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 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

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!

Thinking like an Entrepreneur in the “Real World”

My name is Bobby, and I am 2016 Kellogg Grad and a graduate of the first accelerator class at The Garage. For me, last week marked both one year back in the “real world” and the birth of my second daughter, Fiona. I say the “real world” because after school I returned to a corporate job as a Technology Consultant for Deloitte despite majoring in Entrepreneurship and spending thousands of hours at The Garage building a business. I mention my daughters, because paying for their diapers is the main reason I decided to put entrepreneurship on hold for now. Given this inevitable career decision, during school I was forced to ask myself: “Why spend so much time and energy on entrepreneurship? What could I learn that would translate to consulting for multi-billion dollar companies?” Well, surprisingly, a lot.

I learned a lot about teaming, delegating, communicating ideas, iterating, brainstorming, prototyping, and more. But more important than the skills it developed, was the way that entrepreneurship changed my mindset. The first mindset change I adopted is best summarized by Kellogg Professor Joe Dwyer in his lectures, like this: “Your baby is ugly.” No, not my real baby. Fiona is beautiful. Your business is ugly.

If you are a new entrepreneur, you may not have admitted this to yourself yet, but soon enough your confidence will be properly beaten down. We spend so much time building our businesses (designing a business plan, perfecting the pitch, executing, etc.) that it can be hard to admit how imperfect our ideas really are. But don’t sweat it. For starters, it’s amazing that you had the courage to put something new out in the world. More importantly, admitting this ensures that your business will improve because you are open to feedback, willing to adapt, and not too proud to accept help. “Your baby is ugly” is a mindset of humility. This mindset is essential to entrepreneurship, but I have seen in consulting that this is the mindset of the best employees in any role.

With this mindset, you can have the humility to understand that your marketing plan, your financial analysis, your sales strategy, or your management approach are all flawed. Then, you can be the person in the meeting who is receptive to change. You can be the employee that is constantly learning from their mistakes. You can be the manager that takes the best ideas from wherever they come. This is invaluable, but surprisingly lacking in corporate cultures where the status quo is to sound smart, look put together, and pretend to be an expert. If you’ve never worked with a consultant, you’d be amazed at how artfully we can squirm around answering a question with “I don’t know.” But there is so much to gain from admitting that you don’t know and being the one who goes and finds the answer.

The second mindset change I underwent in The Garage, I will borrow from the TSA: “If you see something, say something.” As an entrepreneur you learn to address problems head on, because if you don’t, you get stuck.  When a new challenge, new insight, new opportunity arises, an entrepreneur’s first instinct is to tackle it head on (maybe even sometimes to a fault). However, when you are a part of larger, slower moving teams and companies, the exact opposite is true. For example in my world now, if you have a team of 30 developers under you building a new app, it can be really hard to stop that momentum and pivot when you learn something new. It’s much easier to shrug off the new knowledge or a new concern and just let the train keep rolling. The problem with shrugging off problems is that little problems tend to snowball when they go unaddressed. Instead of taking a week to question your assumptions and re-design your approach, you’re missing out on thousands or millions in potential revenue. “If you see something, say something” is a mindset of action orientation. It is a mindset of taking care of problems early. It is adapting. It is iterating. It one of the entrepreneur’s greatest strengths. Granted, we can’t all be entrepreneurs, at least not all the time, but I think the real world could do a lot better if more people started thinking like them.

Bobby is currently a Senior Consultant at Deloitte Digital. He is also a graduate of the MMM Program at Kellogg where he co-founded the social venture sharEd and was a Zell Fellow and a Youn Impact Scholar. He holds a BS in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Notre Dame.

Summer Wildfire 2017, In Memoriam (Part II)

Ok, I got it. What does Wildfire look like over the 10 weeks?

Wildfire is designed to be both a sprint and a marathon. In the Spring, we do some light jogging to get ready for Bootcamp Week – the first, and by far most intensive week of the program. The goal of this first week is to overwhelm and to reset expectations. Many teams entered Bootcamp Week ready to build for a customer they barely knew or for an audience too impossibly large to serve, let alone notice them. So, we tore down the walls, ripped out the foundation, and began pouring a new one. We did this through a variety of workshops, mentor speed dating events, and field trips.

Over the following eight weeks, we slowly began building vertically. We want to add as many tools to the toolkit as possible in as short of an amount of time as possible. By the mid-point, as teams begin to advance at differing rates, we shift from group workshops to more one-on-one coaching through Office Hours and connecting through FounderCenter.

The program cadence looks like this – on Mondays, we kick off with All Team Check-In where teams update the group on their progress from the last week, describe their “rock” to move for the upcoming week, and make an “ask” of the group. Afterwards, we had our Breakthrough sessions with Trish Thomas, where we talked about having difficult conversations, getting comfortable asking strangers for help, and selling tricks and hacks. Finally, in the afternoon, each team would meet with  Neal Sales-Griffin and I for 45 minutes every other week.

Wednesdays were for workshops and Fridays were reserved for pitch practice. And practice we did. I wanted each team to own their story. To let the audience feel their passion. Formulaic doesn’t move the needle. It bores the audience. Passion inspires.

Every week, we challenged assumptions. We pushed each other to our breaking points. We questioned everything, including ourselves at times. It was in these moments of vulnerability and sharing that we grew individually and together. It happened slowly, but gathered pace during our weekly Family Dinners and during our Breakthrough sessions.

By the last week of the program, as the teams were preparing for Demo Day, I sat back and watched as the teams practiced their pitches with one another – often late into the night and occasionally all the way through it. They built on what we spent the last nine weeks practicing. Pushing and encouraging one another to be their best.

And then, 69 days later, the big day was upon us – Demo Day. The culmination of 10 weeks of effort. The opportunity to take the stage and show the world what they had spent the summer honing and refining.

For me, Demo Day was once again a proud papa moment. After spending the last 10 weeks grinding day in, day out, it was finally their turn to take the stage. To own the moment that they had worked so hard to reach.

Prior to kicking off the pitches, we huddled in the Makerspace for a pep talk. Words of encouragement were exchanged and you could feel the love and companionship that had built up and blossomed over our time together. Fired up, we made our way to a full house in the Workspace.

I opened the festivities, then sat down and watched with equal parts pride and joy as team after team took their position, told their story, and captivated the crowd. And then, the last pitch. The winners were announced. And the evening was over as was Summer Wildfire 2017.

After a night of celebration, I woke up the next morning feeling a little melancholy. I felt adrift. Rudderless. After hauling ass every morning to Evanston, I had nothing to do that day. While part of me was happy that the program came to a successful conclusion, I missed it. I missed the students and their unflappable energy and grit.

So, with that, I will sign off until next year. It took me awhile just to finish writing this as I wasn’t quite ready to close the book.

We became a family this summer. As a new(ish) father, watching your kids grow up is bittersweet. Part of you wants to freeze time. To keep them suspended just as they are right now. To never change. The other part is excited to watch them grow and learn. To see who they will become. Where they will go. What they will do.

And while goodbye is hard, I cannot wait to see where and how far these young men and women go. I will cherish our time together as I grew right alongside them. They made me better this summer. I hope I did the same for them.

This article is part of a three-part series highlighting the student founded startups and programming from Summer Wildfire 2017, The Garage’s pre-acceleration program. 

Billy Banks is the Associate Director of The Garage, and began his career in his family business—a diversified forest products and steel manufacturer. He launched his first startup, M-Tec Corporation, in 2003, and a second one, Reach360, in 2007 after leading the successful sale of his family business. Billy works with Design For America, advises numerous startups and was an adjunct professor at Northwestern prior to starting at The Garage. Billy received his BA in history and political science from Northwestern in 1998 and his MBA in finance and strategy from Indiana University in 2003.

Summer Wildfire 2017, In Memoriam (Part I)

Wildfire, Summer 2017. And like that, poof, it was gone…

What began as an idea two years ago has now come full circle in its second iteration.

For the first year, it was an experiment. To create it, I strapped on my best and only pair of running shoes and ran all over town meeting with folks who had run accelerators or similar programs. Many miles and several pairs of shoes later, I had enough feedback and insights to take a stab at designing a program. Armed with pen, paper and lots of whiteboard space, I designed a program for students from scratch. A few weeks later, we ran with it. It was a success even as we were building the wings as we flew the plane.

For the second year, building on what we started and incorporating key lessons learned, I endeavored to find the right balance between delivering content and providing plenty of space to get shit done.

Many of the tweaks and changes to the program were based on a sample size of one. The year prior. That group needed a lot of prodding. They were great at thinking. Not so much at doing.

So, one of the major program changes was to build in more accountability and check points in order to drive the teams forward. To do so, teams would have to earn a portion of their stipend each week and complete weekly deliverables.

I overcorrected. This batch was unlike the first. They hit the ground running and frankly, they ran me over and never looked back. By the third week of the program, I realized my role was not to assign more work, it was to remove obstacles and give them more room to run.

Moreover, at the start of the program, all but one team was pre-revenue. By the end of summer, all of the teams either earned revenue or had a clear path for doing so. This was remarkable. How did we do it? Each week, we pushed the teams to simplify. To narrow their focus. To find a paying customer.

Too often teams would dream about scaling to hundreds or thousands of users. Neal Sales-Griffin and I would grab their floating legs and yank them back to Earth – do what doesn’t scale first. We would constantly remind them, find the first market or customer segment that you can win and go conquer that. Nail the problem. Then, and only then, worry about nailing the solution.

Caraline Pham and Collin Pham, Co-Founders of Local Technologies

So, what exactly is Wildfire?

Wildfire is a 10-week “pre-accelerator.” Up to twelve teams are accepted into the summer program. Each is given $10,000 to help accelerate their respective venture. We accept teams in March, thereby enabling us to use the Spring quarter to get the teams ready to hit the ground running come June.

Wildfire is built on three pillars which are woven into every aspect of the programming. First, we teach the Entrepreneurial Toolkit. The ABC’s of entrepreneurship. This content is delivered primarily through workshops and one-on-one meetings. We believe that learning this way of thinking and doing will best prepare our students for the world in which they are going to inherit – one in which agility, creativity, and the ability to learn and iterate quickly are the skills that will propel careers regardless of whether that is at a startup or at a Fortune 500 company.

Next, we spend a lot of time pitching. Every Friday, plus a concentrated dose the week leading up to Demo Day. The art of pitching is the art of storytelling. It helps to refine thinking and find new and novel ways to connect with your customers, your potential investors, and your future employees. The lessons learned change each week and therefore, so do the stories. In addition, we often do pitch practice as a group. Seeing how another team plans to go to market can influence how another team does. Thus, we share and grow together. Finally, like the toolkit, we believe that the students who learn how to tell their story, to persuade, to sell, will go further, faster in their careers for these skills are critical in the creative economy of the future.

Shane Davis, Andrew Luckenbaugh, Megell Strayhorn of MOGO

Finally, in addition to the tools and pitching, we also teach the entrepreneurial mindset. We do this through the Breakthrough workshops and by using the Founders Agreement as a tool to have difficult conversations. As Tim Ferriss said, “You can judge the success of an individual by the number of difficult conversations they have had.” As such, we have a lot of them over the 10 weeks. Furthermore, learning the entrepreneurial mindset often entails undoing 15 years of academic learning. School teaches you to memorize and then be tested on what you can recall. You are rewarded for perfection, not for effort. As such, students spend their academic years getting perfect grades to get into the perfect school and to get the perfect internship or job. Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way. Not today and certainly not in the job market of tomorrow. Entrepreneurial thinking requires challenging assumptions, building the minimal product and testing to get feedback. And it entails being wrong. A lot. But that is how you learn. That is how you flex and grow your resiliency. That is how you grow and ultimately, how you live a fulfilling life.

This article is part of a three-part series highlighting the student founded startups and programming from Summer Wildfire 2017, The Garage’s pre-acceleration program. 

Billy Banks is the Associate Director of The Garage, and began his career in his family business—a diversified forest products and steel manufacturer. He launched his first startup, M-Tec Corporation, in 2003, and a second one, Reach360, in 2007 after leading the successful sale of his family business. Billy works with Design For America, advises numerous startups and was an adjunct professor at Northwestern prior to starting at The Garage. Billy received his BA in history and political science from Northwestern in 1998 and his MBA in finance and strategy from Indiana University in 2003.

The Lean Startup of You

After lots of friends and colleagues pushed it as a must-read, I finally read Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup. In it, Ries suggests that startups need a different, more agile mechanism to create something from nothing—a suggestion that is so very true and often missed in the frenzy of business plans, networking and idea-swapping that forms the stuff of entrepreneurial cultures.  While established companies have clear indicators of success, for startup companies (and individuals) that are in the process of starting something from scratch it’s a little harder to assess “are we making progress?”

I could not help but see how Ries’ philosophy parallels (or perhaps, forms the subtext of) the human dynamic for entrepreneurs. So much of what entrepreneurs battle against does not come from the marketplace but from themselves: their egos, insecurities, fears and hopes.

Here are three of Ries’ manifestos and how they translate to entrepreneurs’ particular emotional contexts. 

1. Validated Learning: Companies test something in the marketplace, get feedback and derive its value to make it better. The same notion is critical for individuals as well. This means immersing ourselves in the industry or sector we aspire to be in. Don’t play into the false assumption that you need more credentials, or it has to be a paid job, or your idea has to be fully baked, before you can start doing the thing.

Case in point: A woman we were working with at The Bunker complained about her job and stated a desire to work with children. Consequently, we advised her to go work with children. Today. Not once she had a teaching certificate, not once she had a job. Today.

So, what are you waiting for? Start doing the thing. Validate your learning without expecting it to be a clean home-run before you can even start.

2. Kanban (Hypothesis Testing): Perfection is the enemy of progress, both for startups and for people.

In a manufacturing context, Kanban is a capacity management system that focuses on optimizing the right end product. For startups, it’s about setting up a system to manage the input of ideas with an intentionality about what you are working with, how you are testing the idea and what you are choosing to jettison or move forward with based on actionable metrics.

For individuals, Kanban is all the more important, yet also all the harder. Humans need a system to honestly evaluate and track the various ideas in our head; we also need to have the fortitude to know when to move an idea forward (based on validation) and when to scrap it.

3. Viral Engine of Growth: The virtuous cycle for companies occurs when they make something that, apart from the investor reaction, elevator pitches and marketing hype, actually works really well! Word of mouth is the primary growth engine for companies, and people will promote products and businesses when they feel that those companies are really good at what they do.

For individuals, the viral engine of growth comes when we hit our sweet spot by aligning our authentic selves with what we are good at and putting that out into the world. People will recognize it as excellence and spread the word.

As such, the work for you is not about looking externally for ideas, but looking internally for inspiration.

To all my fellow fans of The Lean Startup methodology, I suggest you take a page out of Eric Ries’ playbook and look inwards to find what might be impeding your progress. While we enjoy thinking about the work of businesses, the work for entrepreneurs really begins with us. Community, accountability and a good plan that starts not with the business but with you—these are your best assets.

Todd Connor is the CEO and Founder of Bunker Labs, a national entrepreneurship organization dedicated to helping military veterans start and grow businesses. Todd is a mentor at The Garage and a Northwestern alum.

Wildfire: The Showdown

With the fall quarter in full swing at Northwestern, we are so excited to see some familiar faces at The Garage again. And as the students begin to trickle in and set up their workspaces, we were busy gearing up for our first big event of the year, Wildifre: The Showdown.

The Showdown is the ultimate fast-paced, student-centered pitch off and a celebration of entrepreneurship across all of Northwestern. We invited three runner up teams from our summer pre-accelerator program, Wildfire, to go head to head in a winner takes all competition, pitching back to back to back for a prize of $2,000. And the best part? The winner was decided by an audience of peers. No judges. No Q&A. Just your favorite team taking home some no strings attached cash on The Garage.

And we had a packed house of students to cheer on our teams, so we pulled out all the stops. We’ve had tons of yummy food, our favorite Spotify playlist going, and three excited student teams ready to take the stage.

Want to get to know the three teams a little better? We did special profiles on each of the teams as part of Wildfire. Read more about each of the student-founded startups below their photos from their pitches, and check out our exclusive video with a peek behind the scenes this summer, where each of these teams got to talk about how Wildfire helped them grow.


Learn more about HotPlate

Learn more about MOGO

Learn more about PedalCell

After our three teams pitched, it was time for an audience vote. We had more than 150 voters! HotPlate took home the grand prize and a big check, just in time to promote their big launch across Evanston. If you want to help support HotPlate, they’re working with Evanston to co-host Big Bite Night this weekend!

Congratulations to all of the teams who pitched at The Showdown–after spending all summer at The Garage for Wildfire, this was the best way to showcase all of the hard work and dedication it takes to be a student founder. We can’t wait to see what this year brings.

#WildcatWelcome at The Garage

It’s an exciting time at Northwestern. As the leaves start to turn, we start seeing seas of purple as we welcome new transfers and the class of 2021 to campus. This year. The Garage participated in Wildcat Welcome–a week full of activities for new students to get to know each other, their new home, and find out what resources, student organizations, and opportunities await them.

First, we headed to the Resource Fair, held at Norris on Thursday, September 14. We had nearly 1,000 freshman and new transfer students stop by The Garage’s table to learn more about what we do and how to get involved in the entrepreneurial and startup community at Northwestern. We also partnered with Resident team Brewbike to offer free cold brew coffee, which may have helped our cause just a little considering the fair began in the morning.

On Friday, The Garage (which is 11,000 square feet by the way) was crawling with purple! We had between 350-400 freshmen visit The Garage to hang out, eat a Chipotle burrito, try out our AR/VR lab and meet some student founders. New students got to see our modern and innovative co-working space first hand, try out the newest future facing technologies, see our state of the art Makerspace and learn about how to get involved.

Here are the five ways new transfers and incoming freshmen can get involved at The Garage. 

  1. Join a club. There are so many student organizations dedicated to innovation, entrepreneurship, and tech at Northwestern including EPIC, Global Engagement Summit (GES), Design for America (DFA), the Institute for Business Education (ISBE) and Women in Business (WIB), many of which meet at The Garage. Head to our website to learn more.
  2. Join a startup. Residency application might be closed for this quarter, but you can join an existing team and get perks like 24/7 access to The Garage and an invitation to Family Dinner. Get to know some of our Resident teams here.
  3. Take a class. The Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation focuses on curriculum, and ENTREP 225 is the perfect introduction to the principles of entrepreneurship.     
  4. Sign up for Office Hours. We have a network of vetted experts to help you get your idea off the ground. Sign up on our website to talk to a staff member or an Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) about your startup idea.
  5. Follus us. Become a part of The Garage family and keep up with what we’re doing on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and even our monthly newsletter where we highlight our favorite things, like Chicago startup news, student founders, and upcoming open events.

We can’t wait to meet you.


The Garage