Posted April 17, 2020
Since its founding in 2015, The Garage at Northwestern has prided itself on being a physical space, a resource, and a community for thousands of entrepreneurial students. In the face of an unprecedented global pandemic, only one word from the previous sentence has changed. Now, The Garage is a virtual space; the community and resources are more utilized and important than ever.
Days before Northwestern closed its campus and weeks before Illinois issued a shelter-in-place order, The Garage was already busy adapting its programming for our new reality. All the way back on March 10th, The Garage staff engaged in a thought exercise with simple instructions: “Imagine that Northwestern goes to online classes next quarter. How would this change our current projects? How would we modify our programming for that change?”
By the time students returned to virtual classes from their extended spring break on April 6th, The (Virtual) Garage was up and running, fully adapted for a work-(or study)-from-home world and prepared to support students and their startups. Now, as thousands of Northwestern students around the world are stuck at home away from their classmates and colleagues, The Garage community is as active as ever, even if people aren’t able to collaborate in The Garage’s physical space.
At the start of the spring academic quarter, The Garage’s Resident Teams were surveyed to ascertain how committed they were to their startups during such uncertain times and the results were clear: The vast majority of teams said that they were “full-steam ahead!” with their startups. Senior Matt Zients, a Social Policy major and the founder of Connect & Care commented in an open-ended survey question, “I have been blown away by the lengths to which the staff has gone to make sure everyone is still connected. The staff has been incredibly thoughtful about encouraging students to work on their projects at whatever pace and intensity makes sense given these uncertain times. In terms of the experience on my end, I have loved all of the programming they have offered and really appreciate how we are using tools like Slack to share ideas, projects, tips, tricks, and fun events. I’m not sure where I would be without the support of the staff at The Garage and the incredibly deep and generous community the staff has built and works tirelessly to maintain each day.”
Built to Adapt
In many ways, The Garage was ahead of the curve adapting to remote programming and community. Over 600 students were already members of “The Garage Students” Slack channel, where they collaborate on projects, ask favors of the community, and stay in touch with each other in a casual forum. With students scattered around the globe and deluged by emails and video conference calls, digital collaboration tools like Slack have kept them engaged and informed about upcoming initiatives and events in a convenient and unobtrusive manner.
One of the first adapted events hosted this quarter during the second day of classes was a Virtual Founder Talk with Chicago entrepreneur and Kellogg alumna Phyllis Lockett, the founder & CEO of Leap Innovations, an organization bringing innovation to education. More than 65 students attended the conversation via Zoom, asking prescient questions and getting first-hand career advice.
Other adapted and novel programming The Garage has planned this quarter includes Startup Matchmaking, where startups are assembling quick video pitches to recruit potential team-members from the broader Northwestern Community; Office Hours, where students have access to entrepreneurs and experts about topics such as product marketing, IP & legal issues, and accounting & tax questions; and Accountability Huddles, where a handful of team leaders meet on a weekly basis to share their progress, support each other, and hold each other accountable for goals they’ve set. All events are moderated by The Garage staff.
Established programs at The Garage have also continued uninterrupted. A new cohort of Little Joe Ventures fellows met via Zoom shortly after they were selected earlier this month. They’re scheduled to meet with program donor Tony Owen later this month and will hear a member of the first cohort talk about his latest entrepreneurial venture, a timely effort to produce millions of KN95 masks for hospitals. Propel, a program which promotes diversity in entrepreneurship, remains active, dispersing funding for projects led by women students and arranging intimate, virtual roundtables with speakers. Wildfire, The Garage’s summer pre-accelerator program will live on regardless of whether campus remains closed. Next week, multiple teams will pitch virtually for the opportunity to receive $10,000 and 10 weeks of intensive programming and support to focus on their ventures.
Strengthening Our Community
While these initiatives are in service to the entrepreneurial mission of The Garage, other programming is more social, understanding that community is crucial to students isolated at home. At noon central time every Tuesday and Thursday, a couple of Garage Residents join staff at “Lunch Buddies” for thirty minutes of catching up on everything from their ventures to their classes. Another initiative, Virtual Coffee Chats, is an attempt to replicate the serendipity of meeting someone new at The Garage by pairing students with similar interests for a quick, casual conversation.
By far the biggest program and adaptation is VentureCat, Northwestern’s annual startup competition, which has fully transitioned to a Zoom-hosted competition and will be awarding $300,000 to promising student-founded startups. Fifty-nine teams applied for the competition, which will live stream the final round of pitches and award announcements on May 20th. Despite knowing this would be a unique presentation environment, more student teams applied this year than last year.
Removing the physical barriers to attending events has presented new opportunities and spawned novel programming and ideas. A weekly Resident Show & Tell is an opportunity for one student to present to the community about a topic that interests them. Sophomores Austin Pager and Spencer Levitt talked about their experience hiring freelance software developers versus building their product, Qade, on their own; Kellogg candidate Spencer Glesmann presented about his experience trading equities, especially in volatile market conditions; and sophomore Drew Wandzilak presented on “How to Fund Your Startup” based on his experiences and conversations with Northwestern alumni who work in venture capital.
Current students around the world can now participate in programming from The Garage San Francisco, a satellite operation of The Garage focused on building a community of Northwestern alumni founders, operators, and investors who support each other and current students. Many tuned in to a recent “Virtual Lunch & Learn” with Northwestern alumnus and Vice President of Slack, Brian Elliott. At a time when many seniors are concerned about their career prospects, having greater access to and engagement with alumni can make all the difference. Interestingly, contributions from our extensive network of mentors have actually increased in recent weeks, as many have found extra time on their hands.
Mateo Price, a junior studying Economics and Psychology and the founder of Authentic Media Ascension at The Garage said he has appreciated the swift shift in programming and resources: “The Garage’s updated programming this spring remains fantastic and I continue to feel a part of an incredible community, even virtually. The Garage has practiced what it preaches to entrepreneurs like myself: pivot quickly when needed!”
Practice What You Teach
In a March 27th op-ed for Chicago Inno, Melissa Kaufman, executive director of The Garage set the tone for the program moving forward in uncertain times: “I welcome the challenge of leading our community of student entrepreneurs in an environment where they are not physically present. A world-class innovation center must practice what it preaches and be able to accommodate the changing needs and challenges of its community. We anticipate connecting students with mentors via Zoom, hosting speakers and talks on YouTube Live, and doubling down on our Slack channels to increase collaboration and sharing. It’s a brave new world, and no one is better prepared than the entrepreneurial leaders we are creating at The Garage.”
Over the past five years, The Garage has served thousands of Northwestern students and incubated more than 350 startups. The past month and a half has been a whirlwind of change and adaptation for everyone, but it has also provided ample opportunity for entrepreneurs and organizations to learn, iterate, and grow.
Through it all, The Garage remains what it has always been: a community of entrepreneurial students doing their best to adapt quickly, help each other out, and change the world. That may just be more important than ever before.