Student entrepreneurs speak about their startup journeys at NEST

    Entrepreneurship may seem like a buzzword that exists only in Silicon Valley, but the its spirit is very much present on Northwestern campus as well. “Ignite Chicago with Diversity and Inclusion,” the annual summit held by Northwestern Entrepreneurship Summit, brought various speakers on Saturday to celebrate the startup scene on campus.

    “Entrepreneurialism has really been a large part of this school’s history; it has kind of always been in its DNA,” said Melissa Kaufman, the executive director of The Garage. She said about 1500 startups came out of Northwestern, including Crate and Barrel and ZICO Coconut Water.

    “Ideas are really, really cheap and dime a dozen – lots of people have great ideas," she added. "The really, really hard part is the execution and adoption part.” The purpose of the Garage is to help students with the latter.

    Two student entrepreneurs, both residents of The Garage, spoke about their experiences founding startups.

    “It was an incredible experience,” said Sarah Ahmad, aMcCormick senior who founded HotPlate, an app that strives to ensure that people have great dining experiences. She described her challenges in trying to launch her app on App Store and testing it out at Big Bite Night in Evanston.

    “If you’re not embarrassed by your first product, you’ve launched too late,” Ahmad said, quoting Reid Hoffman. “You want to do something like, it’s a work in progress, but I need to get that feedback.”

    “Probably the most important thing I learned at Northwestern and The Garage was it’s not just about the idea,” said Vishaal Mali, a McCormick sophomore who co-founded PedalCell. He attested to how The Garage helped him elevate his love for tinkering to building a product that adds value to users.

    “I just wasn’t afraid to fail because I’ve seen so many people fail, and it was a thing that was actually rewarded,” Mali said, a valuable lesson he learned from The Garage. He said he learned about the space before entering Northwestern and was a decisive factor as to matriculating here.

    NEST also invited various non-student speakers, ranging from startup founders to a venture capitalist and incubator director. Sima Sistani, the co-founder and COO of Houseparty, talked about what makes her product different from other group-call applications.

    “Our little shift is something we call ‘presence,’” Sistani said, referring to a feature that notifies the user when his or her friends are available to call. The notification overcomes the “emotional hurdles to communicating in real-life” and “put a face to it.”

    “What it’s doing is changing the social behavior of calling,” she added.

    According to Sistani, the app has been largely successful, as it garnered more than 20 million users. Its key performance metric, “happiness,” is doing well.

    Despite the rainy weather and busy Saturday schedules, many Northwestern students came out to the McCormick Foundation Center and engaged with the speakers.

    “We want to symbolize the innovative energy on campus,” said Ali Aamir Qureshi, the co-founder of NEST. "We want to be the platform that matches budding entrepreneurs with mentors."


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