Why You Need to Master the Art of Storytelling

They’re onto us. Interruptive, self-serving and self-centered marketing tactics no longer work the way they used to, and in the age of smartphones, social media, and being virtually connected all the time, their effectiveness is only going to decrease as more time passes. So what’s going to replace the way we’ve been practicing marketing all this time?

Stories.

As humans, there is a deep psychology attached to why stories speak to us. We use them to make sense of the chaos in our lives, to explain the things we don’t understand, or to help us remember why something is important. Consider this example. What’s more impactful? A list of ingredients in a packet of flavored oatmeal or a story about a company’s mission to bring “tangy sweetness of a blueberry and the warming power of a bowl of oatmeal to kitchen tables around the world?” Our brains have a pretty hard time differentiating between something that we’re reading about and something that’s actually happening to us. Stories just seem to stick no matter what.

Google released the findings of their research project, Zero Moment of Truth (a seriously great resource for anyone in the marketing universe), which found consumers today are engaging in twice the amount of content online year over year leading up to a buying decision. We are constantly connected. Our greedy brains are hungry for information and we’re all yearning to make a personal connection. It’s crucial that a brand can identify that moment when a consumer decides something is important enough to buy and make a part of their daily lives. Brands must work to create a meaningful role for themselves in the consumers’ lives and stand out.  It might be hard to imagine how a brand can do this when so many are vying for the same attention, so it’s more important than ever to tap into what really resonates with consumers.

It starts with content marketing. By definition, content marketing is different from traditional advertising, which is usually transmitted around someone else’s content. Content marketing is the production of real, valuable, and relevant content or information penned by the brand itself which over time will (hopefully) create a positive behavior from a customer. While it may not focus primarily on sales of a product, it promotes the brand’s story and has the potential to drive sales. Take John Deere as a classic example of great content marketing. John Deere created an online publication, The Furrow, to educate farmers on new technology and farming business tips. It wasn’t a vehicle to to directly sell John Deere equipment, but by becoming a central resource for information and education, farmers started to turn to John Deere before anyone else because it was not only at the “top of mind,” but also perceived as an expert in the field, increasing the company’s sales revenue. Top brands like Etsy, Coca Cola, and Birchbox have also harnessed the power of content marketing becoming leaders in the storytelling space.

So where do you start? Cultural anthropologist Simon Sinek tells us that the best brands focus not on what they do or how they do it, but on the why. Everyone has a why, and the most memorable brands live the stories they tell.

Your “why” should be the basis of your story. Brands that tell compelling stories speak to our intrinsic human values and what we stand for. Today, consumers want to have a participatory role and be advocates for the brands they know and love sharing them with friends, family, colleagues and their ever-growing online network. Creating a two-way, reciprocal conversation with consumers can turn a one time buyer into a loyalist and brand advocate, a person who will help your content become discoverable and shareable. Just as the Zero Moment of Truth explains, it’s crucial to listen to your audience and understand what they are thinking about and implement that across the brand. For example, the most common type of stain searched for on Google? A red wine stain. Maybe that’s why we see the ominous glass of red wine on white carpet in nearly every stain-removal product commercial. What’s on the collective minds of humans right now? Coconut oil. People really love coconut oil. We have to know what matters to consumers and do our best to speak to that if we can.

An important aspect of your brand’s story is your purpose. It’s the part of your brand and story that people will connect with the most. Commit to your story and put it at the forefront of your marketing strategy–not as an afterthought. Don’t simply “post and pray.” Be purposeful about where and when the message you are sending is distributed and aim to encourage social interactions with your story. Ensure that what you put out into the world can be shared and shaped. Consumers can easily recognize if a brand isn’t being transparent, so live your brand. Be authentic, master your story, and share your own “why.”


Elisabeth Wright is a marketing pro with experience in the public, private, and educational sectors, with a special interest in international relations and social entrepreneurship. She joins The Garage with a passion for work in higher education and a love of all things student centered. Elisabeth received her BA in cultural anthropology and her MPA, specializing in nonprofit management, from Northern Illinois University.

Teaching Music Business: An International View

Over the summer of 2016, I had the opportunity to travel across the world to Melbourne, Australia in an effort to better understand the musical culture of the city. My project consisted of an interview with ten questions which ultimately found that my participants were extremely underwhelmed with the quality of their current and past musical education; particularly when it came to music business techniques. Each person described their experiences when trying to make a successful career, giving what they believed to be an answer as to why many musicians choose to give up on from their artistry while detailing the positives and negatives to Melbourne’s style of education. The artists expressed their hopes of finding a clear way to identify why Australians seem to struggle with maintaining a lucrative livelihood, after completing their education.

I talked to musicians of a variety of genres, ages, instrumental focuses, and educational levels. Very few of the interviewees felt that academia strongly prepared them for a career in the real music scene, and the rest felt not at all prepared for what waited for them after graduation. Some individuals, when asked to expand upon their comments, felt that they were somewhat prepared, but saying things such as “school was close-minded and only focused on grades” and “that classes avoided teaching beyond musical technique. When asked what they wanted to know before entering their musical career, every single person responded with the same two words, verbatim; music business. What this meant varied slightly from person to person, ranging from things such as knowledge of copyright law or licensing agreement to how to self-manage and handle one’s own advertising. A lot of musicians also felt there was a significant gap between academia and Melbourne’s live music culture, not stemming from a disconnect between the professor and the real world, but actually in what the curriculum deemed as “important”. Interviewees mentioned that the focus on perfecting musical skill surpassed the stress (or lack thereof) on practical business techniques often left artists without the experience to both begin and maintain a lucrative career.

According to my findings, musicians feel that they are not taught the necessary skills that are used in order to become a business professional, and even the academic world seems to gloss over the importance of turning an art form into a career. Society occasionally overlooks the validity of music and its ability to be a monetizable field. This develops an atmosphere in which an artist feels compelled to pursue other lines of work that are deemed as more acceptable and financially secure than that of a particularly artistic field, often moving away from music entirely. Thusly, I learned that the overall attitude towards music and society’s reception of live performance during and after a gig creates a doubt in music as a possible career choice at an early age and continues the tendency towards demoting a professional musician to the title of “hobbyist”.

Regardless of the current state of their musical career or education, everyone responded to my question, “What skills you wished you could have taken in a class before entering your performance career?” with the desire to have more experience in industry skills before jumping in to a musical profession. Learning from making mistakes, losing money, becoming frustrated and relying on a relatively large amount of luck, musicians tend to grow solely from experience when it came to the “business” side of music business.

Allowing oneself to risk failure without some of the more serious consequences is just one of the major reasons why one might want to attend school, due to academia’s ability to provide a safe space. My data seems to say that a quality music program focuses not only on the creation of beautiful sound, but also on the monetization of that sound; learning how to maintain a source of income and manage a long-lasting career. Although there is merit to learning while immersed in the field, it does not always benefit the artist to become bogged down by the consequences of inexperience: teaching techniques to encourage the growth of an industry is a main concern of many students, faculty members and current performers, and yet the universities do not reflect those sentiments. Bridging the gap between Melbourne’s live music culture and academia can begin with the creation or redesigning of music business curriculum in an effort to provide students with the best chance possible at succeeding within the Australian music scene.


Bree Aikens is a senior double majoring in Opera Performance and Music Business with a Religious Studies minor, and hails from LaGrange Park, IL. Having maintained a passion for singing and entrepreneurship, she decided to combine the two and has since worked and performed in Chicago, New York City, various cities in Northern Italy and Melbourne, Australia.

Founder Spotlight: Sarah Ahmad, McCormick + Weinberg ’18

Who: Sarah Ahmad, McCormick School of Engineering + Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences ‘18 + Co-Founder of HotPlate

Major: Entrepreneurial Design and Chemical Technologies + Economics

Sarah has made a major splash since becoming a Resident at The Garage, participating in both Winter Wildfire and Summer Wildfire and has made some serious progress on her startup, HotPlate. She took home a check for $1,000 back at our Winter Demo Day, and we loved watching her pitch again at Wildfire: The Showdown in September. It’s Sarah’s last year at Northwestern, so we wanted to make sure we got the scoop on her experience before she goes. 

Tell us about your major and how you ended up at Northwestern.

“Northwestern wasn’t actually even on my list of potential colleges. I happened to be in the area the summer before my senior year of high school to look at a bunch of other universities in the midwest. Our hotel was near Northwestern, so on a whim, we decided to visit the campus. On our way back from Notre Dame, we stayed in Evanston and it really became a top choice for me because of how much they center on the community aspect of college. I was also interested in the Engineering program, and how they stress not just studying engineering, but combining it with a social science or other interests.

I chose to study Mechanical Engineering because I like physics and knew it was a broad discipline. I like building things to solve a problem, but after getting to college, I found out working in the shop just wasn’t for me. Because I was also interested in the business aspect of engineering, I switched to Industrial Engineering for one quarter. I had an internship at a paint company, and I didn’t enjoy it. The chemical industry just wasn’t something I saw myself going into after college. When I found out that I could make my own major and propose my own curriculum through McCormick, I opted to go for a combination of chemical engineering, industrial engineering, and entrepreneurship courses and a second major in Economics.

I always enjoyed the business aspect of any problem, and I like thinking about things in different ways so social science and its implications in technology is important to me.”

How did you become interested in entrepreneurship?

“Back in 5th or 6th grade, I started teaching myself Photoshop and selling templates to MySpace users. I always had an entrepreneurial mindset. I thought it would be great to start or own a business one day. I did an entrepreneurial summer camp before 9th grade, and I was always involved in business organizations and participated in business plan competitions in high school.

I had the idea for HotPlate last summer. I was in a class called Engineering Entrepreneurship (ENTREP 325) with Neal Sales-Griffin and HotPlate received the most votes for a project the class would work on. So the initial team was built from there. Without the guidance and skills I took away from that class, HotPlate wouldn’t be where it is.”

Sarah Ahmad pitching HotPlate at The Showdown in Fall 2017

What’s it like being a student founder?

“I’ve really come to value what I learn in class. I’ve come to appreciate project-based classes the most, because I refer to what I learned in them all the time as I work on HotPlate. When the professor allows us to think creatively and independently on a problem, and lets the students figure out a way to solve it and lead us through that process with it culminating with a final paper or presentation, is when I’ve learned the most.

Being a student founder has really enhanced my Northwestern experience, too. Sometimes it’s a game of time management and prioritization, but it’s been a really valuable experience. I’ve learned a lot of soft skills like how to lead a team, how to deal with conflict, how to handle failure. Each day is a new challenge and it’s in those challenges that you learn the most.”

What’s your focus this year?

“I really want to continue with HotPlate full time after graduation, so I’m focusing on wrapping up my classes and keeping up the momentum in the company, too. I really loved working on it during the summer in Wildfire. I’m still thinking about recruiting for jobs, but that’s something I’ll focus on more in the Winter quarter. I’m considering some product manager roles, because no matter what, I want to be involved in the design and development of an app.”


This post is part of a series highlighting student founders working at The Garage, and how it has enhanced their experience as a student as Northwestern. 

Family Dinner: Ben Weiss of Zcruit

Sometimes, as a Resident at The Garage, it’s hard to envision what comes next. Do you take that job with a salary and benefits? Do you let your startup fold and close up shop for good? Do you pass your legacy on to another group of students and hope they keep it alive? What about putting your passion project to the side for a while?

We know success looks different for all of our startup teams, and while we do our absolute bestest to give entrepreneurial students the resources they need to take their ideas to the next level, we also know from doing this for a little over two years that only about 10% of students will go on to pursue their startups full time after graduation, while 90% go on to work at other startups, businesses, and big companies like Google, Uber, Facebook, and more.

But when it comes to Ben Weiss (SESP, ‘17), he opted to stick around for a while. After convincing his team including Danny Baker (Weinberg ‘17), Gautier Dagan (Weinberg ‘17), Dino Mujkic (Weinberg ‘17), Alex Cohen (McCormick ‘18),  and Yannick Mamudo (McCormick ‘18) to hang out for 10 weeks at The Garage full time in the summer after graduation, big things started to happen. Zcruit’s mission of making football recruiting more efficient through predictive analytics caught on. Zcruit’s client list exploded from single to double digits. They pushed out new products. USA Today Sports even noticed! And the best thing? They got an offer for an acquisition. The deal closed just before Thanksgiving 2017, just over two years after Ben introduced his idea to us at The Garage.

From left: Alex Cohen (McCormick ‘18), Nicholas Karzmer (Weinberg ‘17), Ben Weiss (SESP ’17),  Dino Mujkic (Weinberg ‘17), Gautier Dagan (Weinberg ‘17) and Danny Baker (Weinberg ‘17) pose for a photo at The Garage during winter quarter, 2017. 

Zcruit’s acquisition marks the first ever out of The Garage. Which is perfect, considering Zcruit was one of the first members of The Garage’s Residency way back in 2015. Ben is a perfect example of The Garage and Northwestern instilling the innovation mindset in students. Ben turned down his full time job offer to take on Zcruit full time, and boy, are we glad he did.

Today, Zcruit is part of Reigning Champs, where Ben still oversees all of Zcruit’s development and operation. While some members of his original team have opted to travel, go to graduate school, or take on jobs, the core of Zcruit is still with Ben. You can read more about Zcruit’s story and their acquisition on Northwestern News

Ben and his team were named one of 10 Illinois Student Startups Set to Make Moves in 2017 by Chicago Inno, and Zcruit was recognized as one of the five most outstanding student startups at the 2017 EntrepreneurshipU Awards.

In addition to The Garage’s Residency Program, Zcruit was a part of The Garage’s inaugural Wildfire pre-accelerator program in the summer of 2016 and Winter Wildfire in the winter of 2017. In May 2017, Zcruit took home prize money in the B2B track of VentureCat, Northwestern’s annual student startup competition.

Hear a snippet of Ben’s talk at Family Dinner below.


Family Dinner is a special perk just for Residents of The Garage to meet once per week for food, community, and to hear from an accomplished founder. To learn more about our past Family Dinner speakers, click here

Sleep, It Does a Body Good.

Jeff Bezos does it, Sheryl Sandberg does it, and many successful entrepreneurs do it.  They throw in the towel and go to sleep instead of burning the midnight oil. A recent study found that 60 percent of college students do not get enough sleep. Student entrepreneurs might be thinking, “With my startup and my clubs, not to mention my classes, there is not enough time in the day. I need to finish a few more things on my long to do list before I can go to bed.” However, to be a successful student and entrepreneur, you need to be able to focus and make good decisions.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends people 18-25 years old get seven to nine hours of sleep a night. Why is sleep so important? The National Institute of Health describes it this way:

“Sleep helps your brain work properly. While you’re sleeping, your brain is preparing for the next day. It’s forming new pathways to help you learn and remember information. Studies show that a good night’s sleep improves learning. Whether you’re learning math, [or] how to play the piano […] sleep helps enhance your learning and problem-solving skills. Sleep also helps you pay attention, make decisions, and be creative.”

Paying attention, making decisions and being creative are three important daily attributes needed to be a successful entrepreneur and student. Just one extra hour of sleep can make the difference.  With sufficient sleep you won’t feel groggy or struggle to get through the day. You will feel less stressed about all you want to accomplish.

Still not convinced you should make the effort to get more sleep? Matt Walker, professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and Director of the Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory, says that the number of people who can survive on six hours of sleep or less and show no impairment is “zero.”  Yes, zero!  So if you are getting six hours of sleep instead of seven, you are coping with an impairment that can easily be addressed.  Set an alarm on your phone so when it gets to be that time in the evening, you are reminded to wrap things up and get to bed earlier to get the rest you need so you are not impaired and you can be your best, most productive, focused and  creative, problem-solving self.

Research has shown that sleep is so important that many startups are focusing on data analysis and innovative wearables to enhance sleep. Headspace, a meditation app, has expanded its offerings with a sleep single to help people sleep. In 2014, Northwestern University alumni Jeff Kahn, Jacob Kelter and Leon Sasson founded Rise Science, a comprehensive sleep-coaching program for elite athletes that coordinates everything needed to improve sleep behavior and consequently performance. Jeff describes sleep as, “The most potent performance enhancing activity that exists.”

Here are some tips taken from Northwestern Human Resources for how to get a good night’s sleep:

  • Try to maintain a regular sleep and wake schedule. During the quarter, this should be doable, since you have classes on a set schedule.
  • Establish a regular, relaxing routine before bed. For example, read a book instead of looking at a screen (phone or computer, even with the filtering on) for the last 30 minutes before you go to sleep.
  • Avoid eating and drinking, particularly drinks with caffeine, two to three hours before bedtime.

Getting that extra hour of sleep will help you to work more efficiently the next day and thus be more productive.  Give it a try and good luck catching those extra zzz’s–you’ll be happy you did.


Elisa Mitchell is the Assistant Director of Operations and Finance at The Garage and enjoys helping each student start a unique entrepreneurial journey.  She is an accomplished attorney and CPA and brings strong organizational skills, attention to detail and a can-do attitude to every project. She is thrilled to be a part of The Garage.

The Garage Gift Guide 2017

The holidays are here, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that in this year’s gift guide, we’re supporting Northwestern entrepreneurs (again). Here’s a roundup of some of our favorite gift ideas for your besties and family, including both current student founded products and companies, alongside some of the best of the best Northwestern alumni companies. We’ve got something for everyone, from cold brew coffee to pre-packed healthy lunches, to the infamous RompHim that broke the internet in 2017, all Garage-approved.   

1. Something local through BOSSY Chicago

Isabel Benatar and Samantha Letscher (Photo Credit: Chicago Reader)

Co-founded by Northwestern students Samantha Letscher (McCormick, ‘18) and Isabel Benatar (SESP, ‘18), BOSSY Chicago is empowering women business owners and encouraging us all to not only shop local, but to support women owned businesses through their online directory. They’re also storytellers, sharing the entrepreneurial wisdom and challenges of female entrepreneurs all over Chicago. You can also keep up with all things BOSSY and sign up for their newsletter here.

 

2. A BrewBike Gift Card

(Photo Credit: @brewbikecoffee)

Now a popular coffee spot on campus, BrewBike is providing Northwestern its caffeine fix in the most convenient way, every day. Founded by Lucas Philips (SESP, ‘19), BrewBike has mastered cold brew coffee, and operates not just a mobile coffee shop during the warmer months, but a real life coffee pop up shop in Annenberg Hall, frequented by staff, faculty, and students alike. Now, you can give the gift of yummy cold brew with a BrewBike gift card. 

 

3. An Unruled. Notebook

(Photo Credit: @beunruled)

Founded by a group of students in an entrepreneurship course in Fall 2016, Unruled. has turned into a full blown retail operation, offering their products around Evanston and online. Give the gift of visual thinking and endless possibilities with their flagship product, the Unruled. Notebook.

 

4. One less thing on a to-do list from Local

(Photo Credit: @local.technologies)

Co-founded by brother and sister team, Caraline and Collin Pham (McCormick, ‘18), Local helps you get things done by hiring college students to help with practically anything. Give the gift of some housework, yard work, or even running errands to someone you love. We’ve got our eye on shoveling snow.

 

5. A super fly outfit from Bonobos

(Photo Credit: Bonobos Guidebook)

Andy Dunn (WCAS, ‘00) co-founded Bonobos, one of the fastest growing online men’s clothing retailers, in 2007 because it was so hard to find pants that actually fit. Now, Bonobos has expanded their playbook, offering shirts and suits making shopping for guys painless and maybe even a little bit fun.

 

6. Wise Apple lunches

(Photo Credit: Wise Apple)

Co-founded by two Kellogg alumni while they were students, and former Residents of The Garage, Rebecca Sholiton (Kellogg, ‘16) and Nathan Cooper (Kellogg, ‘17) are offering busy parents a new way to give their kids healthy lunches through pre-packaged meals delivered directly to your door. Food is fun. Packing lunches isn’t, so give the gift of quieter mornings, less last minute trips to the grocery store, and nutritious, yummy food.

 

7. A RompHim

(Photo Credit @originalromphim)

Why romp alone when you can romp together? Founded by a group of Kellogg students (ACED Design) in 2017, these dudes broke the internet with their fully funded (and then some) Kickstarter campaign, with more than 3,000 backers pledging over $350,000 to bring RompHims to men trying to break fashion stereotypes everywhere. And don’t worry, they’ve expanded their line to include the RompSuit, so you can romp all winter long, too.

 

8. A little greenery from Welltended

(Photo Credit:  @welltended)

Founded by Carolyn Snider (Kellogg, ‘17), Welltended is a former Resident of The Garage, changing the way we buy and care for plants. We spend a ton of time indoors, so WellTended believes it’s important to cultivate a home that’s bright, fresh, and happy by bringing a little bit of nature inside. Welltended’s website is sleek and fun, and their planters and plant options can give any indoor space a vibrant makeover (plus, you can even sign up for watering reminders, helping even those of us who don’t have a green thumb live a Welltended life).

 

9. A yummy lunch at Viet Nom Nom

(Photo Credit: Viet Nom Nom)

Anyone who knows us knows our obsession with food. And Viet Nom Nom is one of our local favs. Co-founded by Noah Bleicher (Kellogg, ‘15), Viet Nom Nom is helping us to eat some seriously flavorful, healthy Vietnamese cuisine right here in Evanston.

 

10. A tin of tea from Bigelow Tea

(Photo Credit: Bigelow Tea)

Cindi Bigelow (Kellogg, ‘86) is president of one of the warmest gifts you could give this year, not to mention something everyone loves, Bigelow Tea. At The Garage, we’re stocked with Bigelow in our Cafe, so obviously we think everyone should have their own. Personally, we love this Merry and Bright Holiday Tin of Tea.

 

11. A Pinch & A Dash

Written by Sherry Katherine Vernon (Weinberg, ‘15), who now works with Alumi Relations and Development, this cookbook brings a little bit of gourmet to every meal. From blackberry sage pork chops to nectarine caramel upside-down cake, there’s something in this book for new chefs and seasoned home cooks alike.

Being a Woman in Business: A Student’s Perspective

“Who decides the expiration date of a woman’s dreams?” and “Can a woman be both a mother and a businesswoman?”…questions that I have heard posed over and over in articles, in workshops, in classes and on the street and have still yet to be answered despite having so much growth in gender equality over the years. As noted by psychologist Faye Crosby, “Most women are unaware of having personally been victims of gender discrimination and deny it even when it is objectively true and they see that women in general experience it”, and in knowing that, it is imperative to open up a channel of discussion on the topic. As a young woman in business faced with a lifetime of challenges ahead of me, I often ruminate over what it means to be, and how to be both feminine and professional in the workplace.

The desire to raise a family, although not exclusively a feminine trait, is often associated with women and becomes a hurdle that they must deal with when in the workplace. Granted, while we have made great strides towards gender equality in businesses, there still remains a sense of role allocation due to pervasive stereotypes that have not yet been eradicated. Society has seemingly forgot the popular saying “it takes a village to raise a child” and rewritten it to read “it takes one woman to raise her child”. In doing so, we remove the men who want to actively partake in the care of his child and create a strange, unnecessary dichotomy between the man and the woman in the home. Women often feel compelled to choose one or the other when it comes to business and family, and even when they have the chance to do both, the argument that “one will always suffer!” arises. As a result, it has been found that “43% of highly qualified women with children are leaving careers or off-ramping for a period of time”. A study done by the Harvard Business review concludes as follows:

“When it comes to career and fatherhood, high-achieving men don’t have to deal with difficult trade-offs: 79% of the men I surveyed report wanting children—and 75% have them. The research shows that, generally speaking, the more successful the man, the more likely he will find a spouse and become a father. The opposite holds true for women, and the disparity is particularly striking among corporate ultra-achievers. In fact, 49% of these women are childless. But a mere 19% of their male colleagues are. These figures underscore the depth and scope of the persisting, painful inequities between the sexes”.

Girls are taught from an early age about motherhood and how women are natural, instinctual caretakers which can prevent further talents from developing in fields such as STEM or entrepreneurship. In encouraging them to explore a multitude of opportunities by allowing women to dream, society can open up the doors to having more qualified, highly educated, visionary women that can act as great examples to their children and others.

Women must take it upon themselves to make the changes they want to see and be their own knights in shining armor. Fundamentally, men and women can work together to develop a more inclusive environment and provide support for each other to reach their goals, whether it be to become a powerful CEO, a loving parent, a compassionate doctor, or an inspiring musician. Rather than boxing women up and giving them ultimatums, society should foster their expertise and allow for them to become highly functional members of business communities, where they can do just as much good as they could do with their children. We can help women learn how to “establish credibility in a culture that is deeply conflicted about whether, when, and how they should exercise authority”. There’s more to any man and woman than meets the eye, and setting limitations on them does not do any service to anyone. One does not need to sacrifice their femininity for the sake of a job, because at the end of the day, it provides a unique platform from which to solve problems and provide prospective. There is always a way for the two things to go hand in hand if we band together to make a change and bring a positive attitude to the workplace to make it better for everyone. As Laura Dunn of Huffington Post says, “I’ve met too many people along the way who expect someone else to tell them and that just doesn’t stack up. It’s down to you to work it out”.


Bree Aikens is a senior double majoring in Opera Performance and Music Business with a Religious Studies minor, and hails from LaGrange Park, IL. Having maintained a passion for singing and entrepreneurship, she decided to combine the two and has since worked and performed in Chicago, New York City, various cities in Northern Italy and Melbourne, Australia.

The Epidemic

I wholeheartedly believe in the positive and prolific impact of entrepreneurship, design, and a gritty disposition.  To all aspiring Northwestern entrepreneurs:  I don’t have all the answers, but if you need suggestions or feedback beyond the scope of this article (or just want to chat), please reach out to me at ahren.alexander@gmail.com. I’m happy to help!

During my four years at Northwestern, a pervasive obsession afflicted the student body:  the incessant desire to appear as competent and hard-working as possible in the face of our peers, superiors, and mentors.  To always look like we know what we’re doing.  

This obsession often manifested as passive-aggressive one-upmanship battles between students commiserating about the lengths of their to-do lists.  For example, one student would dismissively complain, “Oh wow, two finals tomorrow?  I’ve got a paper to finish, a presentation to prepare, and work study all afternoon.  Sucks, right?”

Alternatively, in a conversation between two different students, one breezes over a topic the other doesn’t fully grasp.  Instead of asking for clarification, the other student nods and uncomfortably asserts, “right, right.”

Both cases illustrate the same phenomena:  we were allergic to vulnerability, a condition I call insecuritis.   

Its side effects might help you painlessly navigate social situations and spare your ego in a pinch, but I believe maintaining the front of an astonishing work ethic and infallible expertise is dangerous–and exhausting–to employ when building a startup.  The more malignant side effects of insecuritis, such as the fear of looking stupid and unchecked overconfidence, are detrimental to your venture’s product design and pace of development.  

In this article, I’ll demonstrate how insecuritis can lead to failure, pulling from the experiences of some familiar names and my own experience building a company in school.  I’ll describe symptoms to look out for, and I’ll close with specific actions you can take to immunize yourself against insecuritis.

One of the most ego-threatening activities of starting a company is collecting feedback on your ideas and prototypes.  We develop an attachment to the things we worked so passionately to create, and negative feedback can feel like a personal affront.  Customer interviews introduce the possibility of being wrong, and it’s easier to cover our ears than to shatter the illusion that we’re building the right things based on our own aptitude and intuition alone.  Some startups choose to develop in “stealth mode,” ostensibly to attain first-mover advantage. But for most new startups, I believe first-mover advantage is a convenient excuse for intentionally avoiding the likely reality that the dream product they wish to build isn’t what customers are looking for.  

The Segway is the quintessential example.  Led by prolific inventor Dean Kamen with the support of Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos, the product was developed behind closed doors and launched with world-revolutionizing expectations.  Instead of selling 10,000 units a week as Kamen predicted, only 24,000 Segways were sold in five years.  Research into what the intended users wanted from the product, what they were willing to spend, and the viability of the product in its intended context was scarce, and the Segway flopped.  The Segway demonstrates the necessity of interacting with your intended customer base and stakeholders throughout the development process and understanding their root problems and aspirations. Tech giants, fledgling entrepreneurs, and everyone in-between all need feedback.

In addition to avoiding feedback, founders afflicted by insecuritis often prioritize appearing fantastically capable over their venture’s success.  Confronted with an impossibly long list of responsibilities, they take on the misguided mentality of  “don’t worry, I’ve got this.”  They forego building a team of complementary skillsets and cynically hoard duties and functions. Ultimately, these founders are left to construct their products without the proper support nor the willingness to accept it.

My startup, Audiovert, and my naive efforts in school epitomize the consequences of hesitantly seeking and accepting support.  I too, fell ill to insecuritis.  Caught up in the idea of “cool, I’m building a startup” and the personal enjoyment of building loudspeakers, I lost track of the mission of spreading impactful music experiences.  Instead, I toiled away ill-equipped to overcome the engineering and manufacturing challenges of building our products.  I selfishly fantasized and focused on being able to say “I built this for you, personally” when delivering the products to our customers.

Upwards of forty people were directly involved in Audiovert’s development–efforts I am forever thankful for.  Regrettably, I was unwilling to accept that I personally could not solve our most critical problems, and I seldom asked for help or delegated tasks related to these issues.  The engineering and manufacturing challenges eventually derailed fulfillment of our successfully-funded crowdfunding campaign, and very few people ever received an Audiovert product.  By the time I truly opened up to accepting the help we needed most, it was too late, and I graduated without the necessary momentum (or income) to justify further development of Audiovert.  My insecuritis plunged the venture into limbo.

My window of opportunity to build a startup in school closed with Audiovert’s task list incomplete.  College is a unique, finite period devoid of the risks and responsibilities of post-college adulthood.  For that reason, it’s important to spend the time wisely.  Continuing a venture beyond school is typically viable and sensible only if some semblance of runway is achieved, whether it’s recurring revenue, investment, or acceptance into an accelerator.  At Northwestern, you are surrounded by extremely capable peers and mentors.  You have access to a expansive network of accomplished alumni.  If you want to continue to operate your startup beyond school, don’t reach the finish line without first having rallied others and developed value worth investing in.

For those familiar or curious, the Audiovert dream lives on.  I’m currently exploring how to employ these lessons in revivifying it.

But enough about Audiovert — how else can you avoid the aforementioned consequences and protect yourself from insecuritis?

  • Reach out to potential mentors about setting up regular discussions of goals and how to achieve them.  The Garage hosts a sea of people especially empathetic toward the challenges of starting a company who will readily assist you.  Pay it forward.
  • Regularly assess what gaps need filling or assumptions need testing in your venture and what can be done to alleviate them promptly.  Remember that you are not the answer to all of your problems.
  • When people talk about something you don’t understand, don’t pretend that you do — especially if that something is vital for you to grasp. When appropriate, stop them and ask them to elaborate on unfamiliar topics.  Take advantage of the opportunities you have to learn something new.
  • Avoid feeding the collective stress and negativity that can put a damper on your — and others’ — Northwestern experience.  Assess what you can control, accept what you cannot, and make change instead of complaints.

Above all else, be vulnerable.  

Admit what you don’t know, be honest about your personal capacities, and welcome opportunities to grow.

Students — chances are, sometime very soon, you will be confronted with the option to pretend like you know more than you do or to set your ego aside and learn.  In that moment, in all those like it, I urge you to choose the latter.  For both your sake and the sake of whatever you’re working on — whether it’s a new company, classwork, or a personal project — I urge you to reveal the chinks in your armor and actively seek how to repair them.  

There are few places more rich with knowledge and enthusiasm for positive change than Northwestern.  If those in your immediate network do not have the answers or “repairs” you need, chances are they know someone who does and who is willing to help you. Through being honest with your needs and being open to others’ feedback — through making yourself vulnerable — you can make your Northwestern experience one of fruitful relationships, meaningful discoveries, and momentous achievements to be proud of.

How Practicing Meditation Enhances Resilience

See if this resonates:

You made a pitch that was turned down, or lost a close tennis match, or lost your temper in an emotionally charged discussion with your co-founder.

Whatever the scenario, you failed to achieve your objective. That night, instead of falling asleep, you tossed and turned as you replayed the event in your mind. Your internal dialogue included phrases such as, “If only I had,” “If only I hadn’t,” and “Why did I do that again,” and on and on until the early hours of the morning. The next day you were irritable, unable to focus at work, and emotionally exhausted.

Probably everyone has had at least one such experience, ruminating over a loss or failure. Reflecting upon and learning from a mistake is necessary for our personal and professional growth, but the endless negative looping of the mind is not productive. It drains our energy and actually impedes our ability to move forward, to be resilient.

The word resilience comes from the Latin resili, meaning “to spring back” or “to rebound.” We all make mistakes, but some of us are more resilient than others. In fact, many of the most successful entrepreneurs are the most resilient. Thomas Edison tried more than 10,000 times before he invented the light bulb; Walt Disney, Oprah Winfrey, and Steve Jobs were all fired at one point in their careers but achieved great professional success.

Meditation is a practice that can help you develop resilience.

The practice of focusing on your breath calms your mind and helps you create distance from the thoughts and emotions that you may be experiencing. Practicing meditation helps you recognize that your thoughts and emotions are transient, that they arise and fall away, and, even more important, that they may not even be true! When Steve Jobs was fired from Apple Computers, he was quoted as saying, “I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.”

Because of MRI studies by neuroscientists such as Richard Davidson, we now know that practicing meditation actually changes how the brain responds to negative experiences. In situations where we experience negative emotions and anxiety (such as the sleepless night), a part of the brain called the amygdala is active. In comparing the brain activity of meditators with non-meditators, Davidson found that the amygdala in meditators had a faster recovery time after being activated by exposure to a negative emotional event. Their brains are literally more resilient.

How much meditation do you need to develop more resilience? As of now, there is no exact formula. What is clear, though, is that any amount of consistent daily practice (even ten minutes a day) will be beneficial. You have the power to choose how you respond to, rather than react to, life’s challenges. Start meditating today.


Cindy Conlon is an adjunct professor if the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern. She teaches mediation classes at the Wellness Center. Learn more at www.nurecreation.com.

Are We Doing This Right?

At The Garage, we are aiming to do far more than help students incubate their startups. While that remains a primary focus of our programming, our ultimate goal is to instill an entrepreneurial mindset and toolkit in the students we work with–teach them the skills of resiliency, leadership, networking, and creative thinking. We know that not all students will pursue their startups full time post-graduation. Whether they never got enough traction and sales, discovered entrepreneurship just wasn’t for them, or they opted for a guaranteed salary and benefits instead, we hope their time spent at The Garage still taught them the value in resilience, the importance of failure in innovation, the basics of bootstrapping and the innovative mindset to be successful anywhere.

However, the metrics of bootstrapping and the willingness to take risks are pretty difficult to track and quantify.  While we’d love for every student venture to be successful, company growth alone isn’t the only measurement of success in this environment, so The Garage partnered with Consultant Advising Student Enterprises (CASE) to drill it down to some numbers. We set out to better understand if The Garage is really teaching the skills employers desire through our innovative and experiential hands-on learning environment.

The study was conducted with a relatively small sample, but responses were high and all of the respondents are Residents, students who are incubating their startups at The Garage while students at Northwestern. A lot of interesting (and positive!) data came out of this recent study, but before we get to the numbers, here are some other exciting tidbits we discovered with CASE’s help.

First, approximately 60% of respondents indicated that their startups are their highest priority after their coursework. This isn’t surprising. The Garage is brimming with passion, and Residents are often in the space late into the night working on their ventures. We also learned that physical resources, access to a network of people and personal development opportunities were rated as the main reasons students applied for Residency–three things that we pride ourselves on providing. 

CASE hypothesized that Resident students at The Garage gain in-demand workplace skills through their experience here. Residents were surveyed on the skills they feel they’ve improved upon by working on their startups, and employers were asked to choose skills they felt were most desirable and critical to success in the workplace and with any luck, these two sets of data would show some statistical significance.

Major skills in question included communication, leadership, interpersonal and personal skills, creativity and professional skills. Under each of these major skills, respondents could then rate sub-skills (for example, managing and mentoring falling under leadership).

Overall, employers value communication, interpersonal skills, leadership, professional skills, creativity, and personal skills in that order. Student respondents reported improving upon communication, interpersonal skills, leadership, professional skills, creativity, and personal skills, in that order. Although the value placed on each skill varied from the different set of respondents within a range of 10-20%, this observation suggests that the skills that students reported as improving upon as a result of their experience at The Garage correspond very closely with the same skills that employers reported as in-demand in the workplace. This conclusion not only validates what The Garage is working so hard to achieve every day, but better helps us to understand how we can best prepare students for success, whatever it may look like. 

With CASE’s help, we also discovered that an area of improvement identified among Resident students is conflict resolution, a critical skill in the workplace. Twice as many employers selected it as a valuable skill against what Residents feel they’ve learned. And while students clearly value leadership based on their responses, employers didn’t emphasize it as much.

Together, these results show Residents are gaining valuable workplace skills and experience while pursuing their startups. More than anything, they learn resilience and what it takes to thrive in a competitive environment where the next “no” or setback could be one question or risk away. We are on a mission to enhance the experience for students interested in entrepreneurship and innovation at Northwestern through our space, community, and programming. By offering an open co-working space with future facing technology and a family of experts and mentors, we are so excited that students are learning practical and important skills that will no doubt lead to success–whatever that looks like.

Thanks to CASE for conducting this study for The Garage!