An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Newswise — Economic recovery following the pandemic will require an entrepreneurial skill set. Fortunately, the CSU offers inquiring minds a multitude of resources. No wonder CSU alumni are leading the way.

“For that reason, I’m out.” This catchphrase has been introduced into the popular lexicon by Shark Tank, a show in which eager entrepreneurs pitch their business ventures to a panel of investors. While Mark Cuban and his team of “sharks” have helped to raise the profile of entrepreneurs, small businesses have long played an essential role in California’s economy. In fact, they account for 44 percent of U.S. economic activity.​​

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Every small business starts with an idea, a seed that must be nurtured in order to grow to its full potential. At the CSU, students, faculty and alumni are offered a multitude of resources to help bring their concepts to fruition. They include entrepreneur undergrad and graduate programs, incubators, accelerators, access to angel funding, maker spaces, mentorships and internships.

Now more than ever, as we face economic challenges sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic, creativity and innovation will be critical. “In any economic cycle, entrepreneurs and small business owners are typically driving the renewal process,” says Mike Stull, Ph.D., director of the Inland Empire Center for Entrepreneurship at California State University, San Bernardino​. “[The CSU] can serve as the pipeline for employees who are going to be changemakers in the community.”

Here are four examples of CSU alumni who went from lightbulb moment to corner office.

STEPPING IN​TO THE MARKETPLACE

HALEY PAVONE Campus: Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Major/Program: B.S. in Business Administration, Concentration in Entrepreneurship, ’18 Company: Pashion Footwear Launched: 2019 Sales: $1 million net revenue since launch, maintaining an average growth rate of 60 percent month over month for the last five months

The idea for Pashion Footwear was born from years of high heel pain and inconvenience. While president and CEO Haley Pavone loved the aesthetic of heels, she would often end up barefoot everywhere she went. “This came to a head in 2016 when I was at my sorority spring formal and was barefoot on the dancefloor,” she recalls. “Inspiration struck when one of the other women accidentally stomped the ballpoint of her stiletto through my bare foot—impaling me through the toe.”

As she writhed in pain, Pavone looked around and realized that most of the women were also barefoot, having ditched their heels in a giant pile in the corner of the room. “In that moment, it struck me how odd it was that everyone knows high heels hurt, yet there was no marketable solution,” she says. “I was studying entrepreneurship in school at the time and had just come out of a series of lectures on identifying market opportunities. I couldn’t help but feel like this one had smacked me in the face, so I doubled down and started pursuing a solution myself.”

Enter Pashion Footwear, a line of convertible high heels that can quickly turn from high heel into a comfortable flat with the removal of the heel.

FROM PAIN TO GAIN

Pavone found the assistance she needed for her fledgling idea at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship (CIE). Depending on where students are in their journey, the CIE offers programming that will help them in three main areas: learn, prepare and launch.

“The Hatchery, which is on campus, is geared toward students who may have an idea in the early stages,” explains Lynn Metcalf, Ph.D., professor of entrepreneurship in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and director of the Faculty Fellows program for the CIE. “Participation in the Hatchery positions student teams to apply to the summer accelerator program, which is located in the HotHouse ​downtown.”

In addition to a bachelor’s with a concentration in entrepreneurship, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo offers an entrepreneurship minor that draws from all colleges and disciplines across campus. “Students often get their start in our experiential classes, where they identify a problem that interests them and develop initial ideas for a solution,” Dr. Metcalf says. “They can take it into the Hatchery, work on it further and find mentoring, advising and programming that helps them grow their idea into a business.”

Students are able to attend workshops put on by local professionals on topics such as accounting, legal issues and fundraising. “Our mentor network doesn’t just draw from the local area,” says Thomas Katona, assistant professor of entrepreneurship at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. “We find the very best mentors who are active in the space. If a student is working in artificial intelligence, we’ll bring someone in to advise them.”

For Pavone, joining the Hatchery and HotHouse programs was an invaluable experience that was essential to getting Pashion Footwear where it is today. “The programs helped us secure funding, develop our business plan and find mentors, contractors, advisors and other necessary resources,” she says.

The work has now paid off. Just recently, Pavone appeared on an episode of Shark Tank—during w​hich she turned down an offer that wasn’t up to snuff. “I was absolutely shocked when I got the call that we’d made it through the application screening,” she says. “In truth, it took years of perfecting the pitch and growing the business to land that shot. I firmly believe ‘luck’ is just preparation meeting opportunity.”

PUSHING THE STATUS QUO IN PRINTING

MARITZA GOMEZ Campus: Cal State San Bernardino Major/Program: B.A. in Business Administration, Concentration in Entrepreneurship Management, ’16 Company: MG Custom Printing Launched: 2014 Sales: $105,000 in 2020 (one full-time employee/one part-time employee)

CSUSB alumna Maritza Gomez started her business, MG Custom Printing, out of necessity. “I had to create a job for myself because of my immigration status,” she says. (Gomez was brought to the United States as a child and ​did not have citizenship.) “I wasn’t able to work legally for somebody else, but I was able to work for myself.”

Gomez was originally an international business major, but the program included an internship that required traveling outside of the U.S. “I didn’t know if my status was going to be adjusted by that time, so I switched into entrepreneurship so I could create businesses.”

With a computer, heat press, printer and a ton of grit, Gomez started MG Custom Printing, a digital decoration company, from her home. She’s found success in providing entrepreneurs the opportunity to order low minimums. “For small business owners, sometimes their marketing budgets are very small,” she says. “I allow customers to mix and match their designs, and they don’t have to order a hundred of the same mugs. If they don’t sell, then at least they’re not stuck with 50 mugs.”

THINK LIKE AN OWNER

While at CSUSB, Gomez was connected with the Inland Empire Women’s Business Center and the It’s Your Time program, where she learned how to write a business plan. “One of my best memories at school was the Dinner With an Entrepreneur event, presented by the University’s Inland Empire Center for Entrepreneurship,” she recalls. “Business owners gave us a tour of their facility and shared their story. They told us failure is actually part of business. I was able to see them not as entrepreneurs or CEOs but as people we can look up to.”

Since Gomez’s graduation in 2016, CSUSB’s entrepreneurial efforts have continued to increase. In 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, the campus launched its School of Entrepreneurship, the only one of its kind in California. It will oversee and coordinate eight major academic programs in entrepreneurship with more than 20 full- and part-time faculty members.

“We wanted to create CSUSB as a destination program for entrepreneurship,” says Mike Stull, D.M., director of the Inland Empire Center for Entrepreneurship (IECE) at CSUSB and director of the School of Entrepreneurship. “What students are getting with us is a real, focused deep dive that exposes them to the entrepreneurial mindset, competencies and knowledge they’ll need to create and sustain new ventures.”

The school and the co-curricular programs offered by the IECE are geared not just to those who envision starting their own businesses. Instead, the skills imparted will prepare future workers with the ability to succeed in any scenario. “We want our students to learn how to think like an owner,” Dr. Stull says. “The context really doesn’t matter. It can be their own startup business, a nonprofit social enterprise or them going t​o work for a larger organization and being an innovative change maker. We want them to push the status quo.”

LEADING THE CHARGE IN STEM CELL RESEARCH​​

JOHN CHI Campus: Cal State Fullerton Major/Program: M.S. in Biotechnology, ’1​5 Company: Synova Life Sciences Launched: 2014 Sales: Recently closed $2 million

At the start of his time at Cal State Fullerton, John Chi had difficulty presenting in front of his classmates. “He had stage fright and was a little embarrassed,” says John Bradley Jackson, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at Cal State Fullerton. “He worked on it and worked on it and became really proficient.” By the time graduation rolled around, Chi was not only winning pitch contests, he was earning tens of thousands of dollars for his startup in the process.

His company, Synova Life Sciences, creates a device that extracts stem cells out of fat to be used in the regeneration of tissue. “It’s 30 times faster than what’s out there and gets more cells,” Chi says. “We’ve got a couple of clinical trials coming online and a regulatory clearance that’s slated for this summer.”​

Chi has come a long way, and he attributes much of it to his time at CSUF, where he earned his master’s in biotechnology (MBt) with an emphasis in business. “Very early on, I realized I didn’t know how to do any of the business stuff,” Chi says. “I learned how to develop a business plan, make a spreadsheet with financial projections, put a deck together and communicate the story of the company so people would understand what we were doing and be excited about it. That was key to being able to raise investment money.”

LEARN BY DOING

Home to the largest accredited business school in California, CSUF’s approach to entrepreneurship is to help students experience the marketplace firsthand. “Books are great, but students learn the most by doing,” Jackson says. “All of our classes have a traditional lecture with books and articles, but probably 50 percent of the class is dedicated to the projects. They leave campus—virtually right now—and engage in teams with local clients to help them solve problems.”

In addition, students, alumni and community members can make use of the CSUF Startup Incubator. In the last five and a half years, it has helped launch 80 companies. “When a startup is ready and meets our screening criteria, we’ll begin a six-month period of incubation,” Jackson explains. “We assign them a mentor. I have 700 volunteers who’ll help out; some come every week in the classroom and work with those students, some work at the incubator, some are guest speakers and some are panelists. It’s a remarkable gift to us from our community.”

Many of those volunteers include former students like Chi, who was invited to present to students at the incubator. “I talked to them about what to expect from the start-up road, the things you run into,” he says.

The foundation Chi set at CSUF continues to pay off. After recently closing $2 million in funding, Synova Life Sciences was able to hire three people. It will also get the company through testing, FDA clearance and manufacturing stages. “Once we have our clearance, we’ll be able to sell the device the way we want to,” he says. “And then the clinical trials are to support the other uses of the stem cells, for orthopedics, pulmonary fibrosis, long-term COVID damage and many other areas.”

HELPING STUDENTS SUCCEED

FADI GEORGE, FADEE KANNAH, LUAN NGUYEN, LUKE SOPHINOS, RYAN VANSHUR, MICHAEL WOO Campus: San Diego State Major/Program: Various Company: CourseKey Launched: 2014 Sales: $20 million in funding raised since starting at SDSU in 2014

Ryan Vanshur describes the convergence of the six San Diego State students as “dumb luck” mixed with an entrepreneurial ecosystem on campus. The result is CourseKey, a career education software company that has raised close to $20 million in funding since inception and saw annual recurring revenue grow 200 percent in 2020.

The company initially created a software tool that boosted class engagement and automated taking roll, but later pivoted to retention and attendance compliance in career education schools. One of CourseKey’s offerings is identifying at-risk students and executing proactive retention strategies.

“We’re making sure more students are crossing the finish line and keeping them from falling behind from missing too much class,” Vanshur says. “There are strict governmental regulations to confirm your students are meeting requirements to get their certification. We’re developing products that have never existed in the market we’re serving.”

And it all started at the Zahn Innovation Platform (ZIP) Launchpad at SDSU, a melting pot for students of different cultures and disciplines. “It attracts different specializations but like minds, which helped us make connections and grow to be a premier team,” he says.

Another aspect that led to CourseKey’s success was the ZIP Launchpad’s access to advisors. For example, Professor David DeBoskey, Ph.D., helped the team develop a five-year financial model. “We were kind of crawling along in the dark and then these experts would come and show us how to do it,” Vanshur says. “Once we got that momentum, SDSU did everything it could do to support us.”

ALL IN STAGES

Cathy Pucher, executive director of the ZIP Launchpad, says the center was designed to help people create their own careers from their ideas and also offer a transformational experience that will enhance their ability to land their next job. “The entrepreneur experience involves creative thinking and problem solving,” she says. “It’s an important skill set to have, and you can add it, like a spice, to anything.”

The ZIP Launchpad accepts students from across the campus and asks participants to identify a significant problem. They must hypothesize how someone experiences that problem and then figure out how they would uniquely solve it.

Once students are accepted to the free, co-curricular program, they progress through three phases. The first phase is one semester and focuses on the problem side. The second phase focuses on the solution and typically takes two or three semesters. And the final stage, building their business, can range from one to several semesters. “We provide programming based on lean start-up methodology,” Pucher explains. “In the first phase, we guide them on how to demonstrate they have a problem worth solving. In the second phase, they’re validating their solution concept through the eyes of their customer. In the final stage, they’re building and gaining traction for their business, so that when they graduate from SDSU, they can operate autonomously with their business.”

The center has more th​an a dozen domain experts from the community who volunteer their time and offer students guidance in matters regarding legalities, insurance, accounting, marketing, fundraising, financial modeling, sales and more. Many of the domain experts are Aztec alumni who want to give back.

In addition, the ZIP Launchpad has a broad advisory board that donates their time and support. “Not only do they support our teams and the center, but many of our advisory board members are investors,” Pucher says. “Collectively, our teams have raised $30 million, and several million can be attributed to investments from advisory board members.”

 

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