Wildfire Spotlight: Powder Blue Media

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is PowderBlueMedia?

We’re a media startup focused on Gen Z culture and life. It started out as a website called Unplugg’d that I actually created for my senior year high school English class final project back in 2017. I was writing for SB Nation at the time and then I got to see what it was really like – how the sausage was made. Unfortunately I soon realized that the clear business model has and always will be prioritizing clicks and views. And that might be the business, but I thought it wasn’t conducive to providing actual insight and telling coherent stories.

So I started Unplugg’d as a long form sports writing website and it blossomed beyond into popular culture because of my eclectic interests. During my freshman year at Northwestern, a few people joined on and we launched a podcast network in January 2018 – at one point we were operating nearly 10 shows at once, but we had to scale that down to make them as high quality as possible. We just hit 12,000 total listens and we’ve seen it evolve from being commentary on anything to being really focused on our target demographic of ages 16 to 24 providing commentary on sports, entertainment, entrepreneurship, and fashion. We’ve identified these things as very important to our age group’s culture.

We have a second publication called 42 also under the PBM brand that has been in a quasi-launch state for some time. It’s based around the idea that people our age aren’t really communicating in person about important topics because of the advent of technology. When we’re online, we’re usually on social media which isn’t naturally conducive to meaningful conversation about important topics. The idea behind 42 is that the community submits narrative pieces and work with our editing team to create the most engaging pieces. We’ve already received some awesome submissions – out of the 100 received we’ve been able to publish 6, but we’re looking forward to fully going forward soon.

 

Can anybody submit articles, or is there a vetting process?

We used to operate where anyone could submit articles for publishing, and we would work with them to publish it. But we have a pretty high bar when it comes to both writing and the podcast so we’ve had to really cut down on the amount that we were producing. We have staff for Unplugg’d that is open for one-off pieces and new contributors, but there’s a distinct focus on reaching a certain level of quality. Having a great style is really important but so is having an interesting opinion and a unique perspective and offering something really insightful to the reader. With 42 however, anyone can submit a piece and work with our editing team – it’s been really interesting to see that dynamic.

 

Do you have any plans to reach any audiences beyond the 16-24 demographic?

Something that I always admired about the JK Rowling series was that she wrote her books to grow up with the audience as well as Harry. She wrote them to get progressively more and more dark, and I want to somewhat embody this in what I’m doing. We’re not going to write to college kids forever because we wont’ be college kids soon.

I think about the Steve Buscemi meme when I think about that actually, where he has the backwards hat and the skateboard saying “how’s it going fellow kids”. The idea is to produce content that stays important to people our age. I have received feedback from people who have said they’re big fans of our content who are over 30, so we’re not trying to limit ourselves from reaching other people. I want to narrow it down to have a clear vision but if the data tells us something else, we might go that way.

 

What’s the idea for the business model of PBM?

Since PBM started, it’s been a passion project for me. I’m really into building my own things – I ran a t shirt business in high school and I resold sneakers in middle school. I always viewed PBM as a business that I would love to monetize at some point, and for the longest time it was all about building up the brand and following and getting as good of a content base as possible. In December 2018 we sat down and had a discussion where we talked about turning this into a startup that could legitimately make money. That’s where we went from Unplugg’d to PowderBlueMedia. There’s several brands under it, and we’re exploring several ideas for revenue streams.

Melissa and Hayes in The Garage told us to “first go and disprove your baby”. Go talk to people and find out who will pay for it – who are your superfans? If you have 10, you can find 100, and if you have 100, you can find 1,000. Right now, in Wildfire, we’re contacting people and finding out whether we have something. Traditional media has either always had the advertising or subscription model, and we’re definitely preferential towards the subscription model because it’s much easier to keep up the level of quality that way. A revenue model we’re exploring now is how many people we can get to sign up for a Patreon account.

 

Who’s been your biggest mentor so far?

I’ve met so many cool people. And we’ve been really looking for a mentor to check back in with, and in a few hours we’re meeting with the Parkinson brothers who founded Peapod. They started following us on Twitter before we even met, so it’s kind of cool to see that they’re interested. The biggest mentor so far has been my high school English teacher. I had him from sophomore through senior year of high school, and before that I was a very STEM focused kid. I was a classic example of “I’m interested in what I’m good at” but he really changed my perception. And I started to realize how much I loved writing. He was a teacher who was very big into bringing out your voice, and I developed an almost snarky, sarcastic tone in my writing.

A big joke with him was that I would always get B+s on my essays because I would always do them the night before and hardly ever answer the prompt, but he would always say “I couldn’t give you a bad grade because your voice was so damn good”. I even took that to other classes – in Chemistry, I wrote these hilarious introductions to my titration labs because I wanted to stand out from the mass of other reports my chemistry teacher had to read. David, my English teacher has been a huge inspiration and I still email him for advice.

 

Can you give me a six word tagline for PowderBlueMedia?

We just wanna create dope shit.



This article is part of an ongoing series highlighting the startup teams admitted to Wildfire, The Garage’s Summer Pre-Accelerator Program. For more information about Wildfire, click here.

Wildfire 2019: City Health Tech

“My dream and my passion is to develop a sustainable and scalable model for cities.” 

Ibraheem Alinur, the founder of City Health Tech, leads 20 people on this mission starting with an educational platform and a patent-pending device to track and encourage longer hand washing times. In grades K-12 alone, 164 million students miss school each year due to preventable illness. The Garage sat down with Ibraheem and two other members of his team to find out more about them and the story behind their startup. 

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What problem are you trying to solve?

Ibraheem: We’re trying to make people less sick. A study performed by Northwestern in a second grade classroom actually showed that education alone can actually decrease rates of infection and increase attendance. If you wash your hands for 8-10 seconds, in 2 hours, it will actually be as if you never washed your hands at all. Washing them for 20 seconds is twice as effective, and we’re trying to get people to that mark.

What is your solution to this problem?

Ibraheem: We’ve built the first-of-its-kind data capture technology. Nobody is currently able to capture hand washing data anonymously – you can’t put cameras in public restrooms and you can’t have someone standing there to time how long someone washes their hands. This is the first time that anyone can get that rich data set. And from there, we can figure out what actually encourages longer hand washing times. It’s hard to show a change of behavior if we have no baseline to go off of. Broadly speaking, our device attaches to a sink and can detect whether someone is at a sink and whether they are washing their hands. This will then trigger a display with an animation designed to encourage people to wash their hands. Education is also important. Different posters will have different effects. The same thing taught in a different way can have a drastic impact.

After handwashing, what’s the next problem space for City Health Tech?

Ibraheem: We want to invest what we’ve learned into other technologies working to improve cities. There’s energy, emergency response, transportation, housing, and a bunch of other things that affect cities, so I’d probably jump into one of these. I’d also like to scale educational curriculum to make kids more aware of their communities. If we’re already teaching kids to wash their hands, what other things can we teach kids that are small and impactful to their communities?

What’s been your biggest challenge so far?

Ibraheem: Engineering  is really tough. It’s a long cycle and you have a lot of bugs and things that pop up that you can’t even predict. It’s really hard to plan when you don’t know how long things will take. Over the course of two years, we’ve tested over 25 different sensors. In engineering, it’s just difficult making good design. It’s hard.

Why did you join the team?

Anya: I really like Ibraheem’s energy and vision. I like how long-term he’s thinking and his goal of turning cities smart. The most valuable experience for me so far has just been talking to Ibraheem and hearing more about his background. He knows so much – this is his third startup.

Imran: I heard about the company through Segal, and I thought it would be fun to get involved in because I knew Ibraheem beforehand. When he talked about the device, he explained how much progress had been made, and that showed me that it was more than just a hypothetical  idea and really has the potential to make an impact.

What has stood out to you as an “Ah-ha” moment during this entire experience?

Ibraheem: This last spring felt for the first time like running a real company. It was the first time managing both a large business and engineering team. Every week I was meeting four to five people to get our ideas in front of as many interesting people as possible to help scale and get feedback. My “ah-ha” moment was that I like this work. I think that I could be a CEO. But I don’t think that being a CEO is for everyone. I didn’t know if it would be for me. But I like having this  experience telling me ‘you know what, I think that this is the type of work I do like, I’m good at it. I thrive in building, selling, and managing teams.


This article is part of an ongoing series highlighting the startup teams admitted to Wildfire, The Garage’s Summer Pre-Accelerator Program. For more information about Wildfire, click here.

Propel Showcase 2019: Wrap Up

Since February of 2019, the inaugural cohort of the Propel program has been working on projects ranging from a light therapy lamp to a documentary about Chicago women. On June 6, seven of the Propel teams presented their accomplishments to an enthusiastic audience.

The first annual Propel Showcase, which included food and networking, was held at The Garage and attended by about 60 people from the Northwestern community and beyond.

Associate Director of The Garage Hayes Ferguson, who manages the program designed to encourage women student entrepreneurs, kicked off the evening by thanking the 10 accomplished professionals who mentored the 24 “Propellers” over the course of four months. They included:

Valerie Friedman, ’85 who is a Principal at Bracebridge Capital, LLC, a Boston-based hedge fund; Sam Letscher, McCormick ’18, founder of BossyChicago, which promotes women-owned businesses; Molly Rouch, founder and president of an IT consulting firm; and Adrienne Weissman, an angel investor who has worked at Google and G2 Crowd.

Ferguson also introduced Steve Elms, the Kellogg alumnus whose donation made Propel possible. Elms spoke of his and wife Katherine’s desire to see more women in entrepreneurship.

Elms’ remarks were followed by the presentations, which included reflections on the impact the program has had on them. In addition to mentorship and networking opportunities, the students received stipends of up to $1,000.

Medill sophomore Sophie Davis said she and teammate Tarushi Sharma, an HPME student, had appreciated the all-women spaces the program creates. Davis and Sharma are developing an IoT device that simulates a bright light sunrise to improve the experience of waking up in the morning.

Recent Pritzker graduate Cheyenne Cazaubon said she found the all-women networking most valuable as she worked on two ventures: Edith Technologies, which aims to mitigate pregnancy complications through personalized preconception guidance and Techtributer, a digital platform to connect and elevate women in STEAM.

Kellogg student Rachele Louis said that without the money she received from Propel, the website for her startup, LifeWeb, would not have been possible. Louis plans to work on the venture full-time after she graduates this month.

Fighting back tears, Yuki Solomon, School of Communication ’19, expressed gratitude for being able, as a stay-at-home mom, to pursue her longtime dream of being a film director/producer. Her innovative project involved producing a documentary using an iPhone. She also plans to create a Japanese film festival in Chicago.

Propel launched in 2018 with a fall trip to New York City for eight women students who subsequently served as “ambassadors” for the program.  A similar trip is planned for October 2019.

The Happiness Planner: Conversation with Mo Seetubtim

“My real desire to inspire people actually started when I was in my last year of high school. I went to a selective school so all of my friends were pretty smart. I asked them what they wanted to become when they graduate. Most of them had their minds set on careers that seem most decent and well-paid that they absolutely had no passion for. I felt very frustrated that the smartest kids in the country were never encouraged to find out what their true passion and purpose in life are and to turn that into a career. That moment really inspired me to one day inspire people to live a purpose and passion driven life and to find happiness from within.” — Mo Seetubtim, Founder & CEO of The Happiness Planner

Today, Mo is running the Happiness Planner, a company that inspires and empowers through a various collection of planners and notebooks. With only three employees in total, Mo’s company is doing better than ever. Their planners are sold in Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, and many other major department stores. Mo’s goal is to bring happiness to those who are actively trying to improve their wellbeing and increase their clarity in life through the practical art of journaling and planning.

I was lucky enough to interview Mo and ask her about how she realized her dreams, scaled up her business quickly, and conquered all the challenges along the way. Read on!

Why did you become an entrepreneur?

I always knew that I wanted to own some sort of business. My dad is an entrepreneur, so when I was little, he would always encourage me and my sibling to come up with different business ideas.

I went to really selective schools growing up, but when I asked my friends what they wanted to do, they had really basic and boring answers. I felt frustrated by the fact that they never considered what they were really passionate about, and I thought that I could play the role of inspiring more people to follow their dreams instead of giving in to society’s expectations.

How did the idea of the Happiness Planner come about?

To be honest, I spent all four years in college trying to come up with the perfect idea, but it just never came about. I had a lot of ideas but didn’t know which one would work out.

Before I started the Happiness Planner, I had a personal blog where I was posting inspirational quotes and writing inspirational articles. My blog was doing really well, and I started to gain a lot of traffic on my blog. The engagement with my blog inspired me to start my first business, which was a company that made inspirational posters. I realized that people enjoy inspirations that remind them of the things beyond their trivial daily lives.

This small poster business gave me the opportunity to learn more about E-Commerce, building a website, and other skills that I was able to later transfer to my current company: the Happiness Planner.

However, the business was small and I wasn’t making a lot of money. Then, all of a sudden, one of my readers commented on my post and said they would like some product or app that can keep them positive and inspired in life. That was when I realized that a journal or planner would be perfect because by writing on a daily basis, you are habituating the practice of constantly reminding yourself of who you want to become.

Many people are scared of the instability and uncertainty of the entrepreneurship lifestyle. What do you think?

Changing the concept of time and money is really valuable. I had to change my way of thinking and lean into the fact that time is a flexible thing.

Instead of seeing your work in terms of time, it’s much more efficient if you start measuring your work in terms of value. As long as you are providing your employer with value that is unique and irreplaceable, they will be willing to pay you any amount you ask for.

What were some challenges you faced in the process of starting the Happiness Planner?

There were a lot of challenges. The first big challenge was paying for the first batch of mock samples for my planners. I was unsure about it because all the payments had to be made before I cold see the manufactured products. I was scared that the quality of the products would fail to meet my expectations. I had to get 3000 units made for the three colors of notebooks, and I was terrified, but I just told myself: Mo, you can do it!

Where did you get your funding?

I took a loan from my father. It was difficult because he has always been the most supportive figure in my life, but when it came to money, he was worried that I wouldn’t be able to pay him back.

After all, the risk of a start-up actually succeeding is less than 1%. My mother would badger me all the time, asking me, “Mo, how are you going to pay your father back? Will you ever pay him back?” But in the end, my dad agreed to lend me money.

This actually motivated me to work really hard because my mother kept reminding me, “Pay your dad back! Pay your dad back!”. I paid my dad back eventually by the end of the first year I started the Happiness Planner, with interest.

Was it difficult for you to get your brand out there? How did you distinguish yourself from your competitors?

I acquired my customers quite organically. I’m naturally good at branding and design, therefore the process of marketing felt natural to me. I believe that aesthetics is the most important thing for our planner, so our first series of planners were pastel pink and green. Our customers really like those colors.

It’s easy to go from 0 to 1, but not so easy to scale from 1 to 100. How did you scale your business up?

My growth strategy has always been to build a brand that attracts. Honestly, the big stores like Anthropologie reached out to me. I didn’t go to them. We first started getting some attention after a lot of influencers started posting our products on their instagram and talking about our planners in their Youtube videos.

Then, in 2015, Anthropologie reached out to us and purchased some of our planners. We are still constantly trying to expand our product range and we want to keep inspiring our customers with better planners made with care and love.

What’s your principle in hiring?

I actually spotted our chief designer on Instagram. I was initially paying her per post, but eventually I paid her to work for me full time. We only have three full-time employees because I believe that a few people can get a lot done. My other two employees are based in Europe, and I am in LA, so we are not in the same physical space. But they are extremely responsible, always get their work on time with their own pace, and we can always hold each other accountable.

What does your day look like as a female entrepreneur?

I hit the gym early in the morning. Then, I’ll go to a co-workspace or a cafe to get work done. I check my emails and communicate with my designer to come up with new content. I don’t outsource any of our content because all the creative juice comes from my brain. I am in charge of all the writing and the creative content in our planners. I love turning my inspirations into something beautiful and practical that people can use on a daily basis.

Where do you gain your personal inspirations?

Traveling has inspired me and helped me grow in so many ways. We are now launching a travel planner to help more people understand the power of traveling.

What would you say to college students to inspire them to live their best lives?

We all have our strengths and weaknesses, as well as our passions. But sometimes as we grow up, we lose track of our passions. Perhaps your parents will tell you that your drawings are bad or your music is useless, and then you start putting these things under your pillow and let them go over time. But if you have something that brews inside of you that makes you truly happy, then the only advice I can give is: pursue it.

It’s hard because there are external forces that stray you away from following your true passions. But your happiness is the most important thing. You may have a stable career, but if you don’t have happiness, then maybe you will die sooner, which is not worth it.

It’s tiring to go after fame. Doing what you really love provides you with real satisfaction. Usually once we get into a new job, we get excited. But as time goes on, we get jaded and want to keep jumping. It’s important to find a job that truly aligns with your passion.


This piece is written by Alexandra Huang, a Weinberg freshman. Alexandra is the founder of Activate, a publication dedicated to sharing stories of inspirational entrepreneurs. You can read more of Alexandra’s articles on her website. Besides writing, Alexandra is a gourmet and traveler who loves exploring new cultures and experiencing the world. She can be contacted via email.

Spikeball: Conversation with Chris Ruder

Chris Ruder is the founder and CEO of Spikeball, a sport that has gained four-plus million players worldwide. In 2013, Spikeball hit $1 million in annual revenue, and Spikeball has been doing better ever since. In this interview, I chat with Chris about his personal motivations, the successes and struggles of Spikeball, and how he managed to turn a small idea into a million dollar business.

What did you study in college and what were your jobs before starting Spikeball?
I studied photo journalism in college, which is largely irrelevant from what I do now. After graduating, I tried freelance photography but realized how difficult it was to get a job as a photographer. Then I jumped to doing corporate sales, and kept doing it for 13 years. I’ve worked for SF Weekly, Monster.com, Microsoft, a Bay Area based startup called Keep, and Live Nation, which owns Ticketmaster.

How did Spikeball get started?
I started Spikeball when I was still working at Microsoft, and I would go home at night to run Spikeball. So I had two full-time jobs for five years. I’ve had the idea of Spikeball for a long time, and my friends and I would always joke about making it into a real business. But I was the one who ended up doing it.

You were working for both Spikeball and Microsoft, I’m sure that was a challenging and pressurizing experience. How did you navigate through THOSE challenges?
I did not know how to do anything when I first started Spikeball. I got a degree in photo journalism, and I wasn’t into sports. But I loved Spikeball so much that I was so excited to work on it everyday. It was actually going to the day job that dreaded me — the work itself didn’t excite me. As Spikeball kept growing, my challenge became keeping the two worlds separate. Luckily, I was always over quota at my sales job, so I started taking more time off of my day job to invest more time into Spikeball.

What’s the most exciting thing about working for Spikeball?
The community. I know people who met their spouse through Spikeball. I know three people who have Spikeball tattoos on their bodies. I know a man who carried a Spikeball set with him to basecamp at Mount Everest. There are brides in their beautiful new wedding dresses playing Spikeball with their husbands at their wedding. It’s a plastic net and a rubber ball, but that’s not where the magic comes from. The magic comes from the fact that the game requires four people to come together to play. It’s an incredible feeling: seeing people take a product I have built and grown so seriously, and make it a part of their life’s biggest moments. I’ve worked in corporate for 13 years, but never once did I get such deep, emotional, and sincere connections like the ones I have everyday at Spikeball.

You are building more than a business. You are building communities and bringing people together. What’s the magic behind that?
I hired a lot of my employees from Spikeball tournaments and communities. A lot of it happens organically. Our employees love helping other people, and their passion is contagious. I also believe in minimizing the distance between us and the Spikeball players. To eliminate mediations, we don’t have any media agencies helping us. We go to every tournament ourselves and all of our employees are required to do customer service shifts every once in a while. There’s about 10–12 knockout sets out there in the market today, but none of them are trying to build a community. That’s what makes us wildly different from the rest.

You are such a genuine person and I can see that you want to spread love. Where does that part of you come from?
I am not the type of person who needs to be under the spotlight. I just enjoy building human connections, and knowing that I am the person behind those experiences. This drive probably came from some childhood experience or memory.

Firing is always difficult for employers. How do you do it?
At Spikeball, we hire, fire, and manage according to our company’s values. Our company values are powerful because none of them were written by me. It is a collective agreement between me and all employees, which means that everyone believes in them. This actually makes firing easier, because I would never have to say, “Ben, you messed up. It’s time for you to go.” Instead, I just say, “Ben, your work didn’t align with our company’s second value.” Ben would know himself that it’s time to go. It works so well every time.

There are a lot of people who are scared to redesign their lives. They are scared of uncertainties, and a lot of them choose to stay in the job they don’t like. How did you make that change?
There’s the famous interview question: “Are you a thinker or a doer?” I am absolutely a doer.There are people who say they want to do all these things, but all they do is go home and watch sports for two hours every night. Turn off the TV. There is an either or. Don’t just say. Do.People think starting over means taking ruthless risks. But that’s such a misconception. I don’t think people have to quit their jobs in order to build something. For my preference, that’s way too risky. It’s all about taking calculated risks. I planned Spikeball for 5 years before actually quitting my job. Entrepreneurs are actually some of the most risk-averse people out there. It’s not about the big leaps, it’s about taking one small step at a time.

Rapid Fire Questions:

What’s your general philosophy in life?
Do good.

What’s the most important lesson that you live by everyday?
Slow and steady wins the race.

What’s one piece of advice that changed your life?
Give advice only when asked for. Never tell people what they should or should not do.

What’s one piece of advice that you would give to your 18 year old self?
You’re not as cool as you think.

What’s one piece of advice that you would give to people?
Just do it. (Nike really hit the nail in the head with this one.)

What’s your favorite pastime hobby?
Reading.

What’s your favorite book?
Charles Kuralt’s America.

What do you do in times of doubt?
Talk to a friend and get some outsider’s perspective.

Who are you, and what do you want?
I am a person bringing people together. I am doing what I can to create a level of playing field.


This piece is written by Alexandra Huang, a Weinberg freshman. Alexandra is the founder of Activate, a publication dedicated to sharing stories of inspirational entrepreneurs. You can read more of Alexandra’s articles on her website. Besides writing, Alexandra is a gourmet and traveler who loves exploring new cultures and experiencing the world. She can be contacted via email.

VentureCat 2019: The Results

Another year, another VentureCat!

This year, VentureCat, Northwestern’s annual student startup competition, took place on May 22, 2019 at the Kellogg Global Hub. We changed up the format this year to make sure the public Showcase is fun and fast paced, centering on what matters most: the student founders.

This year, 26 of Northwestern’s best and brightest students from across the entire university were part of VentureCat. Represented in the semifinalist lineup this year is Kellogg, SESP, Weinberg, McCormick, Medill, Pritzker, and the School of Communications. Following the closed semifinals and closed finals, where teams pitched to panels of esteemed judges (and grilled for 18 minutes of Q&A), five teams took the Showcase stage for the public. They pitched in White Auditorium to an audience of hundreds, including special guest and keynote speaker, Jon McNeill ’89.

Jon McNeill’s experience as an entrepreneur earned him a reputation as both an innovator and implementer. He is the 2012 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year and in 2013 he was named “Most Admired CEO” in the midsize company category in Boston. Jon has founded eight companies, led teams creating more than 3,000 jobs and over a half-billion dollars of value for investors. He co-founded Enservio in 2006, a leading SaaS (software as a service) platform for insurers, employing over 400 people. McNeill is a graduate of Northwestern University. He was the President of Global Sales & Services at Tesla Motors before becoming the COO at Lyft in February, 2018. We were thrilled to have him as our guest of honor at VentureCat this year! During Jon’s keynote, he shared his memories of discovering entrepreneurship at Northwestern through a class as an undergraduate!

VentureCat is a collaborative effort, not only in planning, but also in a diverse set of startup teams. To ensure there’s room for all types of ventures, we have five industry tracks that students startups compete within at the semifinals and finals.

Business to Business

Business to Consumer

Energy and Sustainability

Life Sciences and Medical Innovation

Social Impact and Nonprofit

The 26 semifinalist teams this year were nothing short of impressive and included members of The Garage family like PedalCell, PAL, People6, Scoots, Slate and many many more. The Kellogg School of Management was also well represented with teams like Red + Blue, Maziwa, and the dose co. turning out for the semifinals.

After semifinals pitches took place behind closed doors, first and second place in each track were awarded non-dilutive prize money at our VIP reception. First place in each track took home $5,500 and second place in each track took home $3,500.

Business to Business

First Place: Dindin

Second Place: LoudChat

 

Business to Consumer

First Place: Slate

Second Place: Scoots

 

Energy and Sustainability

First Place: LimeLight

Second Place: PedalCell

 

Life Sciences and Medical Innovations

First Place: PreSight

Second Place: Readox

 

Social Impact and Nonprofit

First Place: Maziwa

Second Place: FutureMap

 

This year, prior to the public Showcase, finals teams pitched behind closed doors to a panel of judges, including Rob Chesney of Trunk Club, Kristi Ross of tastytrade and Sonia Nagar of Pritzker Group Venture Capital.

After a short break for the teams, the first place winner from each track took the finals stage to pitch again for a live audience. All of the pitches were polished and impressive, as they’ve been every year!

We asked the VentureCat audience who their favorite was just like we did last year. Hundreds of text votes were tallied by our team behind the scenes and Maziwa took home the audience vote prize of $2,000.

Then, we hauled out some very big checks (we mean really big!) for the top three pitches of the night. Because we had the judges deliberate prior to the public showcase, we were able to hand over cash right away!

Third place, and an additional $10,000 was awarded to LimeLight, led by Phil O’Brien (Kellogg ’20), an Energy and Sustainability  startup that is advancing data to power the indoor agriculture revolution.

Second place, and $15,000, went to Business Products and Services competitor Dindin: Dindin is changing the access to essential financial services in Brazil by facilitating financial inclusion of the unbanked and underbanked population through its B2B2C solutions. Dindin is led by Brunna Seabra (Kellogg ’20).

And first place, and the grand prize of $30,000 went to PreSight (previously known as HappyTears). Presight, led by Simon Yin (Kellogg ’19), is the first screening tool for retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) based on VEGF levels in the tears of premature infants.

Thank you to all of the VentureCat sponsors, including both general and track sponsors. Without your help and support, we wouldn’t have the ability to help Northwestern founders turn their ideas into reality. You’re a truly vital part of the entrepreneurial ecosystem at Northwestern.

And a big thank you to all of the Northwestern units that are vital in the execution and success of VentureCat every year: The Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, The Donald Pritzker Entrepreneurship Law Center, The Kellogg School of Management, and all of your best friends here at The Garage. See you next year!

Celinne Da Costa: the Power and Joy of Traveling the World

Born to a Brazilian mother and an Italian father, Celinne moved to the United States to chase the American Dream when she was young. She went to the University of Pennsylvania and landed a prestigious corporate job after moving to New York City. But she wasn’t living the life she wanted; she was checking boxes. Finally, Celinne could no longer tolerate the deep dissatisfaction that was building up in her life, and decided to make a change for the better. She travelled the world on a low budget, lived in stranger’ houses, and fell in love with building real human connections that made her heart full. She is now a life design coach running her own 6 figure business and living her dream life.


Why did you quit your corporate job?

I was born in Italy and moved to America when I was young. Growing up, I have always felt like an outsider. As I was growing up in the U.S., the concept of the American Dream started to grow on me. The mentality of working your way up the ranks and getting that corporate job pushed me to the point where I started to believe in it. I thought that I had to do this and that in order to be considered “successful”. I ended up checking all the boxes of a conventional success list. I went to ivy league school, and worked for one of the top agencies in NYC. Eventually, I realized that the American Dream is not what I actually wanted. I was just repeatedly told that it is what I am supposed to want. It never felt right to my heart.

If you heart wasn’t satisfied, why did you still stick with it?

I always felt like this was what I was supposed to do and how success is measured. “OMG, you went to ivy league!” “OMG, you are in this amazing corporate job!” I made the mistake of making my choices based on what I believed would validate my place in society. I would make these choices that I thought would be the right thing, but not what I actually wanted. I never actually listened to what I truly wanted.

How did you figure out what you truly wanted? What did that process look like?

It’s quite the journey because you don’t just wake up one day and realize your new values. But for me, it’s like a domino’s effect. I decided that I was unhappy and actually admitted to myself that this is not the lifestyle I wanted, I still had no idea what I wanted, but all I knew what that I didn’t want this (the NYC corporate life). The second I decided that the life wasn’t what I desired, I just can’t unsee it. I could either be miserable about it, or I could do something about it. It started a journey of self-searching because my old values no longer served me. I let go of them and started the process of creating new values. I had to get out of my comfort zone and constantly ask myself: What do I want? It’s also about trying a lot of different things. I left New York because a city life just doesn’t work for me. It’s also important to embrace the fact that I don’t always have all the answers.

You travel a lot. Did changing your environment help you find your new values?

For sure. If you really want change, something has to change. A lot of people say that they want change, but they still go to their job and do the same things in their routines. Nothing is actually being modified, in those cases. Sure, you could start journalling for 5–10 minutes every morning, and that might bring some changes. But if you really want to experience an enormous change, then the change you make has to match up to the amount of change you wanted to see in your own life. It also depends on your appetite for risk-taking. If you hate your job, just change your job and go from there. If you don’t like where you are living, then move. You have to be uncomfortable because that is when changes take place.

Has risk-taking always been in your personality? Or did you pick it up after you hit rock bottom with your old life?

I believe that courage is a muscle. So risk taking has not always been in my personality. It’s an appetite that I developed. For you to win big, you have to risk big. But in practice, what I have seen and experienced, is that when you talk calculated risks, it pays off huge. The first big risk I took was quitting my job. And after realizing that the risk turned out very well for me, I took another risk. But once I took a reckless risk and I realized it did not work very well for me. So as I was taking risks, I started to understand the difference between smart and mindless risks. I realized that taking thoughtful risks can actually transform your life in ways unimaginable. Also, every one measures risks differently, so everyone has to figure out their own way of effective risk-taking.

Tell me more about your traveling. What has changed over time?

When I first started traveling, it was a journey of self-discovery. I was really trying to figure out what was it that I wanted. It was right after I quit my job, and I travelled with a minimal budget. I went with the flow wherever I went. I journaled everyday and there was a lot of room for me to explore heavily with strong intention. The beginning of my traveling was self-centered, and I just flowed from one place to the next. All of that was great — I had personal freedom, time freedom, and location freedom, which was what I wanted. The only piece missing for me was financial freedom.

Now, with my travels, I have more responsibility. I am building a business bigger than myself. I still do spontaneous adventures on the weekend, and I go on a lot of adventures, but there is an extra level of responsibility. I am simultaneously building something bigger than myself, while still designing a that I love.

How did you become a life coach? What were some challenges building your business?

Coaching picked me. I didn’t choose coaching. As I was traveling and telling stories, I happened to also help my hosts tell their stories. I was also figuring out my personal brand, and I realized that I was doing it really well. I really enjoyed it, and I realized that I could get paid for this! I started offering coach consultation and people were getting huge results from my help. As I started building a business, more people started coming to me. My biggest challenge is I didn’t know how to build a business. But this is not an excuse, because I built this 6 figure business with no foundational knowledge all within one year. The hard part was educating myself and dealing with the emotions of not knowing what I was doing but doing it anyways. A lot of people wait to do something until everything is perfect, but if you want to build something, you have to just do it and educate yourself along the way. I spoke to different experts, I hired coaches, and I just talked to people who are experts in their fields.

How do you deal with uncertainties?

The first step is to create some structure while also allowing room for flexibility. As human beings, we actually do need a routine and some structure. For example, when I said I wanted to travel the world, I made a plan and list. I ended up not sticking to all of it, but having that initial structure helped me make bigger decisions. If you don’t plan anything out, you will always get blocked at the first level of things. The second piece of advice is to not be afraid of asking for help. The second I don’t know something, I identify someone who is an expert in it and I ask them to share their knowledge with me. Be strategic. Don’t just blindly ask for help, but ask them for resources. Third, approach every problem as if there is a solution. If you think there isn’t a solution, it either means you haven’t done the work to find it, or because the problem is just not important enough for you.

What advice would you give to college students who are figuring out their lives?

Our generation is incredibly impatient and entitled. We live in a generation with social media, and the environment we grew up with has made us fall in love with instant gratification. I see this happening all the time when I talk to younger entrepreneurs who want things to happen the moment they invest themselves in it. One of the important things we have to learn, and I am going through this myself, is that we need to be more patient.

The corporate route is the easy way. You get free training in a “safe” environment. Entrepreneurship is the hard way. It is worth it, but it is not easy. To make it more practical, here’s the advice: First, develop your mindset. Statistically speaking, your first company will fail. Having the emotional endurance and resilience to accept failure is key. Second, you need to actually create things. If you want to create a company, get up and do it. The actual act of starting businesses and learning how to run them as well as being emotionally equipped is what makes you a successful entrepreneur.

Instead of thinking, do. Be okay with failing. It’s going to happen at one point.

How do you help your clients identify their values?

A lot of my work is built upon story telling. Everyone has a story they tell themselves: who they are, why they do what they do, and why they can’t do certain things. Everyone has a certain story and what I do is help them reflect the stories they are telling themselves. I help them edit their chapters. Everyone has a story they currently live with, but they also have an ideal story that they can envision. I help them move from their old story to new story by helping them eliminating excuses that are holding them back. I help them understand their WHY and their values.

A lot of times, in both life and business, that are against our values. That is what makes us unhappy. For example, if you really value human connection, but you spend all day sitting behind a computer crunching numbers, of course you will hate your life. If your passion is to drive information from data, then you will love sitting behind a computer and hate talking to people all day. As soon as you align your work and lifestyle with your values, you become really happy.

Have you met clients who have trouble coming up with the ideal story? Or is it something within them that you can pull out?

It’s in them. Sometimes people cannot imagine what their stories look like because they do not know what their values are. But once they start thinking about their values, they will start coming up with their stories. One of the things I fundamentally believe is that everyone has a story to tell. And that story determines their reality. I help them figure out their story and make their reality as close to the story of their heart as possible.

Rapid fire questions:

1. What are your top three values?

  1. I believe that human connection is the most powerful currency that we can possibly have. Being vulnerable, being open with one another, connecting with each other. The number one telltale sign of happiness is the relationships you have in your life. That’s why I’ve built my business around human connection, and that comes through in my personal life as well because it allows me to have incredible personal relationship with different people.
  2. A second value is self-awareness and self-discovery. I believe that all the possible answers we are seeking for are inside of us. We have to be willing to lean in and look within ourselves. I spend a lot of time.
  3. The third thing is life design. We have absolute control over our lives, but we just to be willing to put in the effort.

2. What’s one piece of advice that you live by?

Nothing will change if you don’t take action. You can have the most powerful philosophy and vision, but you need to take action to turn it into reality.

3. What’s one piece of advice you would give to your 18 year old self?

Be more patient. Be more patient with myself. I spent a lot of time worrying how my future would turn out, and I did not trust myself enough to know that I would eventually pull through. I was having a breakdown about how I will make money, and someone said to me: You need to trust your potential. I wish I believed in myself.

4. What’s your favorite pastime hobby?

Reading. I’m super nerdy. And going on crazy adventures with strangers. I love saying yes to adventures. I would go to a random waterfall with strangers and I really believe in always saying yes to cool, fun things.

5. What’s your favorite book?

The Alchemist. & Cloud Atlas.

6. What do you do in times of doubt?

I doubt my doubt. When I have doubts, I will sit down with myself and ask myself: How likely will this actually happen?

7. Who are you, and what do you want?

I am a human being having a spiritual experience. I want to live the life I have been given, and when I look back on my life at my deathbed, I want to be able to say that every single moment was absolutely worth it. The good and the bad. No regrets.


This piece is written by Alexandra Huang, a Weinberg freshman. Alexandra is the founder of Activate, a publication dedicated to sharing stories of inspirational entrepreneurs. You can read more of Alexandra’s articles on her website. Besides writing, Alexandra is a gourmet and traveler who loves exploring new cultures and experiencing the world. She can be contacted via email.

Resident Spotlight: Maziwa

Founded in June 2018, Maziwa aims to provide middle-income working mothers with an efficient and convenient breast-pumping option. Founder Sahar Jamal said she hopes Maziwa will be on the market in 2020, starting in Kenya before broadening to other countries. The Garage sat down with Sahar to learn how and why Maziwa prioritizes expanding discreet, hygienic and affordable breast-pumping solutions to more women.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

What inspired Maziwa?

I was working in Nairobi, Kenya over the summer for my internship through Kellogg. [I was] working with a lot of pregnant and new moms and doing research around the importance of breastfeeding in the first six months of a child’s life.

Unlike in the US, maternity policies [in Nairobi] aren’t really respected. There aren’t lactation rooms at office spaces. Many American-made breast pumps rely on electricity of a certain voltage. They assume that the mom has somewhere to put the milk after she pumped it, and they assume that there’s a lactation room where a big, bulky, electric breast pump would be able to fit. In reality, if [mothers in Kenya were using a breast pump], they’re most likely doing this on the toilet seat or somewhere public in their workspace.

As a result, we decided to develop Maziwa, which is a tailored breast pump for low-resource settings in developing markets. We’re really addressing key feature challenges such as discreetness, efficiency, hygiene and affordability in our design.

How does Maziwa hope to fix these problems?

The first main differentiator that we hope to rely on is our in-market partnership. Because I worked in Kenya over the summer, I have a lot of contacts there, and I’ve established strong partnerships with maternity clinics, early childhood care centers, employers and government bodies like The Kenya Association for Breastfeeding.

From a product feature point of view, we’re building out three packages that set three of our key assumptions, which are that moms care about storage, efficiency and discreetness.

What are the steps you’re taking before 2020?

The biggest milestone that’s upcoming is our trip to Nairobi at the end of March. We’re doing quite a bit of research there. Once the research is complete, we’re working with our engineers to develop a product and build in some of those features we’ve heard moms prioritize. By the end of the year we should have a working prototype. I hope to go back into the market after I graduate to see whether there is interest in the product we’ve developed. Based on that, we can go into our final design process and start working on the process for FDA approval and manufacturing contracts.

Tell me about the name.

‘Maziwa’ is the Swahili word for milk, and ‘ziwa’ actually also means breast. I thought it was quite interesting, and I decided [to use a] play on words and make that my business name.

How has The Garage helped you?

The Garage has been extremely helpful. I just joined in January. It’s been an amazing community. The family dinners are awesome. It’s a good checkpoint to see how people are doing [and] the challenges they’re facing. You don’t feel as alone when you hear people are going through the same things as you.

Northwestern and Kellogg have both been extremely helpful in this process. [Maziwa] is kind of the trifecta of challenges: It’s global health, it’s in Kenya [and] it’s a medical device. The support in the community has really given me the courage to keep going and the resources I need to do so effectively.


Megan Lebowitz is a freshman majoring in journalism. She is a reporter for Northwestern News Network and loves storytelling in all forms. She is from Cleveland, Ohio.

Recap: Hubly at NVC

When I think about Portland, a couple of things come to mind – rainy days, craft coffee, and eccentric people. An intense 3 day pitch competition would definitely not have been on that list, but after competing in the University of Oregon’s New Venture Championship (NVC) I can confidently say that the entrepreneurial spirit runs through the heart of the University of Oregon and the city of Portland, Oregon.

My name is Nisar and I am a co-founder for Hubly. A medical device startup developing a neurosurgical drill designed to improve accuracy and safety, while also decreasing costs and complications, associated with performing one of the most common neurosurgical procedures, the Ventriculostomy. The Hubly team has been traveling around the country to various pitch competitions to raise funding and incorporate feedback from judges and potential investors. Most recently we travelled to Portland, joining graduate students from around the world to compete in the New Venture Championship (NVC). The NVC experience was a journey unlike any other—the chance to pitch our venture and compete for cash prizes, receive one-on-one feedback from world class business professionals, and gain attention from angel investors.

The NVC schedule included a 1 minute elevator pitch, a trade show, 30 minute running clock pitch with interruptions for judge questions, and a “lightning round”, which consisted of a 1 hour discussion of the business without any props or presentations. The event was very well coordinated by The University of Oregon’s Lundquist Center for Entrepreneurship.

The first day consisted of practice pitches with judge feedback, followed by the trade show. We received great feedback from the judges on updating our business plan, reworking some of our presentation, and changing our pricing models. Hubly was then given a booth where we presented our initial proof of concept prototype, as well as a scaled down 3D printed version of our drill. This was an excellent opportunity to showcase the progress we have made on our device while also networking and getting to see the various innovations of the other competitors. The other ventures at the event ranged from bone tape to mend fractures, an algae-based air purifier, beehive monitoring technology, coordination of supply chain operations for local grocers, load bearing stabilization for rescue operations, and many more.

The second day of NVC consisted of the reworked presentation to panel of expert judges. After incorporating much of the feedback we received from the practice pitch, we were able to more concisely present the problems associated with the Ventriculostomy and how our product is the solution to these challenges. Ultimately, Hubly came in second place in our track as we were beaten by BoneTape, the team that ultimately won the competition. This meant that we would be competing in a consolidation “lightning round” the following day.

On the final day, Hubly presented our company to a panel of executives in a casual, lunch-like setting. We were not allowed to use any props or presentations other than the pens and napkins provided on the table. The hour long conversation consisted of a 10 minute initial pitch with 5 minutes for Q&A and feedback, followed by 15 minutes to rework the pitch, then we had another 15 minutes to re-present to the judges incorporating the feedback we received, finally the judges spent the last 15 minutes for final Q&A and feedback. Hubly won our lightning round track, receiving a consolation prize of $1500.

Although Hubly didn’t make it to the finals, we came out of NVC with a much better understanding of how to effectively present a medical device company to investors who may not be as knowledgeable about the space. I would like to leave you with a list of general tips for any future garage teams that make the trek out to Portland to compete at NVC…

  1. The elevator pitch should really be about the “sizzle” of the company. Try to make the business sound as sexy as possible and keep it high-level.
  2. This is above all else an amazing networking opportunity, make sure to talk to as many people as possible. We were able to connect with a Med Tech VC randomly in the hotel lobby.
  3. In the 30 minute pitches, you should leave at least 10 minutes for the judges to interrupt and their questions.
  4. Use as many napkins as possible in the lightning round, just because you can’t use outside props doesn’t mean you can’t show visuals of your product.
  5. Don’t try to incorporate every single piece of feedback you receive. Everyone has a different viewpoint and ultimately you are the one that has to present the information. We were criticized for some of the changes we made that were a direct result of prior feedback we received.
  6. Bring as much to the trade show as possible. Posters, printouts, goodie-bags, food, or anything else that will attract people to come talk to you. There was a prize for best trade show booth that was a literal popularity contest.
  7. Make sure your business plan can be understood by judges and investors that are not in your field.
  8. Bring business cards! You will be constantly exchanging contact information to set up future networking opportunities.
  9. There is a decent amount of free time between events over the 3 day period so explore Portland. The coffee really is amazing!
  10. Have fun!

My Experience Founding a Company at The Garage

I founded a company while at Northwestern, and it failed after a year and a half.

My co-founders and I dedicated a significant amount of our time over a year and a half working on a startup called Backlight. We had big dreams – we were going to use artificial intelligence to streamline resume (and hopefully, other text) optimization and make it accessible and affordable to anyone looking for a job. The career services industry had been stagnant for years: you need a one-on-one with an HR expert which will cost you $200 or more, otherwise you’re out of luck. It seemed like the perfect combination of a human touch with our great customer service and cutting-edge technology with our complex algorithm. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that simple and we shut down Backlight’s operations in April 2018.

Luckily for me, at The Garage failure is not only emphasized, but encouraged – for the right reasons. It is, after all, one of the best ways to learn. I failed on multiple occasions not only with Backlight, where I failed to properly manage my team and failed to do the right market research before diving in to this endeavor, but I also failed multiple times before founding Backlight.

But enough with the sob story, and on to some of the good stuff. Getting accepted as a Resident of The Garage was actually one of my biggest successes at Northwestern. My time working with the students, staff, mentors – basically everyone –  at The Garage was overwhelmingly positive and one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had in the last four years.

First off, I’d like to start with our mentors. Through The Garage, I’ve met dozens of fascinating people who are professionals, entrepreneurs, and students alike. The professionals who took the time out of their days to sit on our board of advisors and our mentors were all incredible people who taught our entire team a lot about life, what it means to be an entrepreneur, and how to find our own definitions of success. I’d like to specifically recognize the man who ran the fellowship program we were a part of, Billy Banks. Not only did he keep us accountable and help us grow as people and entrepreneurs, but he made a real, personal connection with every single student he interacted with. It is few and far between that you’ll find someone as honest, compassionate, and full of sage wisdom as Billy and this seems like a good time to thank him.

Building off that, the network of mentors, students, and people I’ve developed through The Garage is worth its weight in gold. I’ve met professionals who are successful entrepreneurs, lawyers, in the finance industry, and everything in between. Most of them have had a genuine interest in building relationships and offering their personal networks and advice for everyone at The Garage. The weekly Family Dinners give Garage Residents the opportunity to poke the brains of people in a wide variety of industries with a wide variety of insights.

Not only that, but working with the rest of the Backlight team taught me an incredible amount about handling interpersonal relationships, managing a team, business strategy, and also a lot about myself. I’ve made close friends, built my network, and gained priceless experience along the way. Even though my venture didn’t pan out as I wanted it to, I am a better person, leader, and teammate today due to my experience with Backlight in The Garage.

So with all that taken into account, if I had to go back do my Northwestern experience over again, I’d go back, start Backlight and work with The Garage every single time because failing might not be so bad after all.


Daniel was a Resident of The Garage, and is a graduate of the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern. After graduating in 2018, Daniel took a job as an Analyst at Tyree & D’Angelo Partners in the Chicago area.