As Entrepreneurs-in-Residence Rotate, MIT’s Talent Tree Grows

At MIT, entrepreneurship programs run wide and deep – but across the board, student entrepreneurs know they can count on the university’s Entrepreneurs-in-Residence (EIRs) for their wisdom, experience, and advice.

We caught up with some former EIRs who have represented the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. They have been part of a rotational program spearheaded by Bill Aulet, the Center’s Managing Director. The concept of rotating experienced entrepreneurs through the Trust Center has been extremely successful – it gives students a sounding board for their questions and benefits the EIRs as well, enabling them to recharge and rejuvenate before their next venture.

Aulet likes to call the network of EIRs part of MIT’s Entrepreneurial Talent Tree. Many of these individuals have roots at MIT – they went into the world to become entrepreneurs, then touched back down at MIT as EIRs prior to moving on to do big things as entrepreneurs again, or in the entrepreneurial education community. Through this talent tree, the lessons and skills of MIT’s entrepreneurship program are widely shared, and a strong network is formed.

Elaine Chen, a former EIR who has recently been appointed as the Director of the  Tufts Entrepreneurship Center (TEC) and the Cummings Family Professor of the Practice in Entrepreneurship, sums up the MIT EIR experience as an opportunity to give back to the entrepreneurial community by helping them learn. “We draw on our own experiences to help students acquire an entrepreneurial mindset and skillset, which will help them succeed wherever they go in their careers.”

“We try to give entrepreneurs a safe, unbiased set of feedback,” comments Dip Patel, now CTO of Soluna. “In the entrepreneurship game, it’s very hard to get unbiased feedback. And it’s doubly hard to get unbiased feedback from people who have been operators or founders.”

“It’s better to give than to receive,” adds Will Sanchez, now at Gradient, his fourth startup. “But as MIT EIRs, we certainly receive a lot from the students as well. And we are doing this in a serving way.”

Donna Levin adds, “The EIR role enabled me to help provide students with actionable skills, proven frameworks, and a sense of urgency – what we called moving at founder speed.” Levin has moved on to head up Babson’s entrepreneurship program.

Nick Meyer, now a co-founder of Relativity6, remarks on the bond between the EIR group at the Trust Center. “Everyone’s always trying to help each other out and make introductions, and we still talk all the time.”

Introducing MIT EIRs: What they’re doing Now

As a brief introduction, here’s a quick snapshot of the former EIRs interviewed for this article and what they are doing now. Each EIR explains what they felt they were able to share with the student entrepreneurs, and what they received in return.

Elaine Chen continues to expand entrepreneurial education in the Boston area as the Director of the Tufts Entrepreneurship Center and the Cummings Family Professor of the Practice in Entrepreneurship, following her nine years at MIT as an EIR and Senior Lecturer. Chen will work with students in all majors – including liberal arts, medical, dental, etc. Building on her MIT experience, this was a fantastic career opportunity and Chen looks forward to the year ahead.

Another former MIT EIR, Donna Levin, heads up Babson’s Arthur M. Blank School for Entrepreneurial Leadership as CEO. While Chen and Levin are cultivating entrepreneurship in educational leadership roles, other EIRs have gone on to start their next venture.

Nick Meyer is now a co-founder and Chief Product Officer of Relativity6, a company that uses AI to increase customer retention and lifetime value, currently focusing on the insurance broker industry. Key to Relativity6’s success is how to be predictive, without using personal information. The company looks at patterns developing over the course of people’s lives.

Will Sanchez is now The VP of Business and Customer Development and a founding advisor at Gradient, a cybersecurity company that is working to reimagine digital trust from the very beginning. The 14-person, Boston-based startup is still very much in the jungle stage – no paved roads – and he’s learning tons of new things to satisfy his infinite curiosity.

Dip Patel, is now the CTO at Soluna, a company launched in 2018 that is building a new type of data center that combines with renewable power plants – grid operators can plug into and turn on and off whenever they want. The company’s mission is to make renewable energy the primary power source, using computing as a catalyst.

Giving to, and Gaining from, MIT’s Student Entrepreneurs

It’s evident that this is a smart and talented group. We are fortunate each of them shared their time and talents with the student entrepreneurs at MIT. Here’s how they felt they gave back to the entrepreneurship community, and what they gained in return.

Elaine Chen comments she was known as a “hardware person” at the Trust Center and was able to leverage her background at Rethink Robotics, Zeemote, SensAble Technologies, and other hardware-related startups, to help guide students with startups in that sector. She feels that she was able to share her experience having seen a lot of different scenarios and give students a dose of reality.

Working with the students, she learned a lot about different businesses – from bitcoin to chip design – because they researched it and learned it together. She also worked with current EIR Paul Cheek as product manager for MIT Orbit, and helped build up the knowledge base with over 600 unique articles for entrepreneurs.

Donna Levin explains, “We were able to create a safe environment and meet students wherever they were on their entrepreneurial journey. From ideation, market selection, to product market fit – early stage entrepreneurs craved the ability to have a conversation about the problem they were trying to tackle today or this week.”

She was constantly inspired by the societal problems the students are tackling in the world and learning about new technology and scientific discoveries. Levin says serving as an EIR was one of the most rewarding experiences of her career.

Nick Meyer believes he helped students navigate the MIT culture and break out of the mental blocks that can come from overthinking things. Many students at MIT have such confidence in their ability to build things, and build things quickly, that they default to building instead of first figuring out what should be built. Meyer was able to aid students by sharing a lot of stories of what’s practical and what has worked at his startups.

In turn, he reports that telling his stories to the students helped him created a narrative of what happened in his career, as opposed to how the startup made him feel. “You can build up this narrative that’s not the healthiest because there aren’t that many levels of success in startups. There is kind of ‘billionaire or bust’ mentality, so, most of your time is spent dealing in failure and not reflecting on everything you’ve learned, what you’re good at, and being helpful. I’ve learned from the students how valuable all my startup experiences really were, and just who I am and what I’ve learned, and how to approach things.”

Will Sanchez sayson the first day of the delta v kickoff, he introduced himself to the cohort as, “I’m Will, New York City kid. I don’t know how I can help you, but I will ask you the tough questions – the more awkward, the better.” He reports that seemed to have resonated well not only with the delta v team but with the cohort and students in general.

What he learned from the students was that there’s so much he had to offer. “Going into it, I didn’t know what I could possibly offer these brilliant students and faculty, I just ran a small start-up that was somewhat successful. It was surprising to me how much I could add as a generalist.”

Dip Patel explains he was always extremely candid about his past and showing his vulnerability to the students – from sharing what it was like to fire his best friend to landing a million-dollar deal. “I think that what I brought as an EIR is candid vulnerability, plus realism as to what they are signing up for. And the energy, I think I brought energy.”

In terms of learning from the students, he comments, “It is extremely motivating that I get to meet students who share their dreams with me. The fact that I’m able to help them achieve their dreams, and they are grateful for that, motivates me as an entrepreneur.”

Keeping it Fresh

In other businesses, employee churn is generally seen as a negative. However, at MIT, the EIR position is designed to be part of a rotational model that keeps things fresh for both the students and the experienced entrepreneurs. EIRs find that the role of being an advisor to students lets them recharge their entrepreneurial batteries and unwind after the stress of starting a new company – and, the Trust Center gets the benefit of new and different experiences with each EIR.

Patel comments, “When you sell a company, even if you make millions of dollars, you’re losing a big piece of who you are. A lot of people say you shouldn’t connect your professional life with who you are, but it’s really hard for an entrepreneur to do that – damn near impossible. So, when that company ends, for whatever reason, it really takes a toll.” The beauty of the EIR role is that it lets entrepreneurs decompress and figure out what’s next. However, he continues, “After we started Soluna, I missed the Trust Center and wanted to get back involved, so now I’ve come back as a lecturer, co-teaching one entrepreneurship class each semester.”

Meyer says that when he was first approached for the EIR position, he was in the middle of a starting a new company, so he declined. “About three months later, I realized that I was in no mental space to be doing another start-up, because it was like my seventh or something, starting from when I was in high school,” comments Meyer. “I knew I did not have the grit or energy built up to last for another three, four, or five years working at another startup. I just needed a break.” After a short stint as a ski instructor in Switzerland, he joined MIT as an EIR for about two years. Along with helping students, it let him reflect on the best way to move forward. “I’d say MIT encourages people to move on after spending some time as an EIR. Very few people camp out for a long time.”

Conclusion

“MIT is a special place. It’s a place where people truly believe the impossible can work,” explains Patel, and this belief resonates in the discussions with all of the EIRs. Chen adds, “Being an EIR in MIT’s strong entrepreneurial ecosystem was an amazing opportunity.”

Sanchez reflects, “As EIRs, we’re all sorts of shapes and sizes and colors, but we all want to add the human dynamic to entrepreneurship – the stuff you can’t just Google or read about in a class.” Patel continues, “The EIRs are truly there to help, but the entrepreneurs have to ask. And you have to get comfortable asking for help – that’s another piece of advice. It’s a sign of strength, not weakness, to ask for help.”

As this group of EIRs blazes new trails, they are each still inextricably tied to their EIR cohort and the student entrepreneurs they advised while at MIT’s Trust Center. This network runs deep, and the talent tree continues to grow.

How did we adapt MIT’s Venture Accelerator as a Virtual Experience?

2020 is a year we’ll remember for many things, but 2020 graduates will certainly remember how typically crowd-filled graduation ceremonies were transformed into unique and socially distanced celebration amid COVID-19 restrictions. At MIT’s delta v, we can relate. We are just starting our summer-long student venture accelerator program, and, our entire program – start-to-finish will be virtual this year.

What does that mean? Although our fantastic space at the Martin Trust Center – usually buzzing with activity – will be dark, we’ve created a virtual model to provide a unique experience and lots of new and different opportunities for our student-entrepreneurs. At the end of the summer, these students will kick-start their ventures and reach escape velocity with a final presentation of their startup companies at Demo Day. We anticipate seeing some of the best and brightest new startups ever to come out of MIT, because – as said by Benjamin Franklin – “Out of adversity comes opportunity.”

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Prepping to Go Virtual

The delta v program has become known as a “transformative experience that only MIT could provide,” and the entrepreneurs that go through this program are truly helping to make the world a better place (Check out this video for 2-minute synopsis.) Many MIT programs were cancelled this summer, but thanks to Managing Director Bill Aulet’s advocacy across MIT and with the Trust Center donors, this summer’s virtual delta v program has become a reality. 

Students joining this program, and the whole MIT community, have major expectations of delta v. So, we knew we would need to go beyond just transitioning to Zoom meetings and putting our content online. We looked at what worked for MIT’s remote learning classes in the spring, and also reached out to our entrepreneurial education colleagues at other universities to gain their insight.

We held brainstorming sessions and many, many meetings to figure out how we could make this year’s delta v experience engaging and interactive. We honestly looked at the challenges and worked hard to address issues like onboarding, the lack of personal connections, less-than-ideal work from home situations, and “Zoom fatigue.” We knew that engagement, high-touch experiences, and cohort learning would all be essential for making this a success, and we put in extra effort to ensure delta v would not lose its special touch.

The 2020 Cohort

Our 2020 cohort of delta v teams was the smallest we’ve had in six years – 11 teams in Cambridge and six in New York City. We purposely selected fewer teams to allow for more individualized attention from our Entrepreneurs-in-Residence (EIRs), who are spending dedicated online time mentoring each team. (This also means if you didn’t get selected this year, think about applying again for 2021!)

This infographic shows the makeup of our 2020 delta cohort. Each year, we work on trying to get a diverse and balanced group of entrepreneurs tackling problems in a variety of industries.

More Talent!

A big part of delta v is learning from the pros. One of the benefits of our virtual session this summer is the sheer number of experts we’ve been able to line up. In fact, in the month of June alone, the delta v teams will have opportunities to hear from 21 different speakers delivering workshops.

With a virtual program, we have the benefit of being able to approach experts who are located anywhere, rather than focusing only on local resources or those willing to travel to the MIT campus. This summer, our students are fortunate enough to learn from many outstanding experts, including the following people:

Ryan Choi, MIT Alum, now with Y Combinator for a discussion on finding product-market fit and will be back for a discussion on hiring

Eleanor Carey, who spent 62 days at sea, rowing from California to Hawaii, gave an inspiring talk relating to the realities of entrepreneurship

James Baum, technology leader, investor, and advisor, who shared his advice on managing boards and will be back for office hours

George Petrovas, serial entrepreneur, who shared his founder journey and is on a delta v mock board

Brad Feld, Managing Director at Foundry Group will talk about fundraising in a Covid-19 environment

John Belizaire, CEO of Soluna, will speak about leadership

Perry Cohen, Founder Executive Director of The Venture Out Project will speak about his journey

Plus, our amazing faculty including Kirk Arnold, Kit Hickey, Erin Scott, Jason Jay, Bill Aulet, Paul Cheek, and Dip Patel.

More Mindfulness

This year at delta v, we will build on our Entrepreneurial Confidence and Communication (ECC) program to teach tools for self-awareness and mindfulness with the goal of better mental health and “anti-fragility” for entrepreneurs. We recently wrote about this program for the Harvard Business Review, and it has been well-received by students and the community. We believe that if we teach new entrepreneurs how to work through the stresses of entrepreneurship more effectively, it will lead to better decision making and healthier choices for their life and their business.

An interesting dimension to this year’s delta v cohort is that they are particularly receptive to learning about meditation and mindfulness for stress reduction, according to Kathleen Stetson, our ECC coach and creator of the program. She believes this is a direct result of the proliferation of information in the news and on social media about mental health concerns during the pandemic.

Demo Day

This year, Demo Day may be where we see the biggest impact of going virtual. Traditionally, at the end of the summer, all of the delta v teams gather to formally present their startups to the MIT entrepreneurship community. Things will change this year, but we are making some amazing plans for Demo Day and a post-event networking experience.

We will also hold a Virtual Investor Day, which is new this summer.  This will focus specifically on the financial foundation of the startups and will allow the final Demo Day pitches to be a bit shorter. Students will benefit by having two completed pitches when they finish the program.

Conclusion

Conducting the delta v accelerator program virtually is a first for all of us – we are learning too. We strive to bring this year’s delta v cohort an incredible and rewarding experience, and we are open to feedback and suggestions.

The delta v student venture accelerator is the most inspiring environment I can think of for an entrepreneur. There’s an energy here that propels each of our teams forward. For 90 days, our student-entrepreneurs will eat, sleep, and breathe their startups. They will be guided through a process that makes them really think through the realities of starting an actual business, not just chasing a cool idea. Our fervent desire is that some of our student-entrepreneurs will create companies that will help to solve some of the big, global problems we are seeing in our world today – such as preventing the next pandemic or eradicating racism.

As the delta v leadership team, our opportunity this summer is to assist our students in their educational journeys as entrepreneurs and to guide them in making entrepreneurship a force for good.