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Start me up: Mentoring the next generation of founders

Exeter students organize Emerging Entrepreneur Initiative to help polish bright ideas.

By
Sarah Pruitt '95
November 4, 2019
Harrison He '21 (left) and Evan Chandran '21 polish their pitch for a startup with mentor Emma Butler, a senior at Brown University, during the Emerging Entrepreneur Initiative.

Harrison He '21 (left) and Evan Chandran '21 polish their pitch for a startup with mentor Emma Butler, a senior at Brown University, during the Emerging Entrepreneur Initiative.

A successful startup begins with a problem, Luke Heine says. Not just any problem, but a problem that people will pay to have you solve for them.

"The key is, do people actually want this? Will people pay you money for this?" says Heine on a Saturday afternoon in mid-October, as he leans against a table in the Elting Room of Phillips Hall.

A co-founder of Summer Playbook, a social networking startup that aims to help college students meet up with each other during their summer vacations, Heine is speaking on the topic of “Finding Product Market Fit.” Facing him, in rows of chairs set in a half circle, sit some 20 students from Exeter, Andover and Tabor Academy.

The group is participating in the Emerging Entrepreneur Initiative, a one-day conference organized by students from PEA and Brown University that aims to connect students from New England boarding schools with mentors engaged in entrepreneurship. Tien Duong ’20 hatched the idea for the conference with help from Joseph Chen’ 21 and Smaiyl Makyshov ’20, inviting the alumni participants and setting up the day’s busy agenda.

As afternoon sunlight slants through the windows, the students give Heine their attention, only occasionally glancing at their phones. "Failure almost always sucks," he says of the need to accept brutally honest feedback on your business idea. "But if you can be OK just...sitting there, and learning as much as possible, that’s usually where you learn the most."

As Heine wraps up, Duong assigns the teams — two from PEA; one each from Andover and Tabor — one of four college-level entrepreneurs as a mentor. The teams scatter to workshop their startup ideas, which they will be pitching to a panel of judges later on.

At a Harkness table in the Phillips Hall basement, Hiro Kuwana ‘16, now a junior at Brown, listens as Anish Mudide ‘23 and Isabella Vesely ‘23 explain their startup concept: WriteRight, a Google Chrome extension that makes emailing easier by providing templates based on simple questions the user answers.

You always want a practical point, and also an emotional point. Hit the brain, and also the heart."

"Whenever you conclude anything, you always want to hit the main points," Kurawa, the founder of travel clothing e-commerce business Kezari, advises the students near the end of the workshop session. "You always want a practical point, and also an emotional point. Hit the brain, and also the heart."

In a book-lined English classroom down the hall, Harrison He ‘21 and Evan Chandran ‘21, take a practice run at presenting their startup, STIKY, as Emma Butler, their mentor, times them on her phone. Butler founded Intimately.co, an affiliate marketplace for clothing for women with disabilities. Now a senior at Brown, she has also worked in marketing at startup investor YCombinator.

"Totally, totally awesome," she says when Harrison and Evan finish (in 4 minutes and 15 seconds). She gives them a few tips: emphasize the high cost of the competition’s product in their presentation, and maybe rethink their logo, which looks too much like STINKY.

The Tabor team has headed out into the sunny quad, where they gather around a bench in front of Wheelwright Hall. Sitting cross-legged on the ground, Heine listens as a quartet describe their idea for a company that collects students’ used but still useful items — school supplies, dorm furniture, clothes, textbooks, and sports gear — and sells them to other students seeking bargains. Andover’s team has a pitch for a consulting company with a new approach in guiding Western companies seeking to do business in Japan by assembling bilingual and bicultural interpreters from top universities.

Back in the Elting Room, the judges take their seats. Two presenters from the conference’s morning session — Gus Lowell ‘80, the co-founder and chief systems architect at the Silicon Valley R&D consulting firm Triple Ring Technologies, and Dylan Leavitt ‘07, founder and executive producer at the digital video strategy company Studio Dylan — are judging the student pitches, along with Elizabeth Reyes, PEA’s Director of Service Learning and the faculty coordinator of the conference.

Anish and Isabella make the first pitch. By helping people write better emails faster, Isabella says, WriteRight will give them the ability to take back their time. "Americans [at work] spend only 45 percent on actual duties, but they spend 15 percent on email-related things," she says. "No one should be spending this much time on email every week."

Anish goes through a demo on his laptop, which is projected onto the glowing screen behind him. He argues that WriteRight will be especially helpful for people who aren’t native English speakers — people like his own parents, who speak an Indian dialect called Telegu at home, but have to write tons of emails in English for their jobs.

Anish compares the cost of a monthly subscription to WriteRight to the price of a cup of coffee. "We drink coffee to boost our productivity. But that's only for one day. With WriteRight, you can boost your productivity for 30 days," he says, getting a big laugh out of the group. 

Next up are Harrison and Evan, who are dressed similarly: khakis, dark suit jackets, and white shirts, but no ties. "The problem is that Americans waste too much food every day," Harrison says. "They simply don't have an effective way of telling which foods will or will not expire."

STIKY solves this problem, the say, by providing an app that can scan a special QR code on users’ grocery receipts and automatically add food to a virtual pantry on their phone. Aimed especially at busy parents, STIKY will send them notifications when their food is about to expire.

"I am one of those hard-working moms that does all the shopping," says Reyes after they finish. "With the amount of food I buy every week, is everything I buy going to be popping up and telling me when it’s expiring, or are there certain things I can choose?"

Evan explains that while there will be notifications set for all the food in your pantry automatically, users can disable any notifications they don’t want. They field some other questions: Yes, they plan to partner with grocery stores, and have even been in touch with some executives at Walmart, who showed some interest.

While the judges deliberate, the students head outside to the front steps of Phillips Hall, where many of them take selfies and group photos before filing back into the Elting Room one final time.

"Thank you all for sharing your business ideas with us," Leavitt says. "We're really impressed by all the effort you put into your presentations and the teamwork it took to get here today."

The winners are the team behind STIKY: Harrison, Evan and their third teammate, Miguel Shetreet, who’s in New York today for a college visit. As a prize, Reyes presents Harrison and Evan with heavy white ceramic mugs. "Since we don't have the Shark Tank $50,000, we have a mug," she says.  

"Exactly," says Leavitt, perhaps speaking for startup founders of all generations. "We all love coffee."