Future entrepreneurs are learning how to research and pitch their ideas, with professional mentorship, at Whittier College.
Business administration professor Dan Duran co-teaches the Start Your Own Business course with Shaina Denny ’14, an alumna experienced in startups. By the end of this past summer’s course, the class had developed engaging ideas ranging from a travel photography app that leverages the gig economy to a more effective way to package and market dental products to Millennials and Generation Z.
Aspiring entrepreneur Amber Castillo ’20 says she’s excited about her future prospects. Each week, she refined her skills and gained experiences that will help her start her own business someday, from learning how to size up a business idea’s potential to collaborating with a cofounder. “I learned a lot more tools and resources that I can use in the future.”
She and her fellow classmates’ proposals reflected the realities and possibilities of modern-day startups—the result of Duran tapping into the knowledge and experience of entrepreneurs he once knew as students to shape the course. One key piece of advice they gave Duran: pair students as cofounders of their companies. No one launches startups in a vacuum.
Castillo partnered with Jehan Godrej ’19, an environmental science major. They saw a problem in the clothing industry: companies that ship the vast majority of their products on boats from Asia are creating a large carbon footprint. So together, they combined their expertise and devised an innovative solution: a sustainable clothing website that ensures shirts, pants, and other items are purchased locally, reducing the environmental impact.
The teams’ collaboration, on the other hand, did span continents, thanks to the online nature of the course. The class teleconferenced on a weekly basis with Duran, whether they were in Los Angeles, New York, the San Francisco Bay area, or in Thailand for an internship.
Besides their weekly session with the professor, the students scheduled time once a week with Denny for even more personalized mentoring and feedback on their projects. The alumna brings a wealth of recent experience: after Whittier, she earned her Master’s of International Business in China, where she got involved in startups. That entrepreneurship continues now that Denny’s returned to Los Angeles, where she’s cofounded a venture capital-backed business—Dogdrop, dog daycare for the modern pet parent.
“She kept us very grounded,” Castillo said. “She was always honest with us, but never discouraging.”
Over the summer, Denny saw the students grow as entrepreneurs as they researched their marketplaces, their competition, the advantages their idea offers, and how to pitch it to both a target audience and potential investors. In the process, the students not only learn from their mentors, but from each other, as well.
“I think that was really valuable,” Godrej said.
That benefit is by design. Take Castillo and Godrej, who brought unique perspectives to the table on business and the environment, respectively. Duran and Denny wanted students to team up with someone who balances their strengths and fills any gaps—say, a number-crunching finance expert brainstorming with a creatively inclined marketing strategist. In the process of building a business plan together, they benefit from the other’s experience.
“That’s something we really try to do in this,” Denny said. “I think that’s the most unique part: both the cofounders growing together.”
Pairing students as cofounders was one of many ways alumni helped shape Duran’s course. When the professor was researching how to update the course’s relevancy for today’s startup world, he contacted entrepreneurs around the country who were once his students.
“It is so satisfying to see these young people leave the academic nest with new wings and have their wings spread and catch the winds,” Duran said. “What I love is that they’re happy to come back and help. That’s so amazing.”
The recent alumni also advised Duran to add a Shark Tank-like presentation from each team at the end of the course. Researching a good idea is one thing, but selling it is important, too. So by the end of summer, students pitched a panel of judges and their professors on their proposals, within the time constraint of just a few minutes.
Godrej and Castillo’s environmental passion was clear. In fact, such a concept had been brewing in Godrej’s mind since taking a course with biology professor Cheryl Swift in his junior year.
“This is something that could be useful and I was thinking maybe we could use this course as a way to build that idea and maybe have a solid foundation for doing something with it in the future,” Godrej said. “I would be very passionate about tackling this issue.”
While keeping the idea in mind as a future prospect—Godrej is also getting ready to launch a separate startup he’s been nurturing in the San Francisco Bay area. Later this year, he hopes to kickoff a social media platform specifically designed to support collegiate student athletes. He and his cofounder are looking for a third partner, one who will balance their team and ensure the startup’s potential for success. Duran and Denny would be proud.