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By | Innovation, People, Rochester

Steady Success to Proud Failure

By Anik Agrawal (re-published with permission from the author; originally published on LinkedIn)

Before jumping onto my first startup, I knew that there is a social stigma attached to failure in India. However, being adventurous and somewhat rebellious, I never paid too much attention to that and carried on anyways. After having series of success in life, I experienced my first failure. I am going to share my life story and what I learned from my failure.

Being the only child, the expectations were always high with me as a kid. I was pushed to excel in not just one but all areas of life. I developed a peculiar sense of attitude to not sacrifice on one area of life on the cost of other. When I scored 6th rank in Grade 5, my parents asked why didn’t I come in Top 3. I replied “I am not going to sacrifice my play time just so that you can brag about my rank with other family members and friends.” I was very good with sports. I chose to be right handed while playing cricket but left handed while playing all the racket games. My mother asked me why do I use two hands. I replied “When my right hand gets tired of playing cricket, I will use my left hand to play tennis.”

My father runs a cloth weaving factory in Ahmedabad. I was fascinated by how quickly the machines operated and produced output. This fascination for machines steered me to pursue Mechanical Engineering. During college days, I took part in extra curricular activities like robotics and college fests to engage in social interactions and build self-confidence. I also did an internship in Mercedes Benz which taught me discipline in life. I had to wake up at 4am everyday for 6 months to catch the bus.

Born in a business family, I discovered early on in college that I wanted to do business in long term. I also realized the importance of having a well-rounded job experience that can be applied in the business. I was financed by my family to study abroad and learn a thing or two with the intention that some innovative idea can be brought back to India and converted into a profitable business. Classic Marwadi thinking right!

Anik Agrawal

My 4 years in the US were life-changing. I became over-ambitious and tasted the flavor of success. After pursing my Masters in Entrepreneurship, I landed a job in an early stage well funded startup in San Francisco. Here I was barely 24 years old with an income more than the appetite, living in a dream city. Life could not have gotten any better. The startup saw hockey stick growth that people talked about in entrepreneurship community. Bay area startups had a culture to involve people of all levels in investor/customer meetings. It was a great learning for me and an exposure that shaped me up pretty early in career. About 2 and half years later, I couldn’t resist the idea that if I can be part of a successful startup, why can’t I create one.

This idea led me back to India, as I felt I need to take the first step towards becoming an entrepreneur. I was new to the professional world in India so I decided to get some work experience to understand how things worked. With the experience I had, I easily scored couple of stints of high paying corporate jobs in the span of 2 years. After about 2 years, I was ready to leave all the comfort and certainty of job life and jump onto my first startup.

As you could guess, this where the dark phase begins and after series of success in life, I finally experienced what failure means. I have always seen entrepreneurs talking as if they have figured out everything and that they have a clear vision. But the reality is no one knows the future and I learnt to get very comfortable with the uncertainty of chaos. Another thing which I noticed is entrepreneurs always talked about positive things and impressive numbers, but I learnt that they are just made up. If the numbers were so favorable then 99 out 100 startups would not fail. I learnt how to show the good side but also to be honest at times when things are not working. After spending 2 years building a product, I failed miserably. I had to let go of people who came onboard with a dream I sold to them. I burnt all my savings and lot of my family money. When I think of why I failed, lot of things come in mind but the biggest reason could be my attachment to product. I ignored customer problems and only focused on building a product I thought they need. I have now learnt never to get attached with product and focus only of customer problems.

Here I am not fully recovered from the first blow. I am surrounded by people giving all sorts of free advise like move back to the US, work with a corporate and get a stable job. One thing I have learnt in entrepreneurship is to be persistent and never give up. My failure is only going to be a stepping stone to success. If I steer my direction now and leave entrepreneurship, I might regret this for my entire life.

So I had to give it another shot. With renewed spirit and amazing co-founders, I am back at the grind. I am looking forward to my time at BurnCal. Time to convert dreams into reality!

Anik Agrawal ’13 (MS) completed the TEAM program in 2013. He has since worked in business development positions and founded a software platform to streamline management for companies that install solar energy systems. Anik has recently started a second venture, BurnCal.

By | Innovation, People, Rochester

Commencements ‘undeniably different’ in the era of coronavirus

By Dennis Kessler (re-published with permission from the Rochester Business Journal)

I’ve told my friends and family for the 20 years that I have been a college professor that my unqualified favorite day of the year is commencement. At the University of Rochester’s Simon Business School, the commencement ceremony is held in the celebrated Eastman Theatre at Kodak Hall; names resplendent of another era. While all commencements are special for the graduates and their families, this one is particularly noteworthy due to the architectural brilliance of the hall and its tasteful elegance richly illuminated by a remarkable multicolored Chihuly chandelier. The inclusion of a sprightly ensemble, courtesy of the university’s distinguished Eastman School of Music performing Sir Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, adds conspicuous distinction to the ceremonial character of the event.

Commencement this year will be undeniably different. In fact, acknowledgement of the completion of the rigorous M.S, MBA, and Ph.D. programs at the Simon Business School, known for its quantitative and analytics-based foundations, will merely be acknowledged by the receipt of a diploma delivered via the U.S. Mail. Hardly the tributes merited after years of successful academic study.

This semester, I have 71 students registered for my class: Entrepreneurship 423, New Venture Development. It is a particularly large class as I have nor restriction on the number of students who can enroll in my course. My view is that every aspiring entrepreneur should learn the skills, language, and risk mitigation techniques that I teach which may help turn their innovative dreams into an economic reality. Much of my lecture materials are a collection of experiences, both successful and those less so, as an entrepreneur in the franchise restaurant sector, real estate, publishing and cell tower industries. My hope is that this semester’s lectures, delivered from my home library via Zoom technology, were nearly as effective and impactful as they have been for previous Simon students whose faces and body language I could clearly see and often judge as indicators of comprehension of the material being taught.

Just last week, as the final class lecture and assignments are about due, I received a notice from a student counselor about Damien (fictitious name), a student in my lecture. Damien, a nurse in our University Medical Center’s emergency facility, had applied for “late permission to drop” the course. When I inquired about the reason, the counselor informed me that the stress of the work environment, family responsibilities and demanding MBA curriculum was overwhelming, especially considering the COVID-19 pandemic. I declined to sign the permission to drop form.

After the email exchange with the student counselor, I spoke with Damien in a Zoom session…now the preferred method of communication. Listening attentively, his internal dissonance apparent, I felt compassionate sympathy with his need to drop the course. However, I countered with the reasons why Damien had to preserve toward completion. While I clearly understood the pressures of work, family and a punishing MBA program, he was too close to the finish line to withdraw. This is a course in entrepreneurship, I exhorted. Being an entrepreneur is about overcoming obstacles, about adapting, about risk-taking, agility and determination and how to respond when a severe indiscriminate setback to your routine and finances forces you to swivel in a new direction.

While you are one of America’s heroes on the vanguard of the battlefield in the university emergency room, there is another epic battle waging which is the financial calamity that is destroying our economy, among others worldwide. I submit to you, show your mettle, demonstrate to your colleagues, family and classmates that you can do this, and in fact, as your professor, I will help you in the process. You will be granted an extension on your assignments just as businesses are making concessions for their consumers for late payments. We are all in this together; this is not your fight alone.

As most every American industry is suffering mightily, there are innumerable examples of how American ingenuity and entrepreneurship have responded. The new delivery economy has sprung up overnight spawning Instacart as a household term. The stay-at-home workforce is aided by the new Zoom frontier that many of us are adapting to. While it is somewhat unwieldy, it will improve because entrepreneurs will find a way to make it better or even develop a competing, more refined iteration. Auto dealerships are selling online and delivering to homes in a COVID-19-safe environment. GM and Ford are using their scale to produce face shields and ventilators. Small businesses across the American landscape have adapted to help in the fight. In order to survive, we must adapt. As former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recently offered in a New York Times opinion piece: “To be human is to be tested over and over, and we usually need abundant help from others.”

As Americans, we will not give up fighting this pandemic. We have moral courage, intellectual competence and resiliency to obliterate this 21st-century plague. This is our authentication of human spirit.

The 2020 graduates of the Simon Business School will remember the commencement they didn’t have. They will also recall how they completed their studies without fanfare, without the customary pose-commencement revelry but indeed, they finished. They, too, will have their day in the sun. They will go on to achieve well-paying positions in industry and elsewhere just as graduates that came before them. They will also recollect how they embraced social distancing, food deliveries, lockdowns, shut-ins, masks, and all the fears inflicted by this insidious virus. They will hopefully also remember that they didn’t give up their dream to finish, on time, in May 2020 with a nascent entrepreneurial idea nourished in ENT. 423, New Venture Development.

Oh, and by the way, Damien has decided to remain in my course. Meliora.

Dennis Kessler serves as the Edward and Agnes Ackley Clinical Professor of Entrepreneurship at the University of Rochester’s Simon Business School. 

To learn more about this year’s commencement and degree conferrals, visit the University of Rochester’s Celebrating the Class of 2020 webpage.

By | Innovation, People, Rochester

Ain Center Update (3.16.20)

By Ain Center Staff

Due to new University precautions regarding the COVID-19 virus, as well as the extension of spring break for many departments on campus, many Ain Center and MS Team at the University of Rochester staff members will be working remotely this week. Please contact us via the email addresses on our Meet the Staff webpage or contact the Ain Center’s general account at aincfe@rochester.edu if you’re not sure who to reach out to individually.

Additionally, we are reevaluating all of our spring events to comply with University and government policies and recommendations. Some events have already been cancelled. Please watch our Events calendar at https://www.rochester.edu/aincenter/events/ for the latest updates.

For more information on University policies and procedures during this time, please visit https://www.rochester.edu/coronavirus-update/.

Our best wishes for the health and safety of our University and entrepreneurial communities!

Please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us if you have questions about upcoming events. We’ll post more updates as we have them, and we are, as always, committed to supporting our entrepreneurial community during this time of uncertainty.

By | Innovation, People, Rochester

Impact Arts Company at Maker Faire Rochester 2019

By Sophia Rosman

On November 22-23 of 2019, I led an educational airbrushing booth at the sixth annual Maker Faire Rochester. Held at the Rochester Riverside Convention Center, the two-day event consisted of over 200 demonstrations and activities celebrating art, technology, engineering, and more. Our team from U of R had a great time engaging with students in a setting filled with innovation!

Sophia Rosman working her booth during the Maker Faire

Sophia running her booth during the Maker Faire. Photo courtesy of Nathan Nguyen.

The first day, Friday, was called “Student STEAM Fest.” Over 2,000 students in 3rd-8th grade classes visited the Faire for STEAM fest. When the Faire opened to the public on Saturday, close to 5,000 guests attended. On Friday, our booth was flooded with students excited to try airbrushing and learn about optical illusions. On Saturday, many guests who visited our booth had seen airbrushing on baking and automotive TV shows, and they were curious about its other applications. They were excited to learn more about the history and culture surrounding airbrush, the technical components of the tool, and the way it relates to the optical illusions we displayed in the booth. Most of all, they were eager to try painting with the tool they’d rarely seen in real life.

A group of students watch Sophia do an airbrush demonstration

Students were fascinated by a demonstration before they tried airbrushing!

The Maker Faire was exciting for me because I collaborated with University of Rochester students from other disciplines as I shared my unique passion with a large audience. On Friday, we incorporated an optical illusion activity into the airbrushing lessons. To prepare for this, I worked with U of R Brain and Cognitive Science students and Psychology students. They helped me learn about the interdisciplinary theories that correspond with trompe l’oeil and other techniques artists employ. During the Faire, we answered questions about these theories in addition to questions about the science, arts, business, and technical components of airbrushing.

On Saturday, in addition to presenting airbrush demonstrations, we sold custom airbrushed merchandise and bodypaintings. We also raffled off a free custom airbrushed shirt and collected email addresses for the monthly Impact Arts Company e-newsletter. My hope is that guests who interacted with the booth will book us to airbrush and bodypaint at future events. I am happy to have been part of such an engaging educational event that also exposed the community to what I offer for events and custom orders.

The collaborative work behind the scenes is what enabled this booth to happen. I learned about the Maker Faire from a U of R e5 student who hosted a Maker Faire booth last year. She led another booth at the event this year, and she was an amazing resource for anything from the application process to day-of-event logistics. The other U of R students who helped out in the booth were by my side from the 6:30am setup through the 5:00pm load out. The team designed the beautiful booth setup, carried heaps of equipment, captured beautiful moments on camera, constantly entertained the crowd, and – perhaps most importantly – they befriended many other makers.

Sophia's Maker Faire booth

Photo of the Impact Arts Company booth courtesy of Nathan Nguyen.

Impact Arts Company- an e5 Project

When I was accepted into the e5 program, I had already been running a small face painting, body painting, and airbrushing business for over 5 years. I primarily work with clients who pay an hourly rate for me to face paint, body paint, or airbrush at private or corporate events. Juggling has taken me to the White House, the Ellen DeGeneres Show, and on trips across the US and internationally. When the e5 project led me to spend a semester in Washington, D.C., my bodypaintings were even printed in a magazine.

This is one of the custom shirts I airbrushed live at Maker Faire Rochester.

One of the custom shirts Sophia airbrushed live at Maker Faire Rochester.

Through e5, I was able to take more business classes and access advisors who helped me discover different paths in this entrepreneurial journey. e5 coursework and conversations have reshaped the way I consider my impact on the environment, the people I work with, and society as a whole. I was particularly excited to be part of the Maker Faire so that I could join conversations with Rochester’s young makers about the realities of entrepreneurship and the impact of interdisciplinary arts. I hope that when they left our Maker Faire conversations, the students were inspired and excited for their futures!

Sophia Rosman ’19, ’20 (e5) is an E5 student at the University of Rochester. Her majors are Philosophy and Art History, and her minor is Business. You can find out more about Impact Arts Company by visiting www.impactartscompany.com.

By | Innovation, People, Rochester

The Lost and Found

By Linnie Schell

In November 2019, 200+ makers, creatives, technology builders, fabricators and crafters descended on the Riverside Convention Center for a two-day event celebrating the joy of creating. As part of my e5 program, I create art exhibits in community spaces. Based on the work that I had done on campus in previous years, I was invited to bring my team to the convention. We were offered a great space, and I immediately said yes – excited to showcase our work off-campus and for a wider audience.

Linnie Schell's Maker Faire team

Amazing Lights and Sound Team Members

As I’ve written about on this same blog, I couldn’t have done any of this without my team. We worked closely in the weeks before the event. Along the way we received help from many quarters, from borrowed equipment and storage space, to a truly amazing number of boxes from many different shipping departments. I personally spent so much time ferrying boxes from Douglas Kitchens that the staff started waving me though the line automatically. We also received generous financial support from multiple departments and grants, including the Ain Center. We developed an installation design exploring a mythical world called The Alexandria Complex, where all lost things eventually end up. Ever had a sock go inexplicably missing? Chances are, the Alexandria Complex is where it went.

Linnie's art exhibit at Maker Faire

Entrance

In the past, we had spent probably 24-36 hours installing each event. This year we didn’t even know the load-in times until a week before the event – but we knew that whatever it was, it was going to be short. Thankfully, we were able to choreograph the crew of helpers and technical people along with all of the equipment, and finished set-up early the next morning. The first day was dedicated to students only, and over 1,800 students from as far as 2 hours away attended.

Saturday was open to the general public, and boy did they show up – over 3,000 attendees. We had a near constant stream of kids, parents, and other community members through the exhibit. We encouraged people to search for secrets, and leave a few of their own behind. The most moving part of the exhibit was a “Lost-and-Not-Yet-Found-wall”, where we encouraged audience members to pin things that they had lost. Postings about everything from toys to lost loved ones bloomed on the walls.

Interactive piece of Linnie's Maker Faire exhibit

The Lost-and-Not-Yet-Founds

Reactions were overwhelmingly positive. One of the things that I was most proud of was our success in providing things for every age group, so that everyone who went had a good time. We also were able to represent the U of R and provide something unique. The Maker Faire was overwhelmingly filled with STEM booths, so some people that walked through definitely got more art than they were expecting. A few people were confused, everyone thought it was cool. A definite success, and one that I am excited about continuing to replicate in the coming years, at the U of R and beyond.

Saralinda “Linnie” Schell ’19 (’20 e5) majored in Computer Science, Political Science, and Turkish Studies. Her e5 project is focused on immersive art and theater, and using these installations to promote collaboration with artists at the U of R and the greater Rochester Community. 

By | Innovation, People, Rochester

Wakanda Meets Silicon Valley: A Journey to AfroTech

By Juana Johnson

For the last four years, something very special has been happening in the San Francisco Bay area in early November. Around this time, upwards of 10,000+ brown and black folks  descend on the area to discuss all things engineering, technology, venture capitalism, entrepreneurship and social reform. This gathering brings the best and brightest together  with technology powerhouses like Google, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft. All with the collective mission of addressing pressing issues and offering solutions for minorities in these industries. Some have compared this event to a family reunion, historically black college/university (HBCU) homecoming, and career conference all mixed up in one, but to the wider world it is known as AfroTech.

Lyrics noting the importance of AfroTech in the song

AfroTech was curated by Morgan DeBaun, Aaron Samuels, Jeff Nelson and Jonathan Jackson of the online platform Blavity. And now in its 4th year, the annual conference attracts founders and staffers of some of the fastest-growing tech startups who present the systems and strategies they use to grow their products and businesses.

This revolutionary experience for black techies fosters conversations ranging from how to raise venture funding to how to conduct user design workshops and growth hacking best practices. The conference also includes three full days of speakers and showcases of the latest technologies from the hottest startups in the country. Even more, top black early stage startups have the opportunity to pitch their ideas and compete for the highly coveted AfroTech Cup and win $10,000 in prize money.

Juana Johnson in front of the AfroTech banner

When I arrived in Oakland on November 8th, I had a sense that I was about to bear witness to a one-of-a-kind experience and this conference did not disappoint. With well-known celebrities like media personality Charlamagne tha God, political strategist Angela Rye, and comedian and venture capitalist Hannibal Buress participating in fireside chats, I knew this wasn’t a run-of-the-mill career conference. For first time attendees like myself, the schedule of 60 breakout sessions and 100 corporate sponsor presentations could be overwhelming, but the conference offered three career tracks (leadership, entrepreneurship, and engineering/design) for attendees to focus their experience. During my time, I was able to attend breakout sessions ranging in topic focus from “Utilizing Technology to Protect Bodily Autonomy” hosted by Planned Parenthood to VC firm Precursor Ventures-led “From Seed to Series A.”

AfroTech breakout session hosted by Planned Parenthood

Breakout session hosted by Planned Parenthood

Mandela SH Dixon, CEO of Founder Gym, spoke extensively about the overarching topic of the conference: the issue of funding disparities for companies founded by people of color. In fact, the funding landscape for minority and women-owned startups continues to be a dismal one with just one percent of venture-backed founders being black and 1.8 percent being Latino. Women-founded startups receive only 9 percent of investments, while the largest portion of startup funding still goes to white (77.1%) and Asian founders (17.7%) regardless of gender. Dixon offered tips on how to secure the money needed to launch a business when personal finances are the main concern. She offered that “Success is in the follow through.” And that even in the face of racial and gender-specific barriers the most successful founders of color are those that have found a way to stand out.

The late Bernard Tyson CEO of Kaiser Permanente

The late Bernard Tyson, CEO of Kaiser Permanente

The career expo floor was filled to capacity with recruiters, hiring managers and eager job seekers looking to change the composition of Silicon Valley. The most successful applicants secured on-the-spot interviews and job offers or invitations to company networking receptions held at night. But the networking didn’t stop there and continued on to marquee night events hosted by Apple, Twitter, Adobe and Kapor Capital.

AfroTech Career Expo

AfroTech Career Expo

I left the conference with new professional connections, potential business collaborators and a renewed sense of purpose to do my part in changing the narrative for underrepresented minority groups in pursuit of futures in tech entrepreneurship. I know now that what happens at AfroTech is one of a kind and everyone that believes in supporting the collective power of entrepreneurs of the color should be in attendance. Support from the Ain Center has been instrumental and I hope to continue to share my AfroTech experience and lead a trip to next year’s conference for University of Rochester students will the same goals in mind.

If you’re interested in participating in the conference next year head over to AfroTech StartUp Database (https://experience.afrotech.com) to be considered for speaking engagements, pitch competitions and angel investments from the AfroTech network.

Juana Johnson ’21S (MBA) is a member of the Simon Business School Class of 2021. She is working toward a Masters in Business Administration degree with a concentration in Technology Consulting. At Simon, Juana is a Net Impact Board Member, Diversity and Inclusion Center of Excellence Council Member, Humans for Education project consultant, and P.I.E.C.E.S volunteer. Through her work with Humans for Education and P.I.E.C.E.S, Juana is working to develop the entrepreneurial and financial literacy skills of those from underserved communities.

By | Innovation, People, Rochester

Spring 2020 Events Calendar

By Ain Center Staff

Welcome back, innovators! We hope winter break was restful, but we are ready for some exiting opportunities this spring! Our events calendar (below) is now coded by audience, so you can find exactly what programs you need and want to attend.

If you have any questions about the Ain Center’s fall programming (or if you’d like to get a preview of spring 2020), don’t hesitate to reach out! You can find us in 1-211 Carol Simon Hall or via email at AinCFE@rochester.edu.

By | Innovation, People, Rochester

Patent Law: Protecting Your Ideas & Inventions

By Alec Tapia

On November 9, 2019, Mock Trial and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers co-hosted an event called Patent Law: Protecting your ideas and inventions, which was co-sponsored by the Ain Center for Entrepreneurship. 

The purpose of this event was to educate students on the patenting process and the journey to become a patent attorney. The event included a 30-minute networking session between students and the guest speakers, 45 minutes of discussion led by a student host, 15 minutes of open Q&A from the audience and concluded with an hour of one-on-one conversation.

The main discussion covered several topics such as each speaker’s experience in law school, tips for applying and going through law school, how they knew if law was the route they wanted to take, what a patent is, the immediate and long term effects of filing for a patent, the different types of patents, how to file for a patent, whether or not one should hire an attorney, the average price range for hiring an attorney, and need to know terms such as strict novelty, non-publication, duty of disclosure, and the one year bar.

Following the main discussion, the audience was allowed to pose questions to the panelists in an open Q&A session and also in a post networking session where hors d’oeuvres were served. This allowed for students to maximize their opportunity to learn about patent law and find opportunities in the field.

Promotional poster for Patent Law event
Panelists during the patent law event

Overall, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and Mock Trial believe that the event was a great success and will consider hosting this event in the upcoming years with the newly founded Pre-Law Society.

Organizers predicted that fifty people would attend the event and approximately this number of people did end up attending. The range of majors in the audience was the biggest success. Undergraduates in engineering, social science, and humanities along with a handful MBA students, Warner students, and Professor Shanahan attended the event.

Nearly a dozen students waited outside the Hawkins-Carlson room about fifteen minutes before the event began, showing the anticipation for the event. Many students expressed gratitude for hosting the event since this was one of their only chances to learn about and network within the legal world. The legal professionals who spoke were also greatly impressed with the University and the attending students. All three expressed interest in participating again in the future.

Organizers and panelists for the 2019 patent law event

The American Society of Mechanical Engineers and Mock Trial express our gratitude to the Ain Center for Entrepreneurship for their support in both financing and marketing the event. The sponsored catering provided a great supplement to the networking sessions before and after the main discourse. They also provided a lunch for the speakers as a professional courtesy. In addition, the Ain Center’s reach within its own followers and the Simon School of Business helped attract many business students and entrepreneurs to the event. Both organizations hope to continue working with the Ain Center in the future.

Alec Tapia ’21 is a junior studying Mechanical Engineering and Business. He is predominantly the Business Manager for the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the VP of Finance for Beta Theta Pi, and a captain and mentor for Mock Trial. He is proud to have hosted the Patent Law event and bring the disciplines of science/engineering, law, and business/entrepreneurship together to educate attendees, build the University’s interdisciplinary culture, and promote the spirit of Meliora. 

By | Innovation, People, Rochester

Africa Oil & Power Conference

By Frederico Hama

The week of October 6th, I got an opportunity to attend the Africa Oil and Power Conference in Cape town, South Africa. Africa Oil & Power is Africa’s premier platform for energy investment and policy. During their conference and other events, AOP brings together high-level individuals from private sector companies with interests including engineering, construction, services, consulting, power generation, and finance.

During AOP, I had the privilege to meet different leaders across the African continent and pitch about my business, KBH Consultancy. KBH Consultancy aims to provide access to higher education to prospective students within the African continent.

Frederico Hama during the 2019 Africa Oil & Power conference
Frederico Hama being interviewed during the 2019 AOP Conference

In this conference I was able to make several partnerships to support my organization in various ways. One which includes, the Executive Chairman of African Energy Chamber, NJ Ayuk. He says, “If you are able to find young woman who are willing to study Engineering or sciences, I will give or help your company raise more than $120,000.”

It’s amazing how our dreams can turn into reality once we find individuals that seriously believe in what we do. Keep chasing after your dreams and keep pursuing that idea.

I want to say a big thank you to the University of Rochester for supporting me throughout the trip, not only financially but also allowing me to take a week off classes to go pursue my idea. I also want to extend my gratitude to all KBH Consultancy members for helping me prepare for this trip. Lastly, I want to say thank you to all my friends who have always supported and believed that this idea is worth fighting for.

Federico Hama ’20 is a fourth-year student at the University of Rochester, studying Mechanical Engineering. Originally from Luanda, Angola, he is an alumnus of African Leadership Academy and a 2018 Xerox Research Scholar. Frederico was part of the men’s track and field at the University of Rochester in his first two years of college.

He aspires to greatly impact the lives of people through emerging technologies, by being part of a workforce that creates affordable, clean and reliable energy. At the same time, he is an ardent supporter of education. Upon completing his first year of college, together with two other students, they founded a company called KBH Consultancy with the aim of providing African students with access to higher education.

By | Innovation, People, Rochester

Entrepreneurial Beginnings

By Michael Giardino

I turn off my computer and step away. That moment, push notifications start flooding my iPhone screen. 300 monthly subscriptions within the first hour. 800 in the first week.

Let’s rewind to me in 10th grade. Those stories in your Facebook News Feed about limited edition shoes selling out so fast that you have to pay five times retail on eBay? That was probably me — or, rather, bots that I taught myself to program, fetching some of the world’s most exclusive sneakers before human hands could click “buy.” I was turning thousands of dollars of profit selling sneakers on the secondary market every month, money that would get rolled into purchasing more sneakers.

One night, I purchased 100 out of 120 available pairs of limited edition sneakers from an Italian online boutique, at an average margin of $150 per pair above retail. The retailer caught on to my bots and cancelled all of my transactions, losing me $15,000 in potential profits overnight.

After that incident, my obsession with competitively optimizing my bots for the KPI of “exclusive sneaker purchasing share” began to become joyless. I was a faceless mercenary, coding increasingly sophisticated algorithms and bots to detect and crack websites so I could turn one dollar into two. While I was scrolling through the usual underground sneaker community sites, though, I noticed another trend emerging: Funko Pops. Funko Pops are small, licensed plastic figurines that are oftentimes limited edition collectibles. Their collectors also aren’t as hardened as sneaker collectors, and many of them expressed their disappointment at missing out on limited releases on Instagram.

Michael Giardino's Funko Dojo stickers

“I had it in my cart, but it sold out while I was checking out! I hate these flippers [slang term for resellers]. I wish I had a bot or a way to get it on my own,” one comment read.

And then it struck me: What if I used my botting prowess to help build up a community of devoted fans, instead of turning it into another vehicle for simple profit?

So I spent the summer of my junior year building Funko Dojo, a subscription-based community aimed at collectors looking to discuss and acquire the most coveted Funko Pops on the market. Instead of a KPI or traditional growth metrics, I became obsessed with creating the perfect brand presence and online community for Funko Pop fans. I crafted messaging to customers to avoid attracting resellers and to cater it strictly toward the collector community. I planned philanthropic campaigns for my users, including a partnership with Pops! For Patients, a charity dedicated to delivering Funko Pops to a nationwide network of children’s hospitals.

One problem: I had no users. The service hadn’t yet been pushed live. This thing I had spent my entire summer working on and hyping up never felt “ready” to be released to the public. At every step there seemed another forked path of potential optimizations.

Funko Dojo promo image
Preview of Funko Dojo mobile application

As another cold New Jersey winter brewed, doubt set in, the light from my laptop screaming at me in a dark room. What if “my baby” was rejected by people? What if no one wanted to pay $20 per month for access to purchase plastic figurines at retail price? And my greatest fear: Would all my hard work go to waste?

Then disaster struck — a competing service launched, co-opting my idea. The wind out of my sails, I talked to Juan Bizoso, a friend I met in my sneaker-flipping days and a Program Manager at Microsoft. He set me straight. “This is the kind of thing that’s always a work-in-progress,” he said. “You shouldn’t be sitting here losing money when you have a great product, and you’re just being too hard on yourself.”

So on September 15th, 2018, I activate the Shopify account for Funko Dojo and post the announcement on Twitter. Funko Dojo was officially live. I turn off my computer and step away.

Michael Giardino ’23 is currently pursuing a Computer Science degree at the University of Rochester. Michael comes from New Jersey where he founded his current venture, Funko Dojo. He aspires to use his entrepreneurial mindset and leadership skills to spearhead the solutions to the problems faced by his generation.