How do you think Oberlin prepares students for entrepreneurial adventures?
In the past year there’s been this thing called LaunchU which is a Winter Term program that [was] created by members of alumni who are on the College president’s advisory council. The notion was basically to bolster entrepreneurship in Oberlin because there really wasn’t that much while kids were in school. So LaunchU acts as an incubator; it takes place over Winter Term––last year was the first time that happened––and that program is amazing. They bring in lawyers and people who are in marketing and different entrepreneurs to come and speak and they basically give you a crash course on business. You have to apply with your own project. That’s sort of been the shift in the entrepreneurship program. It used to be that Creativity and Leadership would just give kids money and there were some resources but they were scattered in helping them develop those businesses, and LaunchU, with the help of these alumni who are also entrepreneurs, provides a space where the kids can actually develop their businesses with mentorship.
How can Oberlin promote entrepreneurship better?
Just this year we’ve added completely awesome and brand new resources that take it to another level. That’s why it’s really exciting to see where it’s gonna go. In the process of me being here kids have come up to me and said, “I’m working on this project. Can you help me with that?”
What would you say to students who feel that they might have really interesting entrepreneurship ideas, but think that they might not be feasible?
That’s the exact thing that I don’t want to happen. That’s sort of where I think a lot of kids are at in Oberlin. I think that if I actually sit down with every kid in Oberlin and I say, “Is there anything that you would want to start?” They’ll say no. And I’ll say, “Okay, well what’s the biggest problem that you see in your community or in the world?” and they’ll list tons of problems. And I’ll say, “Which one of those do you want to focus on?” And they’ll say their favorite or least favorite one. And I’ll say, “Well how do you think we can change that?” And they’ll have an answer. They’ve been thinking about it. And people shy away from wanting to do something because they can’t figure out how to get from step one to step ten. And I just want to provide this framework through which kids can both learn from each other and learn from alumni.
What do you find interesting about entrepreneurship?
I was an Econ and History major. I’ve based my whole education off of this idolization of entrepreneurship. My focus was the Cold War, which is very much free market capitalism versus a totalitarian version of communism. I honestly think that entrepreneurship is basically finding a problem and solving it. And I think that everybody should have that mindset and the more people that have that mindset, the more problems that we’re going to solve. What I want to do is provide a context through which not only can you find that mindset, but you can find a sustainable system to continue to prevent that problem. That can be something small. My first problem was transportation home from school. I didn’t like flying on planes —they’re too expensive — [and] I had to pay for cab fare to and from. My problem was transportation, a very simple thing, and I solved it by creating this bus line [Wilder Lines], and when I see kids riding the bus, it makes me so happy.
How did you come to create Wilder Lines?
My first business was when I was in high school. It was kind of like a sketchy party-throwing business, which is pretty typical in New York City. It was called Good Karma Parties. What I did was I would rent a loft, security guard, DJ, all this stuff, and then I would charge for tickets. I would donate half of what I made to a charity, which is kind of like the “Good Karma” thing. So I was in Oberlin and I knew I wanted to do business, but there were no business classes available at the time that I started. So basically me and a friend of mine would meet every weekend, and we’d meet under the wisdom tree and talk about business — businesses that we could potentially start. It was actually after fall break, and we decided we were going to run one bus, and that bus ended up selling out. It’s not a big business, I can’t make a living off of it, but in terms of learning, it was a really awesome opportunity.
Anything else you’d like the Oberlin community to know?
My focus this year is on Creativity and Leadership, and I genuinely think that it’s an amazing program. If you have an idea, and you think that the idea can have a positive effect on other people, you owe it to yourself and you owe it to those people to find out if you can get a grant or reach out to me. There’s [the] Oberlin Entrepreneurship Club, which is basically students working on their own projects and people provide support and ideas, and there’s all these different resources available. They can email me personally. My job is awesome. I get to go to Slow Train and talk with kids about their business ideas. And there are all these grants in place. There’s the $1,500 Ignition Grant, which is open to any project and that application is due on Nov. 4. The course of action you can take is you take Creativity and Leadership, An Introduction to Entrepreneurship, which I fully recommend. But if you just want to flesh out an idea just reach out to me and we’ll work through the business plan, and you can apply for one of these $1,500 grants. And then you can do LaunchU, which like the big time. You’ll learn so much, and there’s an opportunity to win a lot of money and pitch in front of investors. It’s also a great program where you’ll learn a lot and make friends that will last you a lifetime.