UMass students launch their own businesses

Jake Bernstein speaks at a UMass Entrepreneurship Club meeting.

Jake Bernstein speaks at a UMass Entrepreneurship Club meeting.

AMHERST — Six words trail playfully across the top of University of Massachusetts Amherst sophomore Ashley Olafsen’s agenda: “Dream it, plan it, do it.” A few years ago, Olafsen dreamed of launching her own business giving inspirational workshops to teenage girls. These words list the course of action that she has since taken to make her dream a reality.

Olafsen is not the typical college sophomore. Between pursuing a degree in empowerment through education, a major she created herself, she is a speaker, author and co-founder of MOVE — an empowerment program for young girls.

From body image to popularity, Olafsen covers a range of prominent issues during workshops at schools for girls in grades seven through 12.

“When you love something, you will make time for it,” Olafsen said.

This is what Olafsen loves — encouraging confidence and leadership in teenage girls.

Olafsen is one of the dozens of UMass students who have created their own businesses well before graduation day. Products created by UMass students include a speaker that can be carried like a suitcase, a bottle of liquid energy and a belt that lasts a lifetime. With help from the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship, the UMass Entrepreneurship Club and events such as ULaunch at UMass and the Innovation Challenge, students can kick-start their own businesses without ever leaving campus.

Last month, 40 such students participated in the ULaunch at UMass event to create seven new businesses in one weekend. Over the course of the weekend, each group received up to $100 in funding to make their ideas tangible. On Sunday, the groups presented a two-minute pitch to a panel of judges, competing for a first-place $500 prize.

Jake Bernstein, a senior at UMass, got his business idea the weekend before ULaunch. Inspired by long, wearisome nights of hitting the books, Bernstein and his team Unzer, formally known as team Ignite, created a drink to put the energy back in college students.

The team concocted a mixture of protein, caffeine and “nootropics” (cognitive enhancing supplements) that they say gives students a rush of energy without the crash associated with coffee or Red Bull. They made booster bottles (a liquid drink) and booster packs (a powder to mix with water). The team earned first place.

“This is the time when you have the most resources around you,” Bernstein said, explaining why launching a business when the risk is low in college is a good idea.

While Bernstein’s idea came shortly before ULaunch, team InCase worked on an idea that hatched roughly two years in advance. After observing his brother tear open and operate on an old suitcase, inserting a speaker, Aidan MacBain was inspired. At ULaunch, MacBain worked alongside other members of team InCase to construct a new prototype for a battery-powered speaker lodged inside a vintage suitcase.

The InCase poses with their speaker. From left: Toby Cashook, Aidan MacBain, Ian Birle and Pandeni Idhenga.
The InCase poses with their speaker. From left: Toby Cashook, Aidan MacBain, Ian Birle and Pandeni Idhenga.

Bringing rhythm and beats to the streets of Western Massachusetts, the team made a deal to start selling the product through consignment at Birdhouse Music in Northampton. Team InCase was the second runner-up at ULaunch and won $100.

For students who want to dive into a business venture but missed the ULaunch event, Entrepreneurship Club meets every Monday from 7 – 9 p.m. Sophomore Aleric Heck, president of the club, emphasizes the importance of seeking out entrepreneurial opportunities and networking on campus. At Entrepreneurship Club, he said, “It’s something bigger than individual success; it’s the combined success of all the people that go through the program.”

Heck started his own business, AppFind, reviewing apps when he was 12-years-old. Now, he has over 200,000 subscribers on YouTube.

“Just get started on it,” Heck stated. “This is the perfect time to experiment.”

In addition, students can turn to the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship. The Berthiaume center will host its annual Innovation Challenge, which consists of a series of competitions: a Minute Pitch to present ideas in October, a Seed Pitch in November, a Semi-Final Round in March and a Shark Tank competition in April, where students compete for up to $65,000.

Bill Wooldridge, managing director for the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship, encourages students to pursue such entrepreneurship endeavors.

“So many of this generation’s students have been brought up with a fear of failure,” Wooldridge said. “It forces out creativity.”

“One of the best things an entrepreneurship student can do in college is experiment and learn from failure,” Wooldridge said.

“Out of the ashes rises the phoenix,” Wooldridge said.

Luke Sheehan, a freshman entrepreneur, admitted he is terrified of failure. But fear has not hindered him from developing the Once-and-for-All Belt.

Luke Sheehan pitches his idea for an all-purpose belt to a panel of judges at ULaunch.
Luke Sheehan pitches his idea for an all-purpose belt to a panel of judges at ULaunch.

Sheehan grew up in a house stocked with dozens of sewing machines. In eighth grade, he began collaborating with his father to create a belt with adjustable size — a belt that lasts a lifetime. An interchangeable buckle allows for various styles and newer versions include a bottle opener in the buckle. He has tinkered away for the past six years, making subtle tweaks to the everlasting belt.

“To see something that’s purely a concept in your head, and now I get to put it around my waist every day, that’s crazy,” Sheehan said. 

Sheehan said he wants to “be a standing example that, ‘you can make this happen.’”

“Just try it,” Sheehan said. “There’s no harm in trying.”

James Theroux, a professor in entrepreneurship management, called it “pulling the trigger.” You have to act when the time is right to move forward on a business idea.

“It’s easy,” Theroux said. “You only go for it when you feel that you have no choice.”

By having no choice, Sheehan said, “the opportunity is so attractive, so clear and smart and you have confidence in your ability to execute your plan.”

That’s how Olafsen felt at 15-years-old when she dreamed of launching a program for young girls. When she shares sentimental moments with the girls, she feels the worth of her work. At a MOVE workshop in Foxborough, for example, an eighth-grade girl stood in front of a gathering of peers to apologize for every time she’s been mean. 

“You can’t let the girls down,” Olafson said. “There’s absolutely no way that I couldn’t be doing this. This is my purpose.”

In the future, she hopes for MOVE to be as well-known as Girl Scouts.

“There’s nothing more exciting than creating a new business,” Theroux said. “It’s risky, it’s scary. But when it works, it’s the best.”

When it comes to starting a business, Olafsen said, “a starting point is more important than perfection.”

Each of the student entrepreneurs echoed the same advice: get to work.

Put on an adjustable belt, throw an energy drink down the hatch and just get going.

Email Nicole at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @Nicole_DeFeudis.

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