Van Wickle Ventures (VWV), Brown’s first student run-venture fund, is excited to announce their first investment in 305 Fitness. 305 Fitness is a dance-cardio fitness brand founded by Sadie Kurzban ‘12, who began teaching the classes out of the OMAC here at Brown. She won the Brown Entrepreneurship Program’s Venture Pitch competition in 2008 and launched 305 in New York with the $25K cash earnings from the competition. Today, 305 Fitness offers over 500 classes a week across 6 studios and 3 pop-ups in major U.S. cities.
Sadie’s story is the perfect example of the kind of founder VWV was created to support – one who follows the entrepreneurship process and had close ties to the Brown community. VWV will be participating in 305’s Series A alongside world-class investors such as Founders Fund, RiverPark VC, and Healthyish Ventures, as well as earlier angels including Tiesto and Kevin Durant.
VWV is also delighted to announce the students comprising the second cohort. Chosen from over one hundred applicants, there were nine that blew the team away with their curiosity, intellect, and creativity. The group includes founders of 3 non-profits in addition to sports tech and hair care ventures, crypto enthusiasts, and a medical school student – and ask them about their gap years! You can learn more about the team here. If you know a Brown- or RISD-affiliated founder, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“From my own limitations comes inspiration.” Jayna Zweiman ’01 discusses interdisciplinary entrepreneurship through the Pussyhat Project and the Welcome Blanket Project at the Nelson Center’s Oct. 18 event, hosted for Family Weekend.
Jayna Zweiman ’01, co-founder of the Pussyhat Project and founder of the Welcome Blanket, joined Executive Director of the Nelson Center Danny Warshay ’87 in conversation on Oct. 18. The event was the first of two scheduled by the Nelson Center for the University’s annual Family Weekend, welcoming both alums and visiting family members to join our usual audience of students.
Reflecting on her time on College Hill and unique path as a young post-grad, Zweiman described herself as the “quintessential Brown student,” double concentrating in Economics and Visual Arts and even completing every pre-med requirement (save for physics, which she would have to revisit when applying to architecture school down the road). She went on to embark on a stint as a management consultant, attend architecture school at Harvard, do campaign and inauguration work for Bill Clinton’s reelection, work as a game designer at a startup, and eventually work full-time in architecture while also curating exhibitions about women in architecture and serving as a visiting professor of architecture for six months at the Monterrey Center for Higher Learning of Design in Mexico (CEDIM).
However, in 2013, Zweiman sustained a head injury that led to a long recovery process, putting her out of work for years until the start of the Pussyhat Project in 2016, her most recognizable work to date. She described the frustration of watching movements like Black Lives Matter gain traction in that time while being unable to support and participate in activism as fully as she’d like. This feeling, specifically in response to being unable to travel to the Women’s March happening in Washington, D.C. that January, drove Zweiman to begin brainstorming the Pussyhat Project with co-founder Krista Suh, whom she’d grown closer to through a knitting and crocheting group — a “healing modality” for Zweiman during her recovery.
Zweiman had two goals for the initiative: to create a large visual impact (greatly inspired by the 1987 AIDS Quilt, which was also displayed at the National Mall in D.C.) and to create an impactful distribution pattern where people could easily participate in the March despite barriers to access. It granted agency to those who might feel unable to contribute for a myriad of reasons, said Zweiman. The Pussyhat Project became a viral success, uniting people through social media and partnering with 175 local yarn stores across the country. The total duration of the project from launch to the Women’s March was 59 days.
Despite the virality of the initiative, Zweiman credits the project’s success with years of experience and thoughtful consideration, reflective of her interdisciplinary approach fostered at Brown. “The Pussyhat Project happened very, very fast, but I had been working on projects for a really long time,” Zweiman emphasized. “Even though this looks like some overnight boom … there had been years of testing different things.”
She discussed elements of the project she’d actually tinkered with across many roles and disciplines. The concept of knitting a hat and passing it on with a personal note to a stranger attending the March developed with the same approach Zweiman took to analyzing how text in art exhibitions becomes meaningful to viewers. Her time in consulting aided her consideration of distribution patterns. Above all, core concepts of architecture — “building something out of nothing” — aided Zweiman throughout the entrepreneurial process: How would the Pussyhat Project serve as an accessible point of activism for the Women’s March? Like architectural conceptions of extended time and space, the individual’s experience was not limited to the March: “It was all the time and space leading up to the March.”
As for what came after the Pussyhat Project, Zweiman once again found herself called to a creative, social entrepreneurial venture, in response to an urgent political climate. In 2017, she began the Welcome Blanket Project based on the proposed 2,000-mile-long wall along the Mexico/U.S. border. The distance of the proposed border wall was reimagined as 2,000 miles of yarn used to make individual “welcome blankets” for new refugees. Makers were also invited to share their own immigration, migration, and/or relocation story, “because we all have one.” The Welcome Blanket continues to thrive, moving well past 2,000 miles of yarn, as well as limitations Zweiman observed with the Pussyhat Project and has accounted for and integrated into recent work.
“Not all pussies are pink,” remarked Zweiman, speaking frankly of critiques of the Pussyhat later factored into Welcome Blanket development. “And not all women have pussies.” Furthermore, Zweiman characterized Welcome Blanket not as a single reactive moment, but potentially a “new American tradition,” laying the groundwork for a more pluralistic society.
During the Q&A portion of the event, two guests’ remarks did well to summarize what exactly makes Zweiman’s practice of entrepreneurship infused with artistry and social good so unique to witness. “I’m excited to hear about entrepreneurship that’s not an app,” said a visiting family guest from San Francisco, while a parent stated, “Everything Brown does seems more empathetic.”
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.