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Seniors embrace their entrepreneurial spirit

(This story appeared in the 2013 Commencement issue of the Voice.)

President Joseph E. Aoun likes to think of Northeastern as a startup that began in 1898, one that’s constantly evolving. So it’s no wonder the university dedicates abundant resources to continually expand its entrepreneurial ecosystem for students. This system includes co-ops and academic programs, as well as student-led efforts like the venture accelerator IDEA and Northeastern Entrepreneurs Club, which work in unison to provide critical resources, support, and mentoring.

Here are five graduating seniors whose entrepreneurial tracks exemplify the wide range of opportunities on campus and around the world.

 

An entrepreneurial ecosystem

Veronica Li

Veronica Li didn’t originally plan to attend a meeting of the Northeastern Entrepreneurs Club. But a Tuesday evening stop in a Dodge Hall classroom to retrieve her daily planner led to a surprise introduction to the dynamic student group. Though she wasn’t entirely interested in entrepreneurship at the time, Li stayed for that first meeting—and kept coming back. Three years later, she became acting president of the E-Club.

“I really liked the environment and the enthusiasm; that’s what got me excited and involved,” Li said. Over her years with the club, she’s helped form startups through the group’s Husky Startup Challenge and is graduating with a background chockfull of entrepreneurial experiences.

Li plans to move to California this summer and search for a job at a West
Coast startup. Thanks to Northeastern, she’s confident that she is prepared for an entrepreneurial career.

“These experiences have shaped me tremendously,” Li said. “In my first year, I wasn’t sure about what I wanted to do. But Northeastern exposed me to this whole entrepreneurial ecosystem and that’s changed the way I look at the entire world.”

Social Enterprise

Mike Behan

Njabini Inc., the social enterprise Michael Behan co-founded, is named after the village in Kenya where the company hired its first employees. By hiring local women to produce fashion accessories that would be sold back in the United States, Behan’s business was able to pay wages that were, on average, eight times higher than what the employees were making before.

“This allowed a whole wave of people to begin saving money and planning for their future,” said Behan, a business student with a concentration in entrepreneurship and finance, who has worked closely with Northeastern’s Social Enterprise Institute.

“We’re now seeing women able to send their kids to college and start their own businesses—something most of them would never have thought possible.”
Since the company’s founding in 2010, Behan has returned twice to Kenya on co-op to see the company’s evolution firsthand.

Up next for Njabini: new technology and educational opportunities for more farmers. “Over the past three years, we’ve found more and more ways for our sustainable, for-profit approach to improve the lives of people in Kenya,” Behan said.

The power of co-op

Shay McDonough

Shay McDonough, a senior information science major, spent her first two co-op cycles at the pharmaceutical giant Novartis working as a programmer, analyst, and project manager. She honed her skills and received valuable real-world work experience at a large firm. For her third co-op, she went in a different direction—working for a startup. It’s an experience that opened her eyes to an arena that has since become her passion.

“The beauty of working at a startup is that, even as a co-op or an intern, there is so much to do that you have no other choice but to get involved in everything,” McDonough said. Her co-op position was at Boston-based EverTrue, which builds mobile networking platforms and was the result of a new collaboration between Northeastern and the startup accelerator MassChallenge. The partnership is aimed at pairing students with startups for their co-op positions. McDonough thrived in her role—even staying on part-time after her co-op—and is seeking that kind of environment after graduation.

“I was asked to do so many things at EverTrue,” she said. “I know I have a lot to give.”

Big IDEA

IDEA lab

Like many of his fellow seniors, Chris Wolfel will graduate from Northeastern with a job already lined up. However, he’s actually had what amounts to a fulltime job on campus while serving as CEO of IDEA, the university’s student-run venture accelerator.

When Wolfel first joined the new organization three years ago as its events manager, IDEA was giving out about $20,000 in grants to startups a year. This year alone, IDEA will have awarded 10 times as much—$200,000—to student, alumni, and faculty ventures. Wolfel considers his entrepreneurship experience
the most valuable award of all.

“I’ve learned more about myself and managing people than I ever thought would be possible while in college,” Wolfel said. “I’ve overseen a rapidly growing program, managed a team of peers, and been involved in every piece of running an actual company. I don’t know what my Northeastern experience would have been like without IDEA.”

Always be prepared

Johann Barlach

Johann Barlach’s first business venture, an e-reading platform he started with a childhood friend from home in Hamburg, Germany, didn’t take off.

“The idea was too big and we had limited resources,” Barlach, a senior business administration major. “We weren’t focused enough on one thing.”

So Barlach put that project aside, but his entrepreneurial juices began brewing again when he began working on co-op at a financial consulting firm. His work involved testing business continuity systems, the plans companies put in place for disaster preparedness. That could mean anything from dealing with a major power outage to a sudden significant turnover in staff. From this experience, Barlach found a niche he wanted to target on his own.

“There was a lot of demand in that space for new solutions,” said Barlach, who after his co-op cycle ended paired up with a computer science classmate, Casey Flynn, to create Themis, a new continuity testing system named for a Greek goddess of “divine protection.” They worked with IDEA, the university’s student-run venture accelerator and formed their own company, Cobar Systems.

“That work experience helped me to find needs that required new ideas, and that exposure to different industries and disciplines gave me the tools I needed to build something like this,” Barlach said.