(This story appeared in the 2013 Com­mence­ment issue of the Voice.)

Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun likes to think of North­eastern as a startup that began in 1898, one that’s con­stantly evolving. So it’s no wonder the uni­ver­sity ded­i­cates abun­dant resources to con­tin­u­ally expand its entre­pre­neurial ecosystem for stu­dents. This system includes co-​​ops and aca­d­emic pro­grams, as well as student-​​led efforts like the ven­ture accel­er­ator IDEA and North­eastern Entre­pre­neurs Club, which work in unison to pro­vide crit­ical resources, sup­port, and mentoring.

Here are five grad­u­ating seniors whose entre­pre­neurial tracks exem­plify the wide range of oppor­tu­ni­ties on campus and around the world.

 

An entre­pre­neurial ecosystem

Veronica Li

Veronica Li didn’t orig­i­nally plan to attend a meeting of the North­eastern Entre­pre­neurs Club. But a Tuesday evening stop in a Dodge Hall class­room to retrieve her daily planner led to a sur­prise intro­duc­tion to the dynamic stu­dent group. Though she wasn’t entirely inter­ested in entre­pre­neur­ship at the time, Li stayed for that first meeting—and kept coming back. Three years later, she became acting pres­i­dent of the E-​​Club.

I really liked the envi­ron­ment and the enthu­siasm; that’s what got me excited and involved,” Li said. Over her years with the club, she’s helped form star­tups through the group’s Husky Startup Chal­lenge and is grad­u­ating with a back­ground chock­full of entre­pre­neurial experiences.

Li plans to move to Cal­i­fornia this summer and search for a job at a West
Coast startup. Thanks to North­eastern, she’s con­fi­dent that she is pre­pared for an entre­pre­neurial career.

These expe­ri­ences have shaped me tremen­dously,” Li said. “In my first year, I wasn’t sure about what I wanted to do. But North­eastern exposed me to this whole entre­pre­neurial ecosystem and that’s changed the way I look at the entire world.”

Social Enter­prise

Mike Behan

Njabini Inc., the social enter­prise Michael Behan co-​​founded, is named after the vil­lage in Kenya where the com­pany hired its first employees. By hiring local women to pro­duce fashion acces­sories that would be sold back in the United States, Behan’s busi­ness was able to pay wages that were, on average, eight times higher than what the employees were making before.

This allowed a whole wave of people to begin saving money and plan­ning for their future,” said Behan, a busi­ness stu­dent with a con­cen­tra­tion in entre­pre­neur­ship and finance, who has worked closely with Northeastern’s Social Enter­prise Insti­tute.

We’re now seeing women able to send their kids to col­lege and start their own businesses—something most of them would never have thought pos­sible.”
Since the company’s founding in 2010, Behan has returned twice to Kenya on co-​​op to see the company’s evo­lu­tion firsthand.

Up next for Njabini: new tech­nology and edu­ca­tional oppor­tu­ni­ties for more farmers. “Over the past three years, we’ve found more and more ways for our sus­tain­able, for-​​profit approach to improve the lives of people in Kenya,” Behan said.

The power of co-​​op

Shay McDonough

Shay McDo­nough, a senior infor­ma­tion sci­ence major, spent her first two co-​​op cycles at the phar­ma­ceu­tical giant Novartis working as a pro­grammer, ana­lyst, and project man­ager. She honed her skills and received valu­able real-​​world work expe­ri­ence at a large firm. For her third co-​​op, she went in a dif­ferent direction—working for a startup. It’s an expe­ri­ence that opened her eyes to an arena that has since become her passion.

The beauty of working at a startup is that, even as a co-​​op or an intern, there is so much to do that you have no other choice but to get involved in every­thing,” McDo­nough said. Her co-​​op posi­tion was at Boston-​​based EverTrue, which builds mobile net­working plat­forms and was the result of a new col­lab­o­ra­tion between North­eastern and the startup accel­er­ator Mass­Chal­lenge. The part­ner­ship is aimed at pairing stu­dents with star­tups for their co-​​op posi­tions. McDo­nough thrived in her role—even staying on part-​​time after her co-op—and is seeking that kind of envi­ron­ment after graduation.

I was asked to do so many things at EverTrue,” she said. “I know I have a lot to give.”

Big IDEA

IDEA lab

Like many of his fellow seniors, Chris Wolfel will grad­uate from North­eastern with a job already lined up. How­ever, he’s actu­ally had what amounts to a full­time job on campus while serving as CEO of IDEA, the university’s student-​​run ven­ture accelerator.

When Wolfel first joined the new orga­ni­za­tion three years ago as its events man­ager, IDEA was giving out about $20,000 in grants to star­tups a year. This year alone, IDEA will have awarded 10 times as much—$200,000—to stu­dent, alumni, and fac­ulty ven­tures. Wolfel con­siders his entre­pre­neur­ship expe­ri­ence
the most valu­able award of all.

I’ve learned more about myself and man­aging people than I ever thought would be pos­sible while in col­lege,” Wolfel said. “I’ve over­seen a rapidly growing pro­gram, man­aged a team of peers, and been involved in every piece of run­ning an actual com­pany. I don’t know what my North­eastern expe­ri­ence would have been like without IDEA.”

Always be prepared

Johann Barlach

Johann Barlach’s first busi­ness ven­ture, an e-​​reading plat­form he started with a child­hood friend from home in Ham­burg, Ger­many, didn’t take off.

The idea was too big and we had lim­ited resources,” Bar­lach, a senior busi­ness admin­is­tra­tion major. “We weren’t focused enough on one thing.”

So Bar­lach put that project aside, but his entre­pre­neurial juices began brewing again when he began working on co-​​op at a finan­cial con­sulting firm. His work involved testing busi­ness con­ti­nuity sys­tems, the plans com­pa­nies put in place for dis­aster pre­pared­ness. That could mean any­thing from dealing with a major power outage to a sudden sig­nif­i­cant turnover in staff. From this expe­ri­ence, Bar­lach found a niche he wanted to target on his own.

There was a lot of demand in that space for new solu­tions,” said Bar­lach, who after his co-​​op cycle ended paired up with a com­puter sci­ence class­mate, Casey Flynn, to create Themis, a new con­ti­nuity testing system named for a Greek god­dess of “divine pro­tec­tion.” They worked with IDEA, the university’s student-​​run ven­ture accel­er­ator and formed their own com­pany, Cobar Systems.

That work expe­ri­ence helped me to find needs that required new ideas, and that expo­sure to dif­ferent indus­tries and dis­ci­plines gave me the tools I needed to build some­thing like this,” Bar­lach said.