The Garage Goes to Austin

We believe that in every student we meet through The Garage, there’s an “x-factor” differentiating them from the rest of the pack. To help understand this and to quantify it, we’re working closely with Jennifer Tackett in the Northwestern Department of Psychology who is helping us pilot the X-Factor Program. Eight incredible entrepreneurial students are participating in the program that explores leadership development. And what better way to kick off a new program than with a field trip? 

Last week, we hopped on a plane with the students to visit the growing tech hub of Austin, Texas. These days, tons of companies including Google and Apple are attracted to Austin for the lower cost of living and doing business, combined with a smaller population and bright culture. We were so excited to see the booming startup ecosystem ourselves. Our group of inaugural X-Factor participants includes students from the School of Communication, McCormick, Weinberg, SESP and other schools across campus. Their entrepreneurial projects range, too – some are working on nonprofit ventures while others are discovering better ways to keep our world healthy. 

On day one of our Austin adventure, we visited three very different startup offices and had the opportunity to tour their spaces, demo their products, and learn from their staff. Our first stop was Silvercar by Audi, headquartered in downtown Austin. We met with Kerry McGowne, Executive Vice President of Corporate Communications and Brand, and Kay Stroman, Chief Administrative Officer. Kerry and Kay shared the company’s belief that Silvercar is a people centric organization, both internally and externally.

Students taking a tour of Silvercar

We really enjoyed hearing about Silvercar’s origin story and how the company has evolved over time, releasing new products in the automotive and software services space as they’ve grown. According to Kerry and Kay, who both have extensive experience in startups, successful ventures must be ready to break the rules, challenge the status quo, and be comfortable with disruption. We appreciated hearing the challenges the company faces as well, including striving to provide the best possible customer experience and ensuring their communications build their brand and reach the right audiences to grow market awareness. We also loved that they welcomed us with some Wildcat artwork! 

Silvercar welcomed us with some Wildcat artwork!

Next up, we ventured outside of downtown to visit the Bumble headquarters, or as their staff calls it, the Hive. While we were so impressed by Silvercar’s sleek and cool offices, we were also excited to see a different environment and culture at Bumble – complete with bright yellow plush seating, gold chandeliers, and even a beauty room where employees are treated to blow outs, manicures, and more!

We were welcomed by the “hive keeper” who showed us around the bright space to meet all the hard working “bees!” We saw some familiar sights, like privacy phone booths and one of our favorite things: neon lights! Then, we were lucky enough to have an intimate chat with Special Projects Coordinator, Kyra Seay, and COO (and fellow Wildcat) Sarah Jones Simmer, ’08. One of our biggest takeaways from Bumble and their staff was the importance of “culture add” in an organization – which goes beyond the traditional “culture fit.” Sarah was open about the challenges of being the COO of a rapidly growing organization, but emphasized the importance of understanding your role and identifying the problems you want to solve. She shared a great insight between the relationship of “use,” how you can best contribute to the business, and “juice,” what gets you excited! In a perfect world, we are not only adding tons of value to our workplaces and the world, but we’re also excited about the work we do – a perfect blend of use and juice.  

Students with The Garage’s Executive Director Melissa Kaufman and Bumble COO Sarah Jones Simmer ’08

Then, we buzzed over to Blink Identity. Blink is an early stage startup, founded by serial entrepreneur Mary Haskett. Blink has developed a biometrics system that can identify 60 faces per minute at full walking speed, and we won’t be surprised when we see it implemented at concerts and large sporting events around the country. Although the company’s office space and staff are small, the students were excited because Blink felt like a “true startup,” prototyping in-house, using their own 3D printers and quickly iterating their designs. We loved hearing Blink’s story so far – from TechStars and finding product-market fit through hundreds of discovery interviews to developing cutting edge technology, there was never a dull moment. We even got the opportunity to demo the product ourselves! 

Blink Identity product demo (and hoodie pose!)

On day two, we took a short walk to meet up with X-Factor program donor, Tom Verghese, Kellogg ’04, CEO and Executive Chairman at VersaFlex, and three other Austin-based alumni working in tech and other industries for a panel and networking session. We loved seeing a familiar face, Don Meier, Kellogg ’19, a former Resident of The Garage and currently Deloitte Catalyst Industry 4.0 Domain Manager. We also met Jes Santos, McCormick ’09, Senior Project Manager at OJO Labs and Amad Ahmed, Medill ’18, Assistant Editor at Texas Monthly. Our X-Factor students, many of whom are wrapping up their Northwestern careers within the year and considering next steps, appreciated hearing practical advice from others who have been in their shoes. 

Austin alumni panel with X-Factor Program donor, Tom Verghese ’04

We learned that while many of us set out a plan for post-college years, it can hold us back. Being flexible but holding on to your defining values allows you to work in the direction you want while remaining open to new opportunities (like moving to Austin!) Our students learned it’s important to know yourself, and to feel okay with a bit of fear surrounding your future. It’s less about how afraid you might be, and more about how you overcome adversities and challenges. We were all reminded that while navigating a new job, a new city, or an entrepreneurial journey may feel lonely – but we’ll always have friends and mentors to guide us. 

Students visiting the Texas State Capitol Building

The students learned many valuable lessons in Austin that will help them navigate what comes next. Back on campus, they will meet weekly for the next six weeks as part of the X-Factor Program to continue to develop their skills as transformational leaders. Most importantly, they’ve discovered bonds and friendship with each other, with Northwestern alumni, and with tech leaders, and walked away with the confidence to build a path all on their own. 

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