broad stroke mission statement that speaks to how shoppers’ self-image is affected by the struggle to fit into inconsistent, unrealistic sizing. Perhaps it’s this human desire for affirmation, granted by True Fit, that has enabled it to grow to its current user base of over 100 million worldwide.
Jessica Murphy ’00 with our 2019 Breakthrough Lab cohort
“I’m here to be transparent with you,” assured Murphy. And that she was. Moving on from her self-described “brag slides” that list the impressive numbers behind True Fit, Murphy described both joyous accomplishments and dark days as a leader responsible for the livelihoods of hundreds of employees. “It had to work,” she stated. “I had no choice.” From forgoing a salary for years to the challenges of attracting early investors for survival, there was no hardship of the entrepreneurial lifestyle that could not be broached. As a result, Murphy’s audience hung onto every word, eager for more of her candor.
In response to one B-Lab founder’s question, Murphy transitioned to personal challenges. She discussed the culture shock of arriving at Brown, feeling unprepared coming from a single-parent household, often moving from apartment to apartment while growing up in a blue-collar Massachusetts town. Today, these difficulties serve as reminders of where her family came from — something deeply embedded in the fabric of True Fit. Murphy shared, for instance, that her sales presentations to retailers often begin with a photograph of her grandfather who migrated from Colombia to Central Falls, Rhode Island, to work as a loom repairman. Her anecdote illustrates a lineage of builders adept at piecing solutions together — whether that solution is a piece of machinery or a way of reimagining the modern fitting room experience.
Murphy also keeps her immediate family close amidst the ever-present puzzle of work-life balance, another hurdle for entrepreneurs she touched upon. She lovingly refers to her husband (then-boyfriend) as her “first angel investor,” and jokes, “True Fit is my first baby. And then I had three real ones.” When asked what will come after her first brain child, Murphy said, “After True Fit’s eventual end… I will never not be an entrepreneur. It’s just too fun.”
The Better Pop is the only kombucha and fruit popsicle. It’s an alternative and enjoyable way to get probiotics into your diet. The distinctive shape has been designed to change the way you eat a popsicle. It allows for better sharing, biting, and an overall different eating experience. Many people have sensitive teeth when biting into cold foods, but this problem was solved by designing a geometric shape that allows each piece to come off easily. Unlike other popsicles, it’s made with no added sugar or fruit concentrate, just whole fruit and kombucha. The whole fruit provides fiber, unlike fruit juice, and the kombucha provides the probiotics.
The idea started when Ruby watched her mother struggle with her digestive health. After numerous doctor appointments, her mother became tired of continually being told to take probiotic pills. She was already taking a lot of pills, and had no interest in taking any more. Ruby began to wonder if there was a more attractive way to consume probiotics. Knowing that kombucha is packed with probiotics, she encouraged her mom to try it. However, her mom was uncomfortable with the idea of drinking fermented tea.
Earlier that summer, Ruby had stumbled upon a popsicle recipe after playing around in the kitchen. Coincidentally, popsicles are one of the only foods that didn’t upset her mother’s stomach. Could popsicles be the medium through which kombucha is consumed? Ruby decided to put this idea into fruition and The Better Pop was born.
After B-Lab, Ruby launched in New York City receiving orders online and personally delivering popsicles door to door after participating in B-Lab. She is now selling The Better Pop at Brooklyn’s Smorgasburg, an outdoor food market that is held every Saturday and Sunday that attracts 20,000 – 30,000 people each day. Interested in attending Brooklyn’s Smorgasburg? Read about what they have to offer (in addition to The Better Pop) !
On March 6, 2019, The Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship and Brown EP proudly hosted Laura Thompson ‘09 for a roundtable discussion as part of the Roundtable Discussion Series moderated by Chuck Isgar ‘20.5. Thompson shared lessons learned through her journey leading the growth of Google X.
An early non-engineering hire at Google X
When Thompson first came to Brown, she thought she would concentrate in applied mathematics. She approached her time at Brown as a way to take engaging classes, and many of these courses lay in the realm of entrepreneurship. She ultimately graduated with a degree in public policy, but not before successfully launching Runa, a tea company with a social mission of providing opportunities for Amazonian farmers.
After doing some work in London with Google’s budding consumer electronics group, Thompson joined Google X, Google’s “moonshot factory”. Thompson was a unique addition to Google X as she represented an early non-engineering hire for the team. When she joined, there were four projects in the works under the Google X umbrella: one being self-driving cars. And you’re probably wondering about those other three? Well, as much of her work at Google X, it was secretive.
So, what was a public policy major doing as one of the few non-engineers on a team trying to solve complex technical problems, ranging from combating climate change to the future of robots? Thompson shared that the fact she wasn’t an engineer is actually what made her so valuable at Google X. For example, Thompson helped teams think about the human consequences of their work and what it would take for projects to land successfully in the real world.
Leading Google X through the years
There is a growing need in technology to prioritize human-centered design and Thompson is pleased to see this movement progressing. Along these lines, Thompson explained that they thought about sustainability at every level of the project and ideation process in her time at Google X.
The goal at Google X is to create a culture of innovation that leads to development of ideas for the future. At first, Google X thought that the way to achieve the most success would be to have everyone together. Over time, they realized that this model wasn’t sustainable. Thompson was part of the transformation from the ‘everyone-in-a-garage-mentality’ to a more sustainable model where each project gets spun off and has its own business model, while still being under the Google X umbrella.
Analyzing ideas at Google X
To the budding venture capitalists in the room, Thompson shared a framework that they commonly utilized at Google X when deciding which new projects to undertake. For each potential project, they would make a list of all the reasons the project would be an epic failure. As the team worked on the project and overcame the challenges, they would cross them off the list. If a project could overcome one quarter of their challenges, the project would likely be a go, as the team had proven they have the ability to overcome the difficulties that will surely present themselves along the way.
Thompson explained another rule of thumb used at Google X when evaluating new projects: “is this going to affect one billion people in a meaningful way?” This message resonates closely with the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship’s mantra: create solution with impact.
Despite the best intentions, many successful innovations come from random, happy experiments. It is for this reason that while they had rubrics in place, they also saw it was important to let teams run loose.
The innovators in the room were curious to get Thompson’s thoughts on what’s next in terms of innovative technology. Thompson explained that, for one, it is good to see a growing skepticism surrounding technology. She is excited that the next generation appears to be focused on technology being good for humanity.
Thompson thinks there are opportunities for disruption in the fields of personal finance, logistics of shipping and transportation, and sustainability. And her personal favorite, dog-related startups, too.
As the discussion neared an end, Thompson left students with some words of wisdom: “you’re only going to be great at something if you’re excited about it.” Along these lines, Thompson stressed the importance of pursuing things you’re excited about with people you respect and who you have shared values with and enjoy working with.
During Fall 2018, Rhymes with Reason was featured with Bloomberg’s Social Media Content Outlet “Tic-Toc.” The feature visits Rhymes with Reason CEO and founder, Austin Martin ‘17 at a school where the program is in use—Hackensack High School in New Jersey. Watch the video here.
Rhymes is presently working on adding more extensive (and current) content for Fall 2019, including brand new vocabulary enrichment exercises, teacher instructional materials and more with the help of their team of School of Education Harvard Graduates. Rhymes is also slated for use in new cities for the 2019 school year, and are working on International expansion. Hip-Hop and American pop music is a firmly established global phenomenon, and it is growing every day. What better way to participate in this growth than to allow it to be used as a mechanism for learning! Learn more here.
Mollie West Duffy has co-authored No Hard Feelings, which will be released on February 5. The book is a visual exploration of how to embrace emotion at work and become more authentic and fulfilled while staying professional.
When it comes to emotions at work, there’s rarely a happy medium. In some offices, your boss might send snaps of her weekend getaway in Vegas, or your coworker might send twenty texts about how Susan ate his clearly labeled lunch…again. Other offices are buttoned-up emotional deserts, where crying is only allowed in the bathroom and you suspect your coworkers might be robots. Either extreme hurts employee health and productivity.
Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy take a charming and deeply researched look at how emotions affect our professional lives and how we can navigate emotions at work. The modern workplace can be an emotional minefield (Do I shake my boss’s hand or give her a hug? Did I forget to mute my phone on the conference call?) filled with unwritten rules. As our jobs become more collaborative, complex, and stressful, effectively embracing emotion is more important than ever.
The book combines practical advice and scientific research to give you the tools you need. A sample:
* Forget “unemotional” decisions; there are none. In fact, rational decisions require you to acknowledge and examine your emotions. For instance, fear often indicates anticipated future regret.
* Real, valuable feedback is not going to feel like a gift. Realize that negative feedback often means the criticizer cares about helping you improve and is willing to bear the awkwardness of a difficult conversation.
* Stop letting someone else’s bad mood ruin your day. Emotions are viral– we catch the feelings of those around us. If you’re stuck next to a constant complainer, mentally remove yourself from the situation.
* Learn to communicate and interpret digital messages. That “totally normal” email you sent may be seen as hostile because you didn’t explicitly state your positive emotions (e.g., “I love what you did here!”).
Thanks to Fosslien’s sharply funny two-color illustrations, No Hard Feelings is a romp through behavioral economics, psychology, and organizational design.