On Sunday, May 4, the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship will welcome four alumni and one group of current students to present at the Spring Alumni Startup Showcase. The event will be held in the Olson Commons in the Career Center.
“Our hope is that events like this will give students an inside look at startup culture and illuminate some pros and cons of working in a small, entrepreneurial setting,” Director of the Patricelli Center Makaela Kingsley ’98 wrote in an email to The Argus. “We also aim to connect students directly with alumni and cultivate a community of innovative Wesleyan people across generations.”
Sunday’s participants are Art Feltman ’80, Founder of International Hartford; Ysette Guevara ’98, Founder and CEO of Minds on Fire; Liza Conrad ’11, Fundraising and Operations Manager of Girls Who Code; Zach Valenti ’12, Founder and CEO of Project Uplift and Beastly Productions; and Kwaku Akoi ’14, Founder of JóòMah.
JóòMah, the sole group consisting of current students, was founded by Akoi last year. His team includes Sam Giagtzoglou ’16, Oladoyin Oladapo ’14, Olayinka Lawal ’15, Maxwell Dietz ’16, Geofery Yatich ’16, and Michael Yee ’14.
JóòMah, a web platform that connects job seekers in Sub-Saharan Africa to employment opportunities near them, has been in development since last June. Though it is a relatively recent startup, Akoi anticipates that it will have an enormous effect in Sub-Saharan Africa and potentially in other regions.
“We’re looking at a culture of employment that’s going to change,” Akoi said. “We’re hoping to tackle the problem of accessibility to jobs. If someone could sit on a bus, looking for job opportunities on their phone, receiving notifications from employers who might be looking for them, it’s democratizing the process. We are leveling the playing field for all job seekers so that it will no more be the ones from big-name schools or with powerful relatives who will have access to the best job opportunities out there.”
Moreover, Akoi pointed out, connecting job seekers to employers and vice versa will have a widespread impact on the economy.
“Giving someone a better job opportunity gives them more income mobility,” he said. “Giving them access to better income would transfer into better revenues for the African governments in terms of taxes. People could save more, too, and afford better education and better healthcare. I want to see JóòMah become a new and more effective way of combating poverty, which is endemic in many African countries.”
Valenti, Founder and CEO of Project Uplift and Beastly Productions, is also hoping to bring about a culture shift, this one focused around mental health.
“I think about [Project Uplift] as a mental health awareness campaign, and primarily what we do is bring a massive biofeedback-powered tower that we built,” Valenti said. “We guide people in a mindfulness exercise that cultivates the breath. Within a few minutes, users trigger the fan at the base to turn on, and that lifts up the planet earth beach ball. By uplifting yourself, you physically lift up the world.”
Though Project Uplift is just one of Valenti’s enterprises, he has big dreams for the still-growing event service.
“From the beginning, my vision was to do a national tour in a rock ‘n’ roll tour bus with a swath of professionals in different fields, from behavior therapy to yoga,” Valenti said. “The intention is to lessen the stigma and raise awareness about existing resources on college campuses. I kept hearing how much they’re spending and the amazing array of resources that are available, but the engagement isn’t correlating.”
Akoi stressed that the journey to entrepreneurship is a personal one: he realized the need for a company like JóòMah when he went back to his native Ghana after his sophomore year and witnessed firsthand the difficulty that talented job seekers faced in finding employment. Instead of dispensing advice, he sees encouraging younger entrepreneurs as his most important duty to those beginning to consider a startup.
“More than great advice or insight, the big thing is for them to be encouraged, inspired,” he said. “It’s not easy. It requires a lot of perseverance, focus, and drive to keep going in spite of setbacks. Feeling discouraged kills a person’s drive and passion very quickly.”
Valenti agreed that supporting young entrepreneurs at this weekend’s showcase is crucial.
“I am really looking forward to giving hope that it’s totally possible,” he said. “Connecting with students who have big dreams and giving them access to how to execute things while staying as sane as possible is important. Burnout in the startup world is really high, because people throw themselves full force into ventures with no guarantee of success.”
Civic Engagement Fellow Jelisa Adair ’13 explained that the Patricelli Center tries to strike a delicate balance between bringing alumni back to campus and launching students’ projects out into the world.
“It has to be both, and so far it has been both,” she said. “One thing you’ll realize once you leave Wes is that you’re inducted into a realm of alumni. Not many people get a job from just applying. It’s who you know. Getting alumni back not only allows them to connect with students who are here, but also gives them something to latch onto, new experiences to connect to.”
Adair also sees potential for the showcase’s presenters to act as mentors for students.
“If you go to your friends, they’ll tell you the same things over and over,” she said. “You need people who can think critically and help the project grow. [The presenters] come back because they know there’ll be student interaction. Mentorship is easier to give than financial support or a job. I definitely saw that happen at our last showcase, and I hope to see it happen again.”
Kingsley pointed out that student entrepreneurs stand to gain a lot by connecting with their older, more experienced, counterparts.
“Student entrepreneurs face the same challenges as all entrepreneurs: proving that their idea fills an existing need in an innovative way, finding key allies and collaborators, compiling resources, and remaining nimble while staying true to the mission—to name just a few,” she wrote. “Students have the added challenge of juggling their entrepreneurial work with their academic pursuits—which is no easy feat. This event is just one of many ways that students with an interest in or curiosity about entrepreneurship can find support to weather these challenges.”