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.