Lecture halls and business calls: Exploring what it means to be a student entrepreneur at U.Va.

As business-creators and students, student entrepreneurs face distinct obstacles and opportunities in their academic and professional endeavors

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Fourth-year Commerce student LeiLei Secor has sold over 17,000 pieces of jewelry since 2012 and has made a profit exceeding $200,000 through her business “Designed by Lei.”

Christina Anton | Cavalier Daily

Sifting through piles of jewelry and envelopes on the desk in the corner of the room. Sleeping on a pull-out couch in a sparsely decorated new office space. Spending countless hours fine-tuning a competition pitch. Taking a Leave of Absence. 

The lives of student entrepreneurs at the University differ greatly. Different years, different approaches, different goals. Businesses range from handmade jewelry to alpaca wool sweaters to cryptocurrency trading. 

As business-creators and students, student entrepreneurs face distinct obstacles and opportunities in their academic and professional endeavors. While founders face the obstacle of balancing school and work, they are also provided the opportunities of University resources and programs, student organizations, competitions and large alumni networks.

The work-school balance 

Fourth-year Commerce student LeiLei Secor started making and selling jewelry at age 16. Since 2012, Secor has sold over 17,000 pieces of jewelry and has made a profit exceeding $200,000 through her business “Designed by Lei.”

In a regular week, Secor makes and ships approximately 30 to 50 pieces of jewelry. Around the holidays — and finals — that number can skyrocket to 200. Staying up all night to make jewelry and study, Secor said choosing between school and work is extremely hard. 

“A lot of times I would try to do both, which didn’t always work out in my favor,” Secor said. “I always try to prioritize school but I feel like it was a very even balance between the two because I couldn’t really prioritize one over the other or neglect one over the other.” 

Fourth-year College student Ted Obi said preparing a pitch for a competition can take precedence over studying for an exam. Last week, Obi had an exam and two competitions. At the University’s Entrepreneurship Cup last Thursday, he and fourth-year College student Morgan Brazel’s pitch won $15,000 in prize money.

The pair spent last summer in Ghana researching the feasibility of telemedicine. Their startup, Yedea Telemedicine, aims to use a call service and webcams to bring fast medical care to men and women across Ghana. Many Ghanaians choose not to receive medical care because long wait times mean missing out on a day’s wages. Obi and Brazel’s project plans to reduce wait time with appointment times for virtual consultations with real-life doctors. Around 25 Ghanaian doctors have committed to the project. 

Obi is considering deferring his medical school acceptance to continue working on the startup.

“We’ve already planned a 3-month pilot program to run over the summer,” Obi said. “If we were successful in getting funding, I would definitely defer for one or two years to see if it would work.” 

With graduation years away, the amount of time needed for younger students to successfully create a business can have a ripple effect on grades and majors. 

Second-year College student Tyler Marx is no novice to starting a business. His ventures have ranged from creating longboards to selling sheets and linens on an online store. Now, he and a friend from high school manage a platform they created called “Belacam.” The website allows artists to give and receive real money using micro-transactions of a little-known currency called “Belacoin.” For each post a user likes, he gives away a few cents, and for each like the user receives, he gets a few cents.

“When I’m not in class, I’m at the office or at the library working on this,” Marx said. “If I am in class, I often sit in the back and I’m on my laptop working as well.”

Marx said his grades have suffered from the amount of time he has spent working on his new business. Ultimately, the McIntire School of Commerce rejected his application.

“The Comm school was my dream, and I did all of the Comm classes, sat in the back and worked on this,” Marx said. “I just couldn’t pull myself away from it . . . It’s business first and other things second.”

For some student entrepreneurs, maintaining a balance between school and work seems impossible. Aneesh Dhawan is currently on a leave of absence from the University, working on a business he co-founded with second-year College student Victor Layne. Aneesh finished his first year in the College before taking leave last fall. 

“It’s very difficult in my opinion to successfully make a company if it’s not the only thing you’re ever thinking about,” Dhawan said. “I wasn’t doing as well as I wanted at school and the company wasn’t going in the direction where I wanted it to, so I decided to make that choice and I don’t regret it at all.”

Their company, PurPics, connects student philanthropic causes to businesses who want access to the college demographic. Students post a photograph promoting the philanthropy and the brand or product of the business. For every “like” on Instagram, the business donates five cents to the organization.

A helping hand 

Eric Martin, co-founder and director of The Galant Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, said the University’s entrepreneurial programs spread across the entire University. Founded in 2008, The Galant Center works to encourage students to explore entrepreneurship as a career path. Although appearing decentralized, the programs are linked by the Entrepreneurship Advisory Council.

“There are people everywhere and they’re being supported in all of those places,” Martin said. “In our opinion, that has lots of benefits because there is a huge network that has grown to support entrepreneurship.”

The Entrepreneurship minor, started in 2015, allows students to learn entrepreneurial skills across disciplines, with classes in McIntire, Batten, engineering, architecture and other schools. 

Students can pick one of two concentrations — social entrepreneurship or technology entrepreneurship.

Besides the minor, programs, clubs and competitions across the school offer opportunities to connect with the University’s entrepreneur community.

Alex Zorychta, program director of Works in Progress, said Works in Progress was created to encourage and support students in their startup projects. Works in Progress helps students find resources such as grants, prepares them for pitch competitions and introduces engaged student entrepreneurs to each other. 

“We knew who was most engaged and could put them around each other…[people] who know they want to be entrepreneurs and just need people like themselves,” Zorychta said.

For students needing a workspace, the i.Lab is a physical space and a set of programs to support innovators and entrepreneurs at the University. Located on the North Grounds, all students have access to its nearly 10,000 square feet of private office space, meeting rooms, and work space. 

Alexander Olesen, co-Founder of Babylon Micro-Farms and 2017 University graduate, said the i.Lab was instrumental to the company’s success. Olesen’s team worked in the i.Lab accelerator program last summer to design automated, indoor growing devices. The devices use no soil and can grow plants year-round twice as quickly as other growing methods. 

“Having a workshop was invaluable to having us to get to where we are today,” Olesen said.

David Touve, i.Lab director and former director of the Galant Center, said the i.Lab has provided funding and support to over 225 early stage companies. 

The i.Lab runs the incubator program — a selective 10-week program where teams of students receive $5,000 toward their project, mentoring, workshops and legal support. PurPics co-founders Dhawan and Layne are a part of the incoming i.Lab incubator cohort this summer. 

The University hosts several pitch competitions like the Galant Challenge and Entrepreneurship Cup to provide funding for students trying to launch their own businesses. The Galant Challenge has awarded over $1.5 million over the last few years according to Martin. The Entrepreneurship Cup awards $100,000 each year. 

“The competitions are the primary mechanism through which students across Grounds have access to very early stage funding for projects,” Touve said.

Success after U.Va. 

Former students of the University have been extremely successful in their entrepreneurial efforts both nationally and locally. Forbes recognized five University alumni on its 2018 “30 Under 30” list. 

Joey Linzon, co-Founder of Roots and Corner Juice, graduated in 2015 from McIntire. Linzon teamed up with three of his fraternity brothers to start Roots and 2017 graduate Julie Nolet to open Corner Juice. While in school, he and his friends noticed there was a high demand for healthy food but nowhere to affordably buy it on the Corner. Two of the co-founders participated in the Galant Challenge and found early funding and mentorship for the startup. 

Sam Bernstein, one of the University alumni featured on Forbes’ list, permanently left the University halfway through his third year to pursue the company he founded, LoftSmart, full time.

The application allows renters to search through over 250,000 apartments on the site, read reviews, and sign a lease, all within the same app. The idea took shape after Bernstein had a terrible experience with a local rental company his first year.

While a student at the University, he raised $180,000 from investors.

“If you’re in school and thinking about it now, there’s never going to be a lower risk time in your life to go do it,” Bernstein said. “Give it a shot.”

For dedicated student entrepreneurs, innovative thinking and creating businesses is a way of life. 

“I’m very convinced that entrepreneurship’s not just a kind of career path but it’s also a way of life,” Layne said. “It’s about testing things, learning quickly, evolving quickly, and just kind of moving fast and trying different things out.”

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