Oberlin Creates Opportunities for Entrepreneurs


Mallika Pandey, Photo Editor

College sophomore Eduardo Sienra Lempeke (left) and College senior Jessica Moskowitz table for Oberlin’s Entrepreneurship Club and Center for Innovation and Impact’s first Startup Weekend, a 54-hour competition beginning Friday.

Oberlin’s Entrepreneurship Club and Center for Innovation and Impact are launching their first Startup Weekend today, giving students and faculty members the opportunity to develop a project pitch in a fast-paced, three-day period.

The event kicked off this afternoon with a presentation from Rue Mapp, founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro, a non-profit organization that focuses on conservation and the celebration of African-American connection and participation with nature.

Startup Weekend is a 54-hour competition during which participants pitch startup ideas in the form of a demonstration, prototype, or presentation.

Participants will be split into five-person teams, where they will come up with an idea centered on the weekend’s theme: “Improving Oberlin.” The teams will begin developing their pitches tomorrow, including cost analysis, marketing strategies, a business model, and more.

Bryan Rubin, OC ’18, the Marketing Intern for the Center for Innovation and Impact, added that the event provides a unique opportunity for fixing problems within our community.

“People have expressed how DeCafé has gone downhill, or the fact that [Stevenson Dining Hall] is ridiculously crowded. This weekend is for action. For a team to say, ‘we can do better,’ and actually do it. Everyone has ideas. Startup Weekend is a place for those ideas to actually become something.”

The teams will then have the opportunity Sunday to work with mentors — students, administrators, alumni, and professionals with entrepreneurship experience — who will provide guidance and feedback.

Organizers chose the team format in hopes of increasing the event’s flexibility, allowing participants to attend other obligations without hindering the project. The event is capped at 50 students, with a registration fee of $25 apiece.

“The good news about being part of a team is that — let’s say you’re somebody on a sports team, or you’ve got some big homework assignment,” said Bara Watts, the director of entrepreneurship for the Center for Innovation and Impact. “You can work with your team, and you don’t have to be there every minute of every day. And you’re able to coordinate on timing and tasks, … this is really about getting to the results, and that’s the goal.”

Founded in May 2014, Oberlin’s Entrepreneurship Club was rechartered in February 2018 after a brief period of inactivity. The club organized the event with the help of their advisor, Watts, and funding provided by the Office of Sustainability, SSEG Law, BNY Mellon Wealth Management, Stewart Kohl (OC ’77), and the Kutzen family, among other groups.

“Startup Weekend and our club have really similar goals,” said Spencer Tu, College sophomore and Entrepreneurship Club co-chair. “We wanted to make entrepreneurial resources more accessible to Oberlin students and the Oberlin community as a whole. So I think our goal is basically to bring entrepreneurs from all over the country, … to bring the resources to the students, so people who have ambitions or some interest in entrepreneurship would have the opportunity to do something with it.”

Although the weekend focuses on entrepreneurship, its organizers believe the skills acquired from such a competition are essential in preparing students for success beyond Oberlin.

“One of the directives I’ve been given is building the idea of entrepreneurial thinking as a skill set that permeates across the entire campus,” Watts said. “The idea of innovation and impact provides a way for the College as a whole to start thinking about it not from a venture perspective but from how — no matter if you’re a scientist, artist, a musician, [someone] thinking you might go into nonprofits or do lobbying, or social justice — that all of those are about impact. And that entrepreneurial skill set is, in fact, a key skill set to drive impact and create that ‘change in the world’ that we talk about here at Oberlin.”

Watts added that the event is not just intended for those interested in entrepreneurship.

“It’s not about having to start a company,” she said. “These are skills that are going to make anybody in any career a success inside of their organizations. Everybody is entering the innovation economy and everybody needs to have the skills to know how to understand who the customer is, understand the business, understand what the problems are, understand how to take an idea to execution to be successful.”

Tara Gilboa, OC ’11, who works at education management company Noodle Partners, is helping to facilitate the event and spoke about why she sees it as valuable to students.

“I am so excited to facilitate at my alma mater,” Gilboa said. “It’s going to be a beautiful event — it’s one of the most Obie-like events I’ve ever known. It’s all about how to change the world and make it a better place, and what are some of the skills in entrepreneurship you need in order to be able to accomplish that. It’s all about leaning on mentors and building that network and solving problems, and I’m honored and really excited to be involved and be coming back.”

The event’s keynote speaker will be Eric Schwarz, Senior Wealth Director at BNY Mellon Wealth Management, who will speak on startup funding at noon on Saturday.

First-place winners will each win a GoPro camera, have the opportunity to pitch their idea to President Carmen Ambar over a dinner, and will have automatic entry into LaunchU Winter Term 2019, Oberlin’s large-scale pitch competition in which competitors spend the month of January refining their concept for the chance to win venture capital.

Each team member on the second-place teams will also receive automatic entry into this year’s LaunchU and each win a drone. Those in third place will win $25 Amazon gift cards. All participants will also receive a Certificate Of Excellence in Entrepreneurial Thinking.

“Startup weekend is what I would call ‘a gateway drug’ to LaunchU,” Rubin said. “The flagship program hosted by the Center for Innovation and Impact. I participated in LaunchU last year, where I met Tara and started a company with a friend, fifth-year Ben Steger. It was hard work, but everyone involved worked together and learned from one another. I can’t imagine trying to make a company by yourself. You need to have different perspectives and skills you bring to the table. So, what’s Startup Weekend? That! Boiled down into a jam-packed weekend.”

But for the students participating in the event, it’s about more than just the prizes. For College first-year Alana Blumenstein, the weekend is an opportunity to build upon her nonprofit aspirations.

“I really fell in love with entrepreneurship in high school, when my siblings and I founded our nonprofit, KidsRead2Kids.com,” said Blumenstein. “It’s so inspiring that no matter who you are or where you come from, you can make a difference in the world. … So, when I got to Oberlin, I knew it was something I wanted to continue to work on — both for my nonprofit and for future endeavors. When I heard about Startup Weekend, I thought it was such a cool opportunity to practice coming up with an idea and learning how to get that idea out into the world. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”