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Entrepreneur alums say New Curriculum fosters creativity

Entrepreneurs and cupcakes came together in downtown Providence last night at a panel discussion with Brown alums involved in the Rhode Island business world. The panel — hosted by the Brown Alumni Association, the Brown Club of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship — focused on the activities of alums who have successfully started companies in the state.

Among the panelists were four Brown alums who founded businesses in Rhode Island. The event showcased both the challenges and the advantages of starting local organizations.

Brendan McNally, director of the Rhode Island Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, moderated the discussion. He began the debate by asking the panelists to sell themselves and their product to the audience — a classic "elevator pitch."

Julie Sygiel '09, CEO and founder of Sexy Period, sees her fashionable "time of the month underwear" as a solution to everyday problems, she said. Since 50 percent of the population menstruates, why not provide that market with comfortable and stylish underwear, she asked.

Max Winograd '09, president of NuLabel Technologies, came up with the idea for labels without backings while studying political science at the University. Winograd met his co-founders — who concentrated in a variety of subjects — in a capstone seminar during his senior year. Entrepreneurship is about "seeing opportunities out there and exploiting them," he said.

Though none of the panelists studied commerce, organizations and entrepreneurship — a concentration often deemed most logical for budding entrepreneurs — each of them said they saw their the New Curriculum as essential to their career paths.

The chance "to learn to do your own thing in an unstructured environment" at Brown was instrumental in developing the skills to create a business, said Charlie Kroll '01, founder and CEO of Andera, a company that helps banks allow customers to sign up online for financial services. When students are offered the opportunity to decide their own curriculum, they learn how to choose courses more strategically, he said.

Deborah Schimberg '80 P'05 P'12, who concentrated in comparative literature, called the opportunity to go to Brown for four years an entrepreneurial activity in and of itself. Both the New Curriculum and entrepreneurship demand problem-solving skills, which makes Brown students particularly prepared for the task of building their own businesses, she said. Schimberg is the CEO of Verve, Inc., a company that makes environmentally friendly gum that inhabits the growing natural product niche, she said.

McNally asked panelists to describe the biggest mistake thus far in their careers. Many cited the lack of guidance and encouragement from outside influences as a major problem during their initial business years, noting that entrepreneurs can often experience an "us against the world" complex.

The Rhode Island Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship aims to be a place where business owners can find such support, McNally said. The center wants to help businesses develop, provide a network of connections and give them opportunities to stay in Rhode Island, he said.

Barrett Hazeltine, professor emeritus of engineering and famed lecturer of ENGN 0090: "Management of Industrial and Nonprofit Organizations," attended the event. He compared the process of making a business work to conducting laboratory work in science-related fields.

After the panel concluded, attendees celebrated both the ideals of entrepreneurship and Hazeltine's birthday with cupcakes and candles — it took the professor two attempts to blow them all out.


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