One panel of Bear’s Lair judges. Pictured L to R: Arnell Milhouse, Aneesha Mehta ’14, Bob Place ’75, Marcia Hooper ’77
Breakthrough Lab, the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship’s eight-week accelerator for student ventures, concluded July 26 with Bear’s Lair, a pitch event similar to Shark Tank. Fourteen ventures presented to a revolving panel of four judges, receiving critical feedback and an “in or out” vote.
The B-Lab cohort of summer 2019 includes a total of thirty students and graduates from Brown and RISD, as well as institutions like UPenn and MIT. Academic disciplines span the breadth of the University’s offerings, and the ventures’ sector spaces display a similar diversity, running the gamut from food and beverage to surgical devices to mental health awareness. (Contact information for our students can be found here.)
Their eight weeks of preparation leading up to Bear’s Lair comprised workshops and presentations from industry professionals on topics like venture financing, consumer marketing, early-stage team building, and customer acquisition; office hours with Nelson Center staff and guest advisors; ample time for working on their ventures in dedicated workspaces in our new building; and weekly sessions on crafting and delivering the elevator pitch.
“Bear’s Lair was a test of everything we had learned up to that point,” commented Quentin Altemose MS’20, co-founder of Quark Labs. “It taught us that while we have made substantial progress, there is always something to learn.” Karina Bao ’22, co-founder of Lila, echoed this sentiment: “It really felt like the culmination of our whole summers, where we could apply what we learned about public speaking, market sizing, patents, teams, fundraising, and marketing to summarize our progress at B-Lab.”
Altemose and Khobi Williamson MS’20 pitch Quark Labs, a venture aiming to produce lab-grown, sustainable leather.
Victoria Yin ’22 and Bao pitch Lila, a superfood brand aiming to popularize Goji berries in food and beverage.
The first panel of judges included Charlie Kroll ’01, co-founder and president of Ellevest; Karina Wood, executive director of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Program at the Community College of Rhode Island; Thorne Sparkman, managing director of the Slater Technology Fund; and Paulash Mohsen ’95, chief business officer at Yumanity Therapeutics.
The second panel included Bob Place ’75, managing director of the Clean Energy Venture Group; Marcia Hooper ’77, senior advisor at Bowside Capital; Aneesha Mehta ’14, principal at Bain Capital; and Arnell Milhouse, co-founder and CEO of CareerDevs Computer Science Academy and one of the Nelson Center’s incoming Entrepreneurs in Residence.
During feedback rounds, the judges offered help in forming influential connections and searching for investors, as well as delivered some high praise for the ventures’ early-stage growth. “The most important aspect of any startup is the team,” commented Milhouse, “and the primordial mix of interdisciplinary academic thought-leaders within the B-Lab teams is powerful.”
Julia Lemle, RISD MA’19 pitches Grand, a venture that creates elegant products for the elderly. One judge deemed her mission and eye for user design “Jobsian.”
“Presenting in front of the Bears was both fulfilling because it validated all the hard work we had been putting into [our venture] the last two months and informative because of the wonderful feedback and advice we were able to receive in that short 10-minute window,” said Megan Molina, RISD ’19, co-founder of BASA. “It was a positive experience and one I am excited to repeat at the showcase in September!”
The cohort will return to the Nelson Center on September 25 for the B-Lab Showcase event open to the public.
Fernanda Bolaños, PhD’19.5 and Molina pitch BASA, a venture that designs STEAM curricula for underprivileged students.
ARMS: Bella Roberts ’20 (Not pictured: Beth Pollard ’21)
EmboNet: Gian Ignacio ’18 MD ’22 (Not pictured: Emily Holtzman, RISD ’18)
Intus Care: Samuel Prado ’21 and Robbie Felton ’21 (Not pictured: Teo Tsivranidis ’20)
La Pâte: Lucas Fried ’21 (Not pictured: Ian Chiquier ’21)
Mobile-Med Data Solutions: Sai Kaushik Yeturu ’21 (Not pictured: Mayank Mishra, University of Pennsylvania ’21)
Omena: Francesca Raoelison ’22
Pillar: Oscar Newman ’21, John Bitar ’21, Ben Gershuny 21
Primitive Labs: Noa Machover ’19.5 and Viirj Kan MA’17
ResusciTech: Abigail Kohler ’20 and Greg Fine ’20
SelectEd: Amy Wang MA’19 (Not pictured: Jessica Wang ’22 and Santiago Ibañez, MIT Sloan ’13)
The Nelson Center’s Breakthrough Lab cohort of summer 2019 comprises thirty students and graduates of various institutions working on fourteen early-stage ventures. “Humans of B-Lab” was an ongoing social media campaign aiming to capture the passion and individuality of each of these founders.
You can find contact information for the ventures here.
Not pictured: Primitive Labs, founded by Noa Machover ’19.5 and Viirj Kan ’17, Master’s in Media Arts and Sciences
Photographs and interviews by Dana Kurniawan, with additional work by Vicky Phan
“Art to Reduce Mental Health Stigma (ARMS) is a Rhode Island-based nonprofit whose mission is to challenge the stigma surrounding mental illness, using art as a forum for self-expression, healing, and dialogue. We want to empower artists to share their narratives and their art, but also for the general community – people who are not familiar with mental health to have really vulnerable, honest conversations about the mental health stigma.
We’re not here as therapists, educators, or to target a specific mental health community. We’re really here to give everyone equal accessibility for starting conversations. We want to open doors for people who don’t know how to talk about mental health.
We’re currently working on a mobile app to track instances of externalized versus internalized stigma, and how their perception of mental illness changes after our events. So hopefully, this will contribute to research being done nationally and also give our organization the opportunity to tailor events to ways that are most effective for our audience. During B-Lab we’re going to build a more cohesive framework for ARMS.”
Art to Reduce Mental Health Stigma (ARMS)
Left: Beth Pollard ’21, Contemplative Studies
Right: Bella Roberts ’20, Literary Arts and Public Policy
“We met coincidentally through an interdisciplinary exhibition. We spent hours talking about children’s education and how important it is to provide design and engineering skills to the children of today. Megan loves making children’s books and Fernanda and Rosinda Fuentes [co-founder currently based in Poland] are very passionate about teaching and have been looking for someone as creative as Megan to join the BASA team. After having our first sit-down conversation about the venture outside of the RISD library at the beginning of the spring, we thought, “Wow.” We all want to unleash kids’ potential and we share principal values, let’s do something together!
Since then we have really connected. It feels like we’ve known each other for much longer. BASA is on a mission to empower the next generation of innovators by designing creative learning opportunities for the children of today. We aim to prepare children and teens for the challenges of the 21st century and build a lifelong community of learners passionate in STEAM, by offering a variety of playful educational resources.
We believe that all children, no matter who they are, where they are from, or the communities they are engaged in, deserve the opportunity to develop the skills they need to build a creative, meaningful life. As we design BASA, we are making conscious decisions to ensure every kid will have access to our resources.”
Left: Fernanda Bolaños, PhD ’19.5
Right: Megan Molina, RISD ’19, Illustration
Not pictured: Rosinda Fuentes, University of Edinburgh PhD ’18
“We met in the capstone course for Biomedical Engineering Design and Innovation. Doctors came and pitched a need, and we formed a group around doctors for cardiovascular surgery. Basically during surgeries there is a risk of brain damage due to complications, which can be alleviated by collecting embolic debris. From there, we decided to create an embolic protection device, which involves collecting and retrieving embolic debris in the aorta during surgery.
After shadowing doctors, looking through the procedure at each part, we tried to figure out the entire process by which the embolic debris gets to the brain and how other devices that people have tried have not succeeded in that. But a lot of people have had issues with trying to retrieve it once they’ve collected it around the aorta. We thought, “Let’s try to find a solution that way.” With Emily’s textiles expertise, we tried to find a potential solution for retrieval. We both got to watch open-heart surgery in real life. When I was there, I was like, ‘I’m in arts school. How did I get here?’ [Emily]
I think the networking from B-Lab will enable us to reach broader audiences to get more funding … Because it’s pricey! It’s not just people who have strokes for whom this is applicable, we can apply this to other types of surgeries as well. B-Lab will also help us develop our business skills, and hopefully bring our product up to scale.”
Left: Emily Holtzman, RISD ’18, Textiles
Right: Gian Ignacio ’18, MD’22
Not pictured: Celina Hsieh ’18, MD’22; Ileana Pirozzi ’18, Stanford University PhD ’22
“I’m interested in developing products for the elderly population that don’t seem cold or clinical, but instead speak to higher-level needs — self-actualization, self-expression, personal style. We all have those needs throughout our lives. But for some reason, products designed for the elderly seem to address function alone. I had a very stylish grandmother, and she absolutely hated using canes and walkers because of the way they looked, and the way they made her feel. I think all of us have someone in our lives who is dealing with the physical challenges of aging. It’s quite universal.
Right now my focus is on canes, which are near and dear to my heart. I am also pursuing cane accessories and accessible clothing closures — buttons, snaps, and zippers — which are pretty difficult to use if you have limited manual dexterity. Particularly in the elderly population, there is a high incidence of arthritis which affects fine motor skills. I’m making things that are accessible but still fun and exciting to look at, an augmentation rather than something to hide.
The closures in particular are a great example of universal design. So much of clothing is not designed for ease of dressing, whether or not you have any physical challenges. And so by creating closures that work for people with arthritis, you’re also making something that makes dressing easier for a ton of other use cases — people wearing winter gloves, for example, or firefighters in a high-stress situation, or children. Designing for inclusivity is a business opportunity.”
Julia Lemle, RISD Master’s ’19, Industrial Design
“Intus Care is a mobile platform that connects homecare providers to patients, providing an organized, high-quality, cost-effective way for home healthcare companies to manage and monitor care providers, patients, and appointments.
We’re at a point where we want to start testing out product, so being together in Providence is good for being in close contact to work on it as things change. We’re hoping to gain some mentors who are experienced in this field and meet other co-founders who are in similarly related fields.
By end of B-Lab, we want to get through testing and encryption, making sure we’re HIPAA compliant to be responsible for people’s data and finances.”
Left: Robbie Felton ’21, Public Health
Center: Teo Tsivranidis ’20, Computer Science
Right: Samuel Prado ’21, Economics and Public Health
“We are a mobile crêpe vendor and supplier, La Pâte! Locally, there are no options for hot desserts on Brown’s campus that can be made fresh quickly and taken to-go. Very few stores around have convenient, eco-friendly packaging for this purpose. By serving crêpes, we address the first issue with a hot dessert that’s made in front of the customer within minutes. With people constantly commuting somewhere on college campuses, the faster and closer the food option is, the better.
We serve our crêpes in recycled cardboard cones, which avoid the styrofoam packaging or plastic utensils of many competing products around. We bought our first crêpe maker in September of 2018, and we’ve been working on logistics like food safety guidelines, as well as our batter and menu.
Food is a social activity, you enjoy it. We also get to fundraise, for example donating 15% of our proceeds to the gun safety movement, March for Our Lives, and promoting their Rhode Island rally. It’s important for any food business to be involved with its community.”
Left: Ian Chiquier ’21, Applied Mathematics
Right: Lucas Fried ’21, Public Policy and Economics
“The original idea for the venture started when I was traveling in Western China. We stopped by the side of the road and these farmers were selling black goji berries — they dropped some in my water and it was incredible. Over winter break, I shared this with Dan and we decided to start this venture.
We learned more about the people who work in those farms. It’s a very disadvantaged part of China, there are school-age children working in those fields, and they’re not paid well. It made us feel a sense of urgency to build this venture. Specifically, we’re working with suppliers and farms who are paying people fair wages.
Lila enables tea newcomers and daily tea drinkers alike to discover novel flavors, healing experiences, and beautifully shareable moments through a wide array of loose-leaf, zero-waste teas from across the world, starting in China’s remote Ningxia province.”
Top left: Karina Bao ’22, Applied Mathematics-Computer Science
Top right: Dan Wang ’17, Applied Mathematics-Computer Science
Bottom left: Victoria Yin ’22, Economics and Psychology
“Last summer, I became an EMT, and I noticed that there was a huge need for better communication between ambulances and hospitals. I also saw this when I was shadowing and observing emergency medicine both here and abroad. There was always a lot of chaos, most often caused by a paper-based system, and I wondered how much it could be improved by technological advancements. So, I got together with my co-founder Mayank — we went to the same high school together in Colorado, and together we made a web application that allows ambulances to communicate with hospitals.
[Ambulance care personnel] input information that’s necessary for the hospital to know into our program with their personal phones, which eliminates the need for extra infrastructure. By creating a low infrastructure solution, our service can be universally adopted with little extra cost. The hospital will receive the information, and be able to add any information they see fit for the patient’s care. Basically, Mobile-Med will improve patient care for emergency medical situations and reduce how long patients stay at the hospital.”
Mobile-Med Data Solutions
Sai Kaushik Yeturu ’21, Chemistry
Not pictured: Mayank Mishra, University of Pennsylvania ’21
”Back in my country, the only form of abuse that I could recognize was physical abuse. Once in America, I learned through my training as a [Sexual Assault] Peer Educator that violence often begins with emotional and psychological abuse, gradually increasing to violent physical abuse. Through my research, I discovered I was not the only one with a limited definition of abuse. It was such an eye-opener for me, and I started being passionate about the subject.
I have a vision of creating an interactive and fun educational platform that will teach school students ages 6-12 about what I believe is the opposite of abuse: emotional awareness, body safety, and healthy relationships. That’s how ‘Omena’ came about.
Omena is a Malagasy pun. ‘Omena’ means to ‘give’ or ‘provide.’ And ‘mena’ means ‘red,’ so in this context, to provide tools and education for students to help them spot red flags ahead of time. Red flags being signs that one is in an unhealthy relationship.
Omena ultimately aims to promote healthier relationships and communities in Madagascar.”
Francesca Raoelison ’22, Business, Entrepreneurship, and Organizations
“At Pillar, we are attempting to build a platform to connect people to causes and charities they care about.
People’s charitable giving, especially when we look at younger generations, is completely disorganized. We give, but we do so reactively – when we see a friend organizing a fundraiser for their birthday or when we get solicited on the street. This leaves us with a scattered sense of our impact on causes around us.
We want to help people to give proactively, so that their giving can reflect their identity. Instead of the money being dispersed randomly, people should be able to distribute their money towards causes and charities that reflect their values, thereby making a real impact on what is important to them.
This all started during freshman year, when we started meeting in the basement of our dorm and brainstorming ideas together. Since then we have cycled through various projects, which have forced us to learn numerous lessons, which we credit for bringing us to where we are now.”
Left: John Bitar ’21, Computer Science
Center: Ben Gershuny ’21, Computer Science
Right: Oscar Newman ’21, Computer Science
“The production of leather and fur around the world results in substantial pollution, and many people consider the ranching and slaughtering of animals to be cruel and unethical. From this need, we are developing laboratory leather, a modern approach to materials for animal lovers.
Our mentor Professor Harry suggested we connect to be able to help each other and see what we can do in terms of research and development. I’m very interested in business, but particularly towards startups and entrepreneurship. I can’t imagine a better place than Brown to do that. [Khobi]
I have a lot of scientific background, but I was looking more for the business aspect and the benefit of being able to work on a project I’m passionate about. What we’re aiming to do is use humane, reverse stem cell engineering techniques to grow real animal skin and furs in a lab. [Quentin]”
Left: Quentin Altemose ’20, Master’s Biomedical Engineering
Right: Khobi Williamson ’20, Master’s PRIME
“We met in ENGN 0030 in freshman year, starting a club together called H-Tech, which is a humanitarian engineering club. The first idea for our startup came from a class, ENGN 2910G where I had planned on making a pressure-sensing surgical table for a project. So we started off thinking about doing that, and then moved on from pressure-sensing to CPR.
Currently, CPR only has a 40% success rate, primarily because of failure to follow CPR guidelines. Rescuers are often stressed and become fatigued as they are performing CPR, making it difficult to maintain the required compression depth and frequency.
By developing a wearable CPR device, ResusciTech aims to improve CPR outcomes by using a proprietary design and simple user interface that is streamlined for rescuers to use in emergency situations. This will result in higher rescuer confidence in their performance of CPR as well as increased quality of care and survival rate for victims of cardiac arrest.”
Left: Abbie Kohler ’20, Biomedical Engineering
Right: Greg Fine ’20, Electrical Engineering
“SelectEd is a digital platform that helps Chinese students who want to study abroad find qualified tutors in the U.S. and other English-speaking countries. Our tutors are current students and recent graduates from the very schools and majors Chinese students are interested in, so Chinese students and families who are unfamiliar with the application process can learn whether a particular university is a good fit for the student or not.
Santiago and I met in Fall 2018 when I was a second-year PhD student at Brown contemplating a career change and seeking entrepreneurial advice; Santiago was an MIT grad and Techstars alum. Driven by a passion for education, I left my doctoral program in December and invited Santiago to work on what later became SelectEd. I approached fellow Brown student Jessica at a career fair after she expressed interest to recruiters in becoming an educational consultant at an American consultancy based in China. When I told Jessica, who has herself worked with educational consultants and created a similar website matching volunteer tutors with low-income students for the city of Dallas, about the idea of creating a platform to provide international students access to high-quality educational consultants, she was immediately on board.
Post B-Lab, we hope to raise money to hire staff to work full-time on marketing in China, so we can focus on growth and expansion into different degree-level applications from different countries.”
Left: Jessica Wang ’22, Economics
Center: Amy Wang ’19, Master’s Political Science
Right: Santiago Ibañez, MIT Sloan ’13
This past May, the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship and Brown Entrepreneurship Program (EP) took 9 students on an immersive Synapse trip to explore the startup culture in San Francisco, CA. The five-day, all-expenses-paid trip was made possible through the generosity of Brown alumni. 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 goal of the trip is to help students expand their professional networks and learn nuanced perspectives from founders throughout the Bay Area and Silicon Valley. Jonathan Speed ‘84 welcomed the cohort over dinner before their immersion days to provide them a unique perspective on the startup scene in San Francisco. Speed’s career spans decades of innovation in the tech and startup space, from founding a SaaS company to leading companies as a CFO, and of course, advising dozens of startups. He is currently the CFO and VP of Operations at Versal Group, an eLearning technology company. His stories and their discussion helped the cohort gain a better understanding of the day-to-day life of the global center for high technology, innovation, and social media. The students felt prepared to embark the next day, to meet impressive alumni and industry leaders making changes in the SF ecosystem.
On Monday, May 20, students sat down for an intimate discussion on how the world can manage identity and access with Greg Kidd ’81, co-founder and CEO of globaliD and a generous donor for the trip. After, the cohort walked over to Y Combinator and had a conversation with Kat Manalac, a partner at YC, about the support structure they provide for each YC cohort, and learned that 70% of startups that go through Y Combinator succeed! By lunchtime they were riding an elevator with the CEO of Slack on their way to chat with Fareed Mosavat ’01, Director of Product Lifecycle, and Zindzi McCormick ‘09, Group Product Manager, about Slack’s growth and the company’s next steps in this time of rapid growth. The last stop on Monday was Yerdle, co-founded by Adam Werbach ‘95, where they sat down with co-founder Andy Ruben to chat about how Yerdle is redefining the future of retail and how brands can best serve their customers as well as the environment. His story of grit and resilience was not only inspiring but also a truly authentic look into the life of a founder.
They ended the jam-packed day with a lively alumni dinner, filled with stories, laughter, and new friendships. The night served as a powerful reminder of the incredible network of Brown alumni who have used everything they learned on College Hill and beyond to make impactful change in the world.
On Tuesday, the students headed to Palo Alto, where they started the day with Lauren Kolodny ‘08, partner at Aspect Ventures, a venture capital firm started by Theresia Gouw ‘90. Lauren brought along two other colleagues at the firm to discuss venture capital as a career path and provide examples of the type of experience VC firms look for when hiring. The cohort then made its way to Robinhood, a financial services company, where students first met with Alvin Hui, who leads university recruiting and programs. He provided a grand tour of the space and then introduced Nili Moghaddam ‘99, Associate General Counsel and Head of Litigation and Investigations at the company who explained her dynamic career path before Robinhood, and the reasons she was drawn to working at a startup. The group also chatted with her about the recent acquisition of MarketSnacks (now called Robinhood Snacks), co-founded by Nick Martell ’11. Nili was the lawyer who helped launch Robinhood Snacks.
The students ended the trip with a visit to Stanford University, where they discussed identity, social innovation, and representation in the field of entrepreneurship with Fern Mandelbaum ‘84, Lecturer in Management at Stanford’s school of business and Managing Partner at Vista Venture Partners. It was a whirlwind of a trip, but one that the students and alumni will never forget. 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.
Karina Bao ‘21, Applied Mathematics/Computer Science
The spirit of Brown alumni in San Francisco is incredible. They don’t accept the status quo. They think about the big picture; the whole system.
Through our conversations, I realized it was more important to build innovatively towards an ideal world than to agonize through every social problem. The conversations with students also helped and encouraged me to believe that sustainable and realistic solutions are possible; it just takes our willpower and teamwork.
At our first meeting with Greg Kidd ‘81, he shared the serendipity of the early days of his startups, Twitter, and his exciting vision for the future through globaliD. It was completely outside the realm of anything I’d ever thought about. And as we continued discussing, although it might seem futuristic, it was completely possible at a large scale. Consequently, my biggest takeaway was his message about solving problems. He said that if you’re solving a big enough problem, there’s no way it won’t be profitable. In other words, don’t necessarily worry about profitability, but focus on understanding the problem, building the solution, and profit will reveal itself.
That afternoon, we visited Yerdle, a clothing recycling company. Andy was extremely open about sharing how the company had 2 major reorganizations while holding the same principles. Now, they had stumbled upon the future for retail and could tell they were ahead of the curve in the service they were providing. It was great to hear about their highs and lows and visit the warehouse to see the inner workings.
During our final stop, Fern Mandelbaum emphasized the importance of bringing people from different backgrounds to the team. She highlighted how every new team member added should be different from the previous members. “If the first 3 people on your team are Brown students, the next should be someone not from Brown or not a student.” Her advice was concrete and straightforward to implement. She pressed that team members should have complementary skill sets instead of similar ones. She also shared stories about her friends who had guest lectured at Stanford like Haben Girma who have taught so much to her students.
Some of my other highlights were saying hello to Michael Seibel in the YCombinator lobby and sharing with him some of the progress I had made since meeting him at HackMIT last fall. Zindzi and Fareed at Slack shared how, “communication is only over when you are heard, not when you are done talking”. And Aerin Lim, an amazing role model from Silicon Valley Bank, shared how excited she was about new tech. Again, I feel enormously optimistic after this trip. The alumni were so warm, welcoming, and eager to share their advice and time. It really makes me excited to become an alum and give back.
Emily Wanderer AM ‘19, Entrepreneurship, Organizations and Social Justice
As a recent master’s graduate of an integrative studies program focused on Entrepreneurship, Organizations and Social Justice, my objective was to understand how I fit into the tech ecosystem in the Bay Area. The stark inequalities amongst San Francisco blocks were palpable. During the trip, I consistently asked about the social impact that the business’ considered. This provided us insight into the city and its inner workings but also how I could position my career to support social equity through tech companies.
A highlight for me was visiting Yerdle Recommerce, who is expanding quickly in their Palo Alto location now employing more than 70 individuals. Meeting the founder gave us a window into the evolution of the business both past and future, from a direct-to-customer reseller to a white label platform. Yerdle has succeeded by using the lean startup approach to find product/market fit before scaling an idea. Now that they’ve validated their idea, they will quickly scale their team and partnerships with brands. It was amazing to see how a small startup could influence an entire industry to shift their assumptions about what creates revenue.
Moving to a new city can be intimidating. I have now moved from Rhode Island to the Bay Area to pursue a career in for-profit social enterprise. As a direct result of the Synapse trip, I already have 7+ meetings set up including with Robinhood, Yerdle, and alumni.
Just this small start in building relationships and networks in a new place eases my fears tremendously. This trip catalyzed so much for my career. I can’t wait to connect all the dots in 6 months-I will keep you updated!
Briana Das ‘21, Psychology
Brown’s San Francisco Synapse trip was a unique opportunity to explore the place I call home. I felt incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to learn about a variety of perspectives from different companies in the area in the realm of entrepreneurship and tech. As someone interested in the intersection of human-centered design, design ethics, and entrepreneurship, there were valuable insights everywhere we went.
Some highlights of the trip included our discussion with Kat at YC, who gave us a look into how YC works to support startups and entrepreneurship networks, particularly seeking ways to scale while maintaining the value of carefully guided mentorship. At Slack, we spoke with Brown graduates and Slack product managers Fareed and Zindzi who gave us insight not just into what it meant to be a product manager at a high growth company like Slack, but also what it means to go out into the world with a Brown degree and how that impacted their path. One of the most impactful people for me was Stanford Business School professor, Fern Mandelbaum. She covered what she teaches, but also discussed identity, social innovation, and the vital importance of representation in the field of entrepreneurship.
Ultimately, the SF Synapse trip left me with this: Every one of us will leave Brown with a unique set of skills and mindsets that we can use wherever we end up. We learned to seek cultures of rapid growth and inclusivity. We learned the value of the relationships we keep, inside and outside of Brown. And the conversations we started along the trip will continue long after we’ve graduated.
Chuck Isgar ‘21, Business, Entrepreneurship and Organizations
While I gained many practical learnings, the clear highlight of the trip for me was the opportunity to connect with and learn from classmates, Brown alumni, and other entrepreneurial figures. Other students and I would discuss our biggest takeaways from each company visit; these conversations allowed me to form relationships with the other entrepreneurial-minded Brown students on the trip.
Various conversations and pieces of practical advice made the trip such an insightful experience. For example, Kat at Y Combinator helped me understand how accelerators and entrepreneurs can balance the many tasks that come up on a daily basis. Our visit to Slack allowed me to realize the importance of continuing to refine my writing skills. At our student-alumni dinner, it was a special opportunity to have a roughly equal number of students and Brown alumni who are working in various entrepreneurial-related roles in the Bay Area.
I found my conversations with Aerin Lim (Silicon Valley Bank) and Olivia Rodriguez (Instacart) to be particularly impactful, especially when hearing their stories of how they ultimately wound up in entrepreneurship-related roles.
The key takeaway was that you should have no fear in pursuing an entrepreneurial-related career from day one, even if that isn’t what many of your classmates are doing.
As well, it was very insightful to hear Lauren Kolodny’s explanation that there are many different paths to VC and to glean other lessons that she has learned in her journey of building Aspect Ventures. These are just a few of the many lessons I learned during the trip. To best put it into perspective, I began the tour with an empty notebook and by the end of our trip it was half-full.
Angela Wang ‘21, Computer Science and Economics
Words like “entrepreneurship” or “startup” excite with their glamorous promise of success and riches. What the Synapse Program did was to help me properly conceptualize the immense amount of work and adaptability that’s required to even come close to making good on that promise.
In this sense, the Synapse Program has been a great learning experience. In the space of a few days we were exposed to every aspect of the entrepreneurship process. Listening and engaging with alums in different stages of their startup journey was incredibly instructive, as it gave us an intimate glimpse into the challenges of succeeding within the startup industry in real-time. The alums were very generous in embracing us into their community, sharing their life stories, and very sincerely opening up about both the adversity as well as the technical struggles they had to confront. Their example demonstrated to me in a tangible and productive way how I should begin to model my career path.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the program was that it changed my entire attitude about what it means to be an entrepreneur. I had always thought of the entrepreneur as someone who strikes gold with a get-rich idea and then works on honing that idea into a company. What I’ve discovered – and this was the most exciting and freeing thing about the program – is that entrepreneurship is much more of a social and fluid process. I will never forget the eureka moment when Greg Kidd of globaliD completely exploded the horizons of my thinking on the entire entrepreneurship concept. His words have inspired me to overhaul and revamp my thinking on what it means to succeed in the world of entrepreneurship. Now, that world feels not only much more expansive but also more promising than ever before.
Tanzina Chowdhury ‘21, Computer Science and Economics
San Francisco Synapse was my first opportunity to experience the Silicon Valley tech ecosystem of startups and meet people full of entrepreneurial spirit. The insights from the alumni dinners and the startup visits were so important for me as a rising junior to think deeply about my ideas and possible ventures, as ideas alone are not effective until we can implement and execute them. The opportunity to conversate with the alumni and tech leaders have given me both motivation and connection to think more critically about my ideas and how to build a roadmap to execute them.
Mostly, it was a great team to travel with and I truly gained a lot of motivation from the ideas and ventures of my fellow peers.
The trip started with the meeting with Greg Kidd in the Digital Garage and I think that was a great introduction for the rest of the trip. Greg not only talked about globaliD and his experience with other ventures such as Twitter and Coinbase, but also discussed the future of the industry by giving us a Silicon Valley cultural overview. I have gained valuable insight from that talk about the future of keeping an electronic identity which seemed really interesting to me to research further into it to explore how it can solve other problems such as corruption. Also, I loved the alumni dinners as I could connect and learn a lot from their stories. Overall, I am really motivated by the Synapse trip and really grateful to be a part of the team of highly motivated individuals to build friendship and mentorship.
Rohan Gupta ‘22, Computer Science
The San Francisco Synapse trip was an amazing experience! The many Brown alumni that we met were all inviting and generous with their advice. It was interesting to learn about all of their various experiences and perspectives, some of which opened my eyes to fundamental changes in our world that I had not previously paid much attention to. Seeing their passion and dedication to their projects and businesses motivated me to follow in their footsteps.
My biggest takeaways from SF Synapse were the importance of relationships, communication, and generosity. Ultimately, business is all about the people – when employees are respected and treated well, companies flourish. Further, just as important as having great ideas is being able to express them clearly to others in both oral and written forms.
And finally, one can’t expect to just keep taking from others without giving in return, so generosity towards others is key.
Overall, I am extremely grateful that I was able to attend this trip because of all the awesome people I met and the helpful advice I received.
Chase McKee ‘21, Business, Entrepreneurship and Organizations
I had heard about the plethora of startups with investors clamoring to find the next greatest company, but I had never been able to experience it firsthand. Through speaking with and visiting both early stage and later stage companies of Brown alumni, I was able to have a truly eye-opening trip in SF. I learned about the hardships of being an entrepreneur, the brilliant moments of success that result from years of hard work and perseverance and developed invaluable alumni connections in the area to allow my learning to continue after the trip.
Additionally, I had the opportunity to learn more about the world of venture capital. Through our visit to Aspect Ventures, I was able to ask many of my most pressing questions about the industry. I appreciated the candid advice that venture capital is a tough business to gain employment in, especially right out of college. While noting the challenge of entering the space, additional advice was given on how to succeed if given the opportunity to get involved.
One thing I will always remember about the trip is the stimulating interaction with the other students which was a valuable learning experience in and of itself.
Each student had an impressively unique background that allowed for differing perspectives. The other students encouraged voicing differing opinions on various matters which led to many fascinating and intellectually probing conversations. Learning from each other was a theme that grew throughout the trip and ultimately provided a pathway for deeper exploration of the entrepreneurial ecosystem.
On Saturday, March 9, the student-led Brown Entrepreneurship Program Women’s Entrepreneurship team hosted the 3rd Annual Women’s Empowerment Conference (WE@Brown). The conference had 300+ registrants, featured workshops, an industry panel, keynote remarks, and a pitch competition.
Haley Hoffman Smith ’18, author of Her Big Idea, opened the conference with remarks encouraging attendees to embrace uncertainty. Participants then attended workshops focused on the business of body language to supporting the mental health and wellness of changemakers. Jeanine Sinanan-Singh lead a discussion on how she raised over $2M for her startup Vitae Industries. Dr. Taraneh Shirazian, MD, founder of Saving Mothers, provided a hands on workshop on how to start a nonprofit organization. Female leaders also held an industry panel and facilitated conversations about their personal experiences which included a Brown alum founder who created a gender fluid makeup company to a startup focused on improving financial well-being for women.
Lisa Caputo ’86, Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing and Communications Officer for The Travelers Companies, Inc., discussed the evolution of her career from serving as the Press Secretary for First Lady Hillary Clinton to founding and leading Citi’s Women & Co. business. After hearing her inspirational story, participants attended another round of workshops including a conversation on the history of diversity in entrepreneurship from a immigrant and racial/ethnic minority lens and business lessons learned from Beyonce.
Stephanie Kaplan-Lewis, founder of HerCampus Media, delivered closing remarks, sharing her story of creating a ground-breaking company while in college. For the first time the WE@Brown conference concluded with a pitch competition featuring female founders from the Brown undergraduate community. Maggie Bachenberg ’22, founder of Pointz, won $500 for her long-distance bicycling planning platform.