Founder Spotlight: Bennett Hensey, McCormick ’19

Who: Bennett Hensey, McCormick School of Engineering ‘19 + Co-Founder of Unruled.

Major: Design Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Bennett has become a familiar face at The Garage as an integral member of Resident Team Unruled. Unruled. recently participated in The Garage’s summer pre-accelerator program, Wildfire, and took home third place at Demo Day and a check for $2,000 after impressing a panel of judges with their pitch to empower visual thinkers through environmentally responsible design. But The Garage wanted to get to know Bennett a little bit better, and learn more about his entrepreneurial and academic path at Northwestern.

Tell us about your major.

“I was always interested in engineering, and I really thought the Ford building on campus was a cool place to work from. I also participated in an engineering program called Murphy Scholars, which gave me the opportunity and funding to pursue a research project alongside 17 other motivated and passionate students at McCormick.

I started as a Materials Science major as a freshman. Within the first two years, I switched my major two more times to both Mechanical Engineering and then Manufacturing and Design Engineering. By my sophomore year though, I learned that my real passion was beyond basic science and I wanted to get my hands dirty dealing with real products and real people, so now I’m working toward a degree in a major I’m creating called Design and Innovation Entrepreneurship. It’s really letting me pursue what I’m passionate about: making things and seeing how people react to them. I’m learning so many valuable skills.”

How did you become interested in entrepreneurship?

“I always thought that entrepreneurship would be a good fit for me, but before Northwestern, I had never had an opportunity to really verify that. During my first summer here, I did a lot of personal projects using what I had learned in classes, but I never intended to turn them into businesses. I took my first entrepreneurship class (ENTREP 225), and I’ve been working on Unruled. ever since. I had the idea for the unlined notebook long before I took the course. I had a lot of other ideas too, but the blank notebook is the one my whole group went with for a project.”

What’s it like being a student founder?

“I really like ‘doing.’ So for me, entrepreneurship has given me a way to go out and execute what I’m learning in the classroom. Entrepreneurship gives what I’m learning in the classroom real world meaning. Without entrepreneurship, I don’t think I would excel as much as I have in academics because I’d have less direction. It gives me the motivation, and lets me challenge myself both inside and outside of the classroom.

I think real growth comes from both learning in the classroom and then having real world experiences. Academics and entrepreneurship are more together than they are separate. And at Northwestern, there’s a lot of initiatives to combine the two. There’s tons of support and ways to integrate what I’m doing at The Garage with what I’m doing in class.”

What’s your focus this year?

“This year, Junior year, I think participating in an internship is important. It’s pivotal to potentially getting a return offer, and I haven’t had the chance to do an internship yet. Junior year, for me, is about deciding what my path will be after college. I think whether I end up pursuing my own projects or working in a large company, my experience as a student founder has given me a lot of the foundational knowledge of what it means to have a business and interact with people and customers. I’ve learned how a company culture is formed, and I have a better understanding of why it’s such an important part of a fulfilling job.”


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

Founder Spotlight: Vishaal Mali, Co-Founder and CEO of PedalCell

Who: Vishaal Mali, McCormick School of Engineering ‘20 + Co-Founder of PedalCell

Major: Computer Engineering

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

I was picking between a few different places and the biggest thing that lead me to Northwestern was how interdisciplinary it was. The Garage is a prime example of that. I didn’t want to be stuck doing one thing or one field of engineering. Northwestern introduces you to so many things at once and teaches you how disciplines can blend together and how powerful that can be. The Garage was also a big reason I wanted to attend Northwestern. I reached out personally to the Executive Director, Melissa Kaufman, about my project and the concept of PedalCell, and came to visit during the admitted students weekend. I met a team participating in Wildfire and it just felt like a place I could do so much in during my four years of college. I felt like Northwestern would be a place for me to thrive both academically and as a person.

I was really impressed by the initiative that The Garage and Northwestern are doing to promote entrepreneurship activities because other schools deter from that and Northwestern does the opposite. I was accepted into other good schools, including Harvard and Johns Hopkins. I liked Northwestern the best because of the atmosphere. It felt inviting, and everyone I reached out to was willing to sit down and talk to me as a freshman. The Garage and the campus felt so welcoming.

I chose to major in Computer Engineering because I’m passionate about the interplay between hardware and software, and how it plays into sustainability. Northwestern also has a great program that invites you to play around in different disciplines and combine technology with the environment.

What’s it like being a student founder?

It can be difficult to manage time, running a startup and staying on top of classes. But it’s turned out to be for the better because it forced me to learn a lot of new and interesting things I needed for my startup. Most importantly, every class has changed my perspective. I don’t just sit and take notes and exams, but I think about how what I’m learning can be applied to the real world and to PedalCell. That perspective really changes the way you go through class. It changes your academic experience. I’m constantly thinking about how I can take what I’m learning in class and apply it to my advantage, build better technology, or be a better entrepreneur. It’s lead me to be very involved in the classroom, but not in the way I might expect to be.

I don’t want to just go through school and land a job. I wanted to make the most of my college experience which meant doing what I’m passionate about which is using technology to make a difference, whether it’s in alternative energy or raising awareness for climate change and sustainability. That lead me to PedalCell.  

What’s your focus this year?

After wrapping up Wildfire, I have a much clearer picture of what I want to do with PedalCell and where I see it going. I think it will make be even more successful in the classroom because I know what I need to learn and to be exposed to in order to improve my company. Northwestern gives me a lot of freedom in picking classes, so I’m picking a lot of things that are of interest to me or are also important in the industry I’m working in. The way it’s going now, I hope to pursue PedalCell as a full time interest after college.


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

5 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Working on HotPlate

A little over a year ago, I was sitting in my engineering entrepreneurship class preparing to pitch the idea of HotPlate for the first time.

“Why isn’t there anything out there that can tell me about the best dishes at restaurants?”

The one-minute elevator pitch ended up winning the most votes in the class and moved on to become one of the projects for the quarter. From there, we self-assembled our initial team and spent the next few months validating our idea. Knowing we were onto something really cool, by the end of the course, I was itching to start developing our product. I thought that as soon as we could ship the app for diners to use, we will start scaling exponentially. Boy, was I naive. Little did I know that the journey would be much more complicated than that.

Here are 5 things I wish I knew before I started working on HotPlate:

1. Fall in love with the problem, not the solution

In the early days, we were very solution driven. Instead of focusing on “let’s figure out the best way for diners to discover the best dishes at restaurants” we focused on “creating a menu-rating system.”

Little did we know that building technology is hard. It always takes longer than you initially expect. With an app like HotPlate, you have to figure out the backend database structure, user experience, interface design, feature-set, and most importantly, how it all comes together to offer one seamless experience. Of course, to add to the mix, through the midst of it all, countless dreaded bugs will pop up.

There are a lot of ways to test the concept of your idea without actually ‘building’ anything. Zappos started by just taking pictures of shoes at stores and selling them while Dropbox went viral with a simple concept video.

If I were to redo this, I would first focus on building a community that also loves the problem and then supplementing it with technology to organize content.

2. What people say they want and what people actually want are very different

There have been countless times that I have described HotPlate to someone and heard expressions like “Wow, this something I would use all the time!” or “I went to this restaurant the other day and ordered a terrible dish, I wish I could have used HotPlate.”

This kind of feedback is validating. It is exciting. It is also very dangerous.

It gave us the impression that people wanted to see the ratings of individual dish items in order to easily find the best dishes. Which is true…but to an extent. While people want to have confidence in the meal they are ordering, we quickly learned that it doesn’t translate into users actively rating dishes and engaging with the app regularly. On a platform that relies on user content and data, we had to figure out what would drive interaction. Evanston was a great learning process and all of our findings will directly help strategize our Chicago launch.

3. Take your time in working out the UI/UX design of the app before coding anything

When you do decide to start building out the technology, you need to focus on the design in the early stages. Our team had a general idea of a few things that were important to gather feedback on. We did a lot of user research, paper prototyped the flow of the entire app, tested with potential users and created wireframes that guided the front-end code, but it still wasn’t enough. The first version of our app had a lot of usability issues.

There are a lot of little details that good design takes into account that we barely notice. If it is your first time creating a major product, like it was for us, it is important to be mindful of all of these different actions and states. Which rating system is most intuitive? How does a user edit a rating? What will the rating system look like if you haven’t rated the dish yet? What if you have rated it? All of these questions and more need to be answered and accounted for in the final design.

4. You spend so many hours on emails. So many hours.

Once upon a time I barely checked my inbox. Then I began working on a startup and suddenly, my email app was used more then text.

Email became the medium through which people in my network started introducing me to prominent leaders in my industry, investors, marketing experts and anyone else that could help in some way or another. I quickly learned that email threads will explode setting up a time to chat and that it is much easier to send a list of potential days and times that I am available to chat.

In general, learning how to craft a great email is more important now than ever before. I quickly learnt that I needed to focus on communicating well, being professional, responding within 48 hours and always saying thank you!

5. There will be many ups and downs but that is what makes the journey worthwhile.

I always knew being an entrepreneur had many ups and downs but I don’t think I actually internalized that feeling until recently. There will be days that I feel unbelievably motivated and like the team can conquer any challenge that comes our way. Then there are other days that I feel like I am at the bottom and things do not seem to be working. Being an entrepreneur will test your resilience in a way you never thought possible. From your ‘big idea’ crashing and burning to app store rejections and not to forget, a variety of awkward conversations, days and nights will feel like a never ending battle.

There is a reason you decided you fight this battle though, there was a problem you fell in love with. I find myself constantly going back to the problem I began with and falling in love with it even more.

I wouldn’t have it any other way and it is all part of the journey. I can look back and confidently say that the last year has been my biggest educational roller coaster and I have learnt much more than any class or project could’ve taught me.


Sarah Ahmad (McCormick + Weinberg, ’18) is currently the CEO and founder of HotPlate, a platform that allows users to discover the best dishes at restaurants through individual dish ratings, reviews, and recommendations. She was previously the Co-President of the Northwestern University Chapter of Society of Women Engineers (SWE). 

HotPlate is a Resident Team at The Garage and former Wildfire participant. This article was originally posted on HotPlate’s blog, and shared with Sarah’s permission. Keep up with all things HotPlate on their website and Instagram

Founder Spotlight: Isabel Benatar, Co-Founder of BOSSY Chicago

Who: Isabel Benatar, School of Education and Social Policy (SESP) ‘18 + Co-Founder of BOSSY Chicago

Major: Learning and Organizational Change, Minor in BIP

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

I’m originally from Palo Alto, and I was really interested in Journalism in high school, so I was initially looking at Medill. Even though I thought that’s what I wanted to study, I really liked that Northwestern was strong in so many different disciplines, so not being sure, that was a good thing.

I arrived at Northwestern and was originally at Weinberg during freshman year. By word of mouth, someone suggested I look at SESP majors, so I did that during sophomore year. I looked at Learning and Organizational Change (LOC), and knew that’s what I wanted to do. I added BIP during my junior year because it’s a really common minor to pair with LOC. Whether that’s for yourself or for others, LOC can be a little broad, and combining in with business gives it more of a direction.

Isabel Benatar and Sam Letscher

My dad has started a couple of companies. The fact that he did that and was successful made the whole entrepreneurship thing seem realistic to me. It was an actual option of something I could do. I could create something myself from scratch. But there’s no way I would’ve actually done it during college if it weren’t for The Garage. Having a physical space to work in instead of my own apartment and people to guide you made it a real option for something I could pursue now versus after college.

I took ENTREP 225 with my co-founder, Sam. We were on the same team so we knew we liked working together, but neither of us were really passionate about the product the team we were assigned to was making. We didn’t have our own idea, but we knew we worked well together. So we came up with the idea for BOSSY and applied for Residency at The Garage in the Spring of 2017.

Entrepreneurship is a different kind of learning. You learn by doing. I learned so much this summer. I learned how to go out and talk to real people and actively network and meet for coffee just for the connection, and just creating something out of nothing. In class, you get so much guidance because there’s a prompt or instructions and with a startup, you’re just doing it because you’re really passionate about it. I think the most important thing I’ve gained as a student entrepreneur is a valuable network of professors and mentors. I know I can ask the professor who taught my marketing class for advice as I’m working on BOSSY. BOSSY is a really big part of my Northwestern experience now, and looking back on the years that I didn’t have it, it feels like something was missing. I can’t believe I’ve only been working out of The Garage since the Spring.

Isabel Benatar and Sam Letscher

What’s your focus this year?

I’m just taking everything as it comes for BOSSY. We’re going to keep working in it and hope to get it into a place where it’s something we can continue, but we’re also going to keep an open mind and understand realistically that we want some security after graduation. Neither of us are going to let this disappear, but we don’t want to force it to continue if it seems like something that might be better as a side project.

 

 

 


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

Alumni Spotlight: Stevie Wiegel, McCormick, ’17

Stevie is a biomedical engineer and rock climbing instructor. Her master’s degree training in biophotonics as well as her professional outdoor background were applied to design the FIRE&LIGHT Multi-Tool. Stevie is an alum of Northwestern University, and graduated from McCormick with her Master’s of Science in Biotechnology in 2017. She is also an alum of The Garage, and founder of Xolo Outdoor, currently based out of Chicago at mHUB. 


A common misconception about outdoor recreation is that people go outside as an escape from technology or as a reprieve back to simpler times. Even those who spend time outside themselves might believe that misconception. But if that were really true, then why do 80% of people who go camping use their smartphone, tablet, or laptop on camping trips? People who spend time outside embrace technology: In their phones, solar panels, bike computers, and in their $600 tech-wear jackets. If anything, they’re lead users of technology, not luddites.

Xolo Outdoor founder, Stevie Wiegel, testing a company prototype in the Redwoods.

Nature and Technology are not opposites. This is the secret Xolo Outdoor was built on. The company’s mission is to inspire the next generation of explorers by providing future-forward outdoor products, vision, and resources at the nexus of technology and nature.  Xolo Outdoor Founder, Stevie Wiegel, is an Alumni of The Garage who received her MS in Biotechnology from Northwestern in 2017.  Stevie, along with two co-founders, are building Xolo Outdoor’s brand and working to bring the company’s first two products to market in 2018.

Xolo Outdoor’s first product: The Photon-Multi-tool

Xolo Outdoor’s first patent pending product is The Photon Multi-tool. It might be called a multi-tool, but it’s nothing like your standard Leatherman. The Photon’s purpose is all about light manipulation, so you won’t find a pair of plyers in this tool. The Photon Multi-tool has four main functions: 1. Ultra-lightweight Lantern  2. Emergency Firestarter  3. Pocket/ Signal Mirror  4. Magnifying Glass. The tool compacts down to the size of iPhone and weights only 43 grams. It solves the problem of needing to bring a big, heavy lantern out camping while providing other useful functions for users.

Xolo Outdoor’s first two products are getting sent to test-users and influencers.

Xolo Outdoor completed pilot manufacturing of 40 units of The Photon Multi-tool at mHUB and are in the process of shipping them out. These 40 prototypes are being used to test the design, and to help build an online following. Every participant, including Instagram influences, a Nat Geo photographer, and a member of the Explorers Club have agreed to post about the product on their social media pages. This pilot run is the final step before releasing the product for E-commerce in this year.

Space Camp Cord (shown coiled here) can be strung around a campsite for functional or decorative lighting.

Xolo Outdoor’s second product in the pipeline is their Space Camp Cord. These futuristic string lights can be hung outside a tent to mark your campsite, hung inside a tent for ambient light, or used to decorate a campsite in place of traditional string lighting. When it’s not being used on camping trips, Xolo’s focus groups have expressed interest in using it to decorate their plants inside their home.  Space Camp Cord will also be available for sale on their website in 2018.

The Photon Multi-tool (Center) and Space Camp Cord (Background) pictured here.

Xolo Outdoor plans to expand beyond camp lighting and into other products like, tents, and apparel to become an outdoor lifestyle brand.  Eventually, they plan to make gear for the next era of exploration (Hint: It’s not on earth).  But that goal is a long way off for this seed-stage company.  Xolo Outdoor will be raising money in spring/ summer 2018 to make these big plans a reality. Check out the Xolo Zine on their website or follow them Instagram to stay updated.

Family Dinner: Robert Chesney of Trunk Club

On February 7, 2018, The Garage was excited to welcome Robert Chesney to our weekly Family Dinner. Robert is a former VP at eBay and former COO of Trunk Club. We were lucky enough to get some insight into the early part of his career, and what lead him to Trunk Club and beyond, and most importantly, what he wishes he’d known then.

Robert Chesney’s early career lead him to finance, in a time when corporate emails didn’t even exist. He soon joined a trading desk, but it didn’t take long before he had an epiphany that someday, technology would replace the job functions he had. So he decided to go back to school at Northwestern, where he obtained his MBA.

According to Robert, in the late 1990’s, internet based business models were just emerging and getting off the ground. At the time, eBay was a relatively new company, functioning in the consumer-to-consumer (C2C) marketplace. Robert was recruited to oversee the expansion of eBay to the automotive industry. At the time, it seemed like a crazy idea. Most people didn’t trust buying things on the internet, let alone vehicles or parts. However, with Robert’s guidance, eBay motors grew from zero to a 5 billion+ dollar category.

After being with eBay for about eight years, Robert missed being close to consumer problems and understanding customer needs. He then joined a venture capital form called Greylock Partners in the Bay Area, with the goal of being back in an operations role.

With excitement to guide and be a part of a new, early stage company, Robert joined Trunk Club, a personalized clothing service based in Chicago. Understanding the push and pull between the convenience of shopping online and software based products and the personal experience associated with brick and mortar retail, Robert joined Trunk Club as COO.

Trunk Club was sold to Nordstrom for more than $350 million. After sticking with Trunk Club for about two years after the sale, Robert took some time off before jumping right back into the startup industry by joining Chicago Ventures as a venture partner.

Robert shared the things he wish he’d known early in his career with our Resident students. Check out his clip below to hear what his best advice was.

Why You Need to Master the Art of Storytelling

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

Stories.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Teaching Music Business: An International View

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

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

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

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

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


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

Founder Spotlight: Sarah Ahmad, McCormick + Weinberg ’18

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

Major: Entrepreneurial Design and Chemical Technologies + Economics

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

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

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

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

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

How did you become interested in entrepreneurship?

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

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

Sarah Ahmad pitching HotPlate at The Showdown in Fall 2017

What’s it like being a student founder?

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

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

What’s your focus this year?

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


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