Marissa Donapel is a first generation college graduate, born and raised in Northeast Philadelphia. She attended the Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush High School and enrolled upon graduation at Drexel University with the intention of studying film. Marissa had always loved film growing-up, and dreamed of becoming a film director. But, at the end of her freshman year, she realized that film wasn’t for her and she switched her major to graphic design. This decision proved right: Marissa is a prolific maker and being able to create a lot of visual art as a Design Major was a huge plus, and she felt an affinity with her new graphic design peers because of their shared passion for the visual arts.
Marissa began selling her work while still in college. She created a line of stickers featuring popular animated characters that she sold on RedBubble. Her brand continued to evolve and soon, she opened an Etsy shop. After learning how to screen print at Drexel, she expanded her product line to include hats, hoodies, graphic tees and more. She also sells printed reproductions of her illustrations, and, recently, she launched a successful line of handmade earrings and holographic stickers.
The COVID 19 pandemic has been both a blessing and a curse for Marissa. Social isolation has given her the gift of time which she has utilized to create more artwork; but, she has also had to deal with the mental hurdle of finding the motivation to create. These past six months have taught her not to push the process, but instead how to use COVID 19 as an inspiration rather than a hurdle. She completed a series of paintings inspired by her pandemic experience, which she is now selling as prints on her Etsy shop. These prints are incredibly relatable and they encapsulate a time in the history of the world that not one of us will easily forget. (Pictured below.)
Marissa’s illustrative style is graphic, current and edgy. She uses bright splashes of color and bold contrast to create exciting works that speak loudly of who she is as an artist. When you see an illustration by Marissa Donapel, you know it is by “Marissa Donapel.”
Marissa is a very recent college graduate – June ’20; she is currently looking for her first post-graduate job during a time of pandemic economic fragility. Of her fellow 2020 graduates, Marissa says, “We were really thrown into the fray and it’s been difficult finding our footing- but we are a strong group.” She affectionately refers to her class of graduates as “the guinea pig class.”
In addition to looking for a full-time position in the arts, Marissa hopes to participate in the numerous punk flea markets that are popping up in and around Philadelphia: virtual for now, though she looks forward to the in person markets that are sure to be back once the roller coaster ride that is COVID – 19 is over. In the meantime, she will continue to work hard to grow her online shop and possibly write a sequel to her first children’s book “Around the World with Remy and Fox”; regardless, she is excited to see where her journey in the arts takes her.
I asked Marissa, “What makes a person an entrepreneur? What makes you an entrepreneur?” Her response: “An entrepreneur is a creator: someone who has a drive to build-off of their passions and to take the leap towards that first step that turns a passion into a lifestyle. I don’t consider myself a business person. I’ve just always loved art and yearned to make art whenever I can, whether through film or just picking up a pencil. I am both a creator, and someone who has the drive to make change through what I love. I probably won’t be able to fix global warming or systemic problems on my own by drawing a pretty picture, but I can make someone’s day better with that picture, and that’s just as important to me.”
Allen Morris-Smith (aka Skvwalker, “Sky” for short) was born and raised in North Philadelphia. He fell in love with art when he was a young child, and attended the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts where he majored in Visual Art.
For college, he chose to remain in Philadelphia and enrolled at Drexel University where he began studying Computer Science. It was not long before he realized he wanted to embark on a more creative path. He switched his major to entertainment and arts management (with a focus on digital media management and graphic design) at Drexel’s Westphal College of Media Art and Design.
It was at this time, that Sky became interested in Cryptography; he began devising ciphers with his friend Daveik (aka “Isnotcynical”), mapping notes to letters in the composition of music, which led to a more serious pursuit of the craft of music-making and the creation of original, thought-provoking projects that combined music composition, film and animation.
In 2018, he formed an artist collective, VodHavok, and produced his first mix tape, System Overload. Working with the collective in the creation of System Overload showed Sky the trans-formative power of collaboration and its unlimited creative potential.
A three-month trip to Los Angeles followed, giving Sky an opportunity to meet and network with creatives outside the music industry. He worked with filmmakers and social influencers to produce a Pokemon YouTube short that inspired him to bring more visual aesthetics to his Skvwalker persona.
It was in L.A. that Sky met Jordan Francis, who become both a friend and collaborator. Together, they began developing ideas for short films and skits and uploaded their first video, Goku v Uub, to their YouTube channel, Epitome Pictures. Upon returning to Philadelphia, Sky solidified his partnership with Jordan and they created a series of short music videos called Freestyle Fridays for VodHavok. Since then, VodHavok has grown into a full production studio (VodHavok Studios LLC) that works with videographers, photographers, fashion designers and other creatives who share Sky’s passion and dedication to producing quality art, expressed through the media of music, fashion, graphic design and film making.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenge for Sky, as it has been for everyone in the music and entertainment industry. Social distancing has resulted in the cancellation of video shoots, performances and other large events. One positive outcome of the pandemic is the increased awareness of the challenges that early-stage entrepreneurs face. Large, more-established, companies are coming together to support start-ups like VodHavok. For his summer Co Op experience at Drexel, Sky is currently incubating his company at the Baiada Institutewhere he receives mentoring and support, access to professionals, networking opportunities, and funds to finance the growth of his business.
What does the future hold for Sky and VodHavok? Sky intends to continue his artistic journey as a Creative Director, Rapper, and Animator in the entertainment industry and in the field of music. On the horizon, is the roll-out of his LP, Broke Music and Broke Music in Surround Sound with BrandNameRecords. In addition to the production of original content, VodHavok Studios will continue to provide creative services to other’s looking to collaborate.
According to Sky, “An entrepreneur is simply someone with a business idea. Anyone can say they are an entrepreneur. However, those who take the journey and see their ideas through, earn the merit of that title, which, ultimately determines how far they will go.”
How far will Sky go? Watch out Hollywood, watch out AMA’s, watch out world. Remember this name: Skvwalker.
America is in turmoil. While suffering from a seemingly never-ending pandemic, America is also facing an “it’s-about-time” reckoning over racism. And it’s still answering for the predatory sexism brought to light by the Me Too movement. If that wasn’t enough, its citizens are ideologically divided on the verge of a national election. Who doesn’t need MORE EMPATHY now?
This is a question that Reilly Brady has been pondering as she considers her place in the world. Reilly is a Senior at Drexel University, majoring in Behavioral Health and Counseling. She is also a prolific maker and small business owner. For the past few years, Reilly has run a handmade jewelry company, called Tilly’s Art Box. Tilly is the nickname her parents gave Reilly when she was a little girl. Although she has great sentimental affection for the name, Reilly has decided that it is time for Tilly’s Art Box to re-brand to include her social agenda in her business model. Tilly’s Art Box is now More -Empathy, a brand whose mission is to raise awareness about the issues of diversity, inclusion, and accessibility; to advocate for non-profits that support under-represented populations; to raise awareness about the importance of mental health wellness and to normalize the discussion of mental health issues in the workplace.
Whew! That is a lot to think about, especially for one so young. Although More – Empathy may be in its start up infancy, Reilly believes that, for there to be true change in this world, brands and businesses need to step up and declare what they stand for – right from the start. Reilly aims to establish a company whose values reflect who she is as a person and as a business leader.
Reilly began making jewelry during her freshmen year at Drexel University after she contracted e.coli. Already prone to anxiety, this illness sent her mental health into a tailspin. She moved out of student housing and home to Doylestown to live with her parents. She began drawing and making jewelry and discovered that the act of creating helped alleviate her anxiety. These creative pursuits led to the establishment of Tilly’s Art Box; first, as an Etsy store, and then as a marketplace website, using the social media platforms of Instagram and, especially, Twitter for marketing. She describes her jewelry aesthetic as “Funky, fun and different” with a bent towards bold colors. (Sounds a lot like Reilly’s personality, actually.) As Tilly’s Art Box has evolved to become More – Empathy, so has Reilly. She continues to learn new skills that include working with polymer clay and learning how to screen print as she plans to add a fashion component to her collection in the future.ti
The focus of this blog has always been female entrepreneurship – after all, the name of the blog is The Ladies who Launch! But at this unprecedented time of COVID-19, I am pivoting to include male founders, whose stories of how they are adapting to the “new normal” are instructive to budding entrepreneurs everywhere.
Featuring Trey Lewis, Sports Fan and Entrepreneur
Drexel alum, Trey Lewis, grew-up in San Diego, California: a place where the weather is so nice that it was possible for Trey to play outside year-round participating in the sports that he loved. He played every sport under the sun, from swimming to golf to tennis. The only sport he wasn’t allowed to play was football, and with all the headlines in recent years regarding traumatic brain injuries, Trey is grateful to his mom, every day, for putting down her foot.
Trey’s father was an entrepreneur and he encouraged Trey’s innate entrepreneurial spirit. When Trey was ten, his dad asked him if he would ever consider following in his footsteps. Trey thought he was joking – he was too young to see himself someday in the same position as his father. It wasn’t until college that Trey realized that he had inherited his dad’s entrepreneurial drive.
Trey chose to attend Drexel University for two reasons: 1) the four seasons and 2) its Co-Op program. The thrill of everyday life in a northeastern climate quickly wore – off, but the Drexel Co-Op program proved to be a positive. Trey was able to hone his skills in the real world and these experiences cemented his belief that a person can learn more in practice than in theory. One of his Co-Ops included an opportunity to grow his business at Drexel University’s Close School of Entrepreneurship’s Baiada Institute, where he was given office space, access to technology, expert advice from mentors, and a stipend.
Trey was awarded this Co-Op experience for a business that he began in high school with a friend, who was a business fanatic. His friend specialized in stocks, and by the age of 16, had amassed a portfolio worth thousands of dollars. They combined their passions and started SportsStock – a fantasy sports stock market. The premise behind SportsStock was this: sports teams acted as companies in the stock exchange; every team had a monetary value and that value changed depending on their performance on the field. Users of SportsStock could buy into a team with the goal of buying low and selling high.
There proved to be many complications with the development of SportsStock, and Trey decided to pivot. He created a new business – a sports betting app with a twist – and named it WeWager. WeWager is a social sports betting platform, where social media users can connect, compete, share, and participate in peer-to-peer sports betting with other sports fanatics.
As with many small businesses and start-ups, COVID-19 changed WeWager’s trajectory. The sports industry continues to struggle with the complex problem of how to combine public sports competitions with safe social distancing measures. Live sports events, at present, are non-existent, throwing the whole premise of WeWager into question. Trey credits The Close School with teaching him how to take a terrible situation and turn it into a positive: the WeWager team chose to see COVID-19 as an opportunity instead ofa hindrance. WeWager shifted its focus to eSports. eSports is an up and coming sports sub-industry that everyone is watching, even prior to the Pandemic. WeWager is now positioned to become one of the premier sports betting platforms within eSports. Users of the WeWager platform can remain safe while still doing what they love. With this pivot, opportunities for funding and marketing opportunities have increased, along with access to other resources.
As for the future of WeWager, Trey writes, “WeWager is a lifestyle career that I will not only love developing every single day, but it is a company that can also make an impact in the world. This is what makes an entrepreneur an entrepreneur: the ability to see a product as something much larger than anyone else can see it.”
Casey Wood remembers the first time she held her very own professional camera. She was a freshman in high school when her Nana gave her the gift of a DSLR camera (Digital Single Lens Reflex Camera). This gift represented the turning of a dream into a reality. Not only did she now own a professional camera, but she was also regularly being asked to shoot portraits and birthday parties. In her junior year, she was hired to photograph her first wedding.
Casey began taking photographs in middle school. She was playing on her Nintendo DS one day and decided to try its camera function to shoot portraits of her friends. She was excited by its ability to create images, but she was also frustrated by its limitations – the user had little control over the images it captured. She upgraded to a point and shoot camera and enrolled in a local photography summer camp at The Wallingford Arts Center, which is near her hometown of Media, Pennsylvania. At summer camp, she learned how to use PhotoShop to manipulate her photographs in the editing stage and she was hooked.
Her interest in photography continued into high school but unfortunately, the once popular photography program at Penncrest High School had been cancelled before she arrived. Casey is highly motivated and she didn’t let Penncrest’s defunct photography program stop her – she formed a photography club. She asked her Visual Design teacher, Stephan Mescanti, to be their Staff Sponsor and he enthusiastically agreed to let the club use his classroom computers after school. Casey became its leader; she proposed photography challenges for her club mates to complete every week to keep them motivated and engaged.
When it was time to choose a program of study for college, she decided her best bet, in advancing her goal to become a professional photographer, was to study entrepreneurship and learn how to successfully start, operate, and sustain a business. She enrolled in Drexel University’s Close School of Entrepreneurship and is currently entering her fourth year at Drexel.
Casey’s two Co Op experiences at Drexel have had a great impact on the growth of her business, Casey’s Photography, which she founded her freshman year. Her first Co Op was with JPG Photo, a photography studio. It was there that she gained experience shooting weddings and other special events. Her current Co Op is at the Philadelphia-based marketing firm, En Route Marketing, where she is learning skills that she is already utilizing in the marketing of Casey’s Photography. In reaction to COVID-19, she put her newly learned marketing skills to work by offering to take free portraits of first responders, graduating students and prom pictures for students who had their proms canceled. These free portrait sessions served to expand her network and have led to paid jobs. She also recently started producing another great marketing tool: notecard sets featuring local landmarks. She has Media, Swarthmore and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, sets available for purchase at a local gift store, Home and Gifts, located at 15 East state Street in Media, and directly from her.
Introducing Naturally Gluten Free Liberian Recipes to America
When Niaka Porte first offered me a gluten-free banana muffin to try, I was tentative. I don’t have a gluten-free diet; in fact, I love gluten. Pasta and bread are two of my most favorite foods. Niaka was giving out samples to our work office to get customer feedback. I should not have hesitated; for me, it was love at first bite. Her muffins were light and airy, and incredibly moist, with a clear, fresh, banana taste. Each time Niaka made an adjustment to her recipe, she brought in samples for us to try. I, along with my colleagues, would rush into the office kitchen to grab one before they quickly disappeared. When she added chocolate chips, I was in heaven.
Niaka’s recipe is derived from Rice Bread that she baked with her mom as a child. Rice Bread is naturally gluten-free; it contains cream of rice, instead of wheat. Rice Bread is a traditional Liberian baked good. Her mom and dad immigrated to America from Liberia in the 1990’s to escape the civil war that was decimating their country, to find a better life and provide more opportunities for their growing family. Some of Niaka’s favorite childhood memories were eating Rice Bread hot out of the oven, gobbling it up before her two sisters could get a bite.
Niaka is a third-year student at Drexel University, majoring in Marketing and minoring in Business Development with a keen interest in Entrepreneurship. Her mom, who owns two businesses, has been an inspiration to Niaka. She owns a Liberian restaurant named Kadi’s and a cleaning company called Cameron’s Cleaning Company. (Named after Niaka’s younger sister, Cameron, who ironically, Niaka told me, laughing, doesn’t like to clean!)
When Niaka was a senior in high school, she attended a 6-month after school program at Cabrini College – The Young Entrepreneurs Academy. There, she learned how to write a business plan and how to pitch to investors. She met independent business and franchise owners. It was at The Young Entrepreneurs Academy that Niaka first conceived of the business she is currently pursuing – NP Baking Company. For her Fall/Winter Coop experience at Drexel, beginning this September, she will continue developing NP Baking Company as part of Drexel’s Baiada Institute for Entrepreneurship. There, she will be provided office space, access to office equipment and technology, and receive mentoring from experts in the field of entrepreneurship as well as money to help grow her idea.
Like many small businesses, Niaka has pivoted in reaction to the Coronavirus pandemic. Instead of baking finished loaves and muffins to be sold in retail food stores or online, Niaka is developing her recipe into a mix that the consumer can buy, add their own oil and bananas, and bake at home. Restaurants have been closed and people all over the world are staying home and re-discovering the joy of home baking and cooking. Not only does Niaka’s pivot take advantage of this food trend, but it is scale-able and eliminates the problem of shelf-life that is inherent in a perishable product.
The other driver that ignites Niaka’s passion for NP Baking Company is her desire to expose Americans to the culture of Liberia. When Niaka was in high school, she visited Liberia for the first time to meet her grandmother. She was inspired and fascinated by the country. Liberia is a gorgeous, though impoverished, country on the coast of West Africa. Its landscape is diverse – from coastal beach communities in the west to verdant mountains and rainforests to its north and interior. It is an agrarian society – rice and cassava are its two main crops. Its people are both native Africans and the descendants of American slaves who colonized the country in the 1800s. Christianity is its main religion, but Christianity with a supernatural bent – self-proclaimed prophets interpret dreams and visions; church services include dancing, and holy days are celebrated with colorful processions through the streets.
Upon returning home, Niaka was surprised by people’s perception of Liberia or more aptly, their lack of perception. NP Baking Company hopes to introduce the cuisine of Liberia to America and in the process, raise awareness of Liberia as its own distinct country in West Africa. Niaka is proud of her unique heritage and she wants to share it!
One of the qualities that I admire most about entrepreneurs is their ability to see the potential and possibility in all types of situations. It is seldom about one big idea – there are usually several ideas, with the next inspired by the previous.
I see this quality in fourth year Drexel University Close School of Entrepreneurship student, Lindsey Smith. She doesn’t have just one idea – she has many! Woven through all is the belief in the value of a positive body image, healthy self-esteem, and balanced mental health.
Lindsey started her first venture, Fashion Buddy, in her first year at Drexel. Fashion Buddy is a mobile app that allows users to upload pictures of themselves wearing two outfit choices so that other users can vote for their favorite. A user can be at the mall, in a dressing room, or at home, choosing a job interview outfit, and they can request real-time feedback via the app. An important component of Fashion Buddy is that it does not allow comments. It gives only a choice between two positive statements, “Looks good” or “Looks great!”, eliminating the possibility of the negative body-shaming that prevails on other social media platforms.
Lindsey is no longer pursuing Fashion Buddy, but, from it, she discovered what it was about starting a business that really got her juices flowing: the life cycle of a new product. Its development, planning, verification, launch and marketing – its product management – that is what interests Lindsey the most.
With that in mind, Lindsey began work on her next venture – a mobile app called College Bird. College Bird is an on-demand platform that connects companies with college students and recent graduates who they can then hire to complete project-based tasks that they don’t have the bandwidth to tackle in-house. In the age of COVID-19, when many longer-term internships are no longer available, College Bird gives college students and recent grads real-world, resume-building experience, and an opportunity to earn money. Businesses can hire employees who have the most up-to-date skills, without the risk and expense that comes with a full-time hire. These Gig Economy jobs not only give students freedom and opportunity, but they place a value on flexibility, quality of life, and personal growth.
Which brings me to Lindsey’s other two, as she calls them, “side hustles”:
Lindsey‘s Palette and The Wildheart Collection. Both of these endeavors have, at their core, the belief that creativity and personal growth are vital to mental health. Lindsey’s Palette is a fine art venture that sells bright, one-of-a-kind, paintings that combine graphic imagery with feel good messages such as “Good Vibes” and the tongue-in-cheek, “Screw Perfet”. The Wildheart Collection produces limited edition products designed with the purpose of raising public awareness about mental health issues and posts feel-good messages and links to mental health resources on its instagram page.
Lindsey is an example of how incredible creativity and an inquisitive mind propels an entrepreneur from one idea to the next. Which of Lindsey’s ideas will stick? Who knows? But I can’t wait to see what comes next in the evolution of her entrepreneurial journey.
Lindsey will be the guest on the Summer Stay-cation Series of interviews with Drexel University entrepreneurs on Wednesday, June 24th at 12pm. RSVPhere to receive the Zoom Meeting ID and password.
What more can be said about COVID-19? I, for one, am so damn tired of it. I long for the days of dining out, making small-talk with someone at the grocery store, and joking with my co-workers in person and not over Zoom.
When I wear a mask, I feel invisible. No one can see me smile. It is hard to communicate with just your eyes.
I am stuck alone quarantining in the suburbs of Philadelphia. (Well, not really alone: I live with two cats that sleep all day and two aloof parakeets). The days can be tough – I feel lonely, sorry for myself, and miss the contact of other humans. I can’t remember the last time I had a hug. Some days, it is hard to get motivated.
The email’s subject line said, “Are You Up for the Challenge?”
I read her email: “Welcome to your Up-cycled Summer Sandal Challenge. Your mission, should you choose to accept, is to create a pair of sandals (mules/slides only of course) from up-cycled materials found in your home.”
Included were instructions detailing how to make a pair of handmade shoes and a pattern.
As I said, I was having a hard time getting motivated but I knew this would help get me out of my head for at least the next few hours. And I am extremely competitive. Challenge accepted!
First, I pulled together the tools I would need: scissors, a heavy duty utility knife, masking tape, clips, glue and a needle and thread. Next, I went on a scavenger hunt around my apartment to look for materials that I could use to make a shoe.
For the shoe’s outsole, I needed a hard but flexible material; for the insole, a firm, but soft to the touch, and flexible material; and for the decorative band that goes over your foot, I had to find an attractive fabric (or fabrics).
This is what I found.
I chose a lime green cutting board for the out sole. I chose it for three reasons: its color was bright and cheerful, it was both flexible and rigid, and best of all, it has a non-slip textured surface on its backside. I cut out two pairs of pieces – one pair for the out sole and another for the heel. I used a piece of thick cardboard for the heel as well.
For the insole, I chose the outside cardboard cover from a pad of lined yellow paper. It was relatively hard and it had a brushed surface that would feel nice against the sole of my foot. (Although, once I finished the shoe, I decided to cover that cardboard insole with a scrap of “black pleather” left over from another craft project to hide some glue stains.)
For the decorative band, I found two pieces of a pink, black and yellow material that was leftover from a hemmed pair of pants, (I knew I was saving it for a good reason!), some artist canvas, vintage lucite beads and a bright, yellow, cord from a “Happy Birthday” gift bag.
Here are pictures of the process:
I did this project entirely on my own, but it would be super-fun to do this challenge with a group of friends – for a happy hour social or a Sunday maker’s afternoon – with Anne as your guide. Anne also offers a unique activity for a bride-to-be. Invite Anne to be a guest instructor at an intimate party with your bridesmaids. Anne will bring all the materials and teach you and your guests how to make a fold-able, fashionable, mule to throw in your purse for when your feet can’t stand another second in a pair of heels. During the pandemic, these workshops make a memorable Zoom call. (For more info, you can email Anne at firstname.lastname@example.org).
My verdict on this project? Easy, creative, fun, and most importantly, it got me through another day of self-isolating! And look how bright and cheerful they are! I can’t help smiling when I look at them (and now to make a matching mask!)
Anne Cecil and RoxanneLava are this week’s Proving Ground Pop Up Featured Entrepreneur on Instagram. Follow The Proving Ground at www.instagram.com/provinggroundpopup/ to learn more about RoxanneLava and to view live videos, interviews and more!
Are you interested in being a part of the Upcycled Summer Sandal Challenge? The deadline for submissions is June 26th with winners announced on July 1st. There will be awards for the top 3 designs in these categories: 1) Best material innovation, 2) Most sale-able, and 3) Best design. To submit your entry, follow @provinggroundpopup on Instagram, post your finished sandal on your Instagram page and tag it: #provinggroundpopup. Instructions below. Questions? Feel free to reach out to Anne at email@example.com
The focus of this blog has always been female entrepreneurship – after all, the name of the blog is The Ladies who Launch! But at this unprecedented time of COVID-19, I am pivoting to include male founders, whose stories of how they are adapting to the “new normal” are instructive to budding entrepreneurs everywhere.
Featuring Harrison Hertzberg, Innovator, Inventor and Entrepreneur
Harrison Hertzberg is a 19-year old, first year student (going into his second year in the fall) at Drexel University’s Close School of Entrepreneurship. Harrison was born and raised on a ranch in the isolated wilderness of Northern Idaho. Spirit Lake is a spectacularly beautiful, wild place to grow up, surrounded by dense woods, high mountain peaks and clear, unspoiled, lakes. As the son of an inventor, Harrison grew up with an inquisitive mind and an interest in building things.
The family affectionately nicknamed their home “Invention Ranch” and from a very young age, Harrison worked by his dad’s side, inventing objects created out of materials from the natural world that surrounded him. Harrison refers to his inventions as “innovations” because they weren’t really revolutionary, but more like improvements to everyday objects. Several of his “innovations” utilized natural wood sourced from his family’s forested property. These included the “Soap Stick” (soap molded to a long, handcrafted wooden handle to increase reach), a “Clever Coaster” which solved the perpetual problem of knocking over one’s glass, and designs for imaginative and original pergolas that utilized lumber that he milled and produced himself.
In the summer after he graduated from high school, Harrison invented the devise that is the basis of his current entrepreneurial venture – AeroPest – an aerial drone spraying system designed to eliminate and prevent pests in hard-to-reach places. Harrison describes the “aha” moment that led to his invention: “I was on the roof of my dad’s second-story office building, on a steep incline, with my aerosol can in hand, spraying a wasp’s nest with wasps all around me on a 100 degree day. So, I was like ‘this is a problem, right? Is there a solution?’ And there wasn’t, so I decided to do it myself.”
With the advent of COVID-19, Harrison is back on his family’s ranch in Idaho. I am excited to share his answers to my questions in my 6th installment of “The New Normal: How Drexel Entrepreneurs are Pivoting in the Age of COVID-19.”
1) Describe your upbringing.
I have grown up my entire life in the pristine backwoods of rural North Idaho on a ranch. I am an only child. In middle and high school, (with the exception of my senior year), my father would drive me half an hour to the bus stop each morning so that I could spend another hour and a half on the long windy mountain route to attend a project-based Charter school: a daily four-hour round trip commitment for me, and a two-hour commitment for my father. This anecdote serves to demonstrate the unwavering commitment my parents had for my education. Drexel was a last-minute addition to my college applications list. I found The Close School because I had been doing lots of research on experiential entrepreneurial programs.
2) Tell me about the evolution of AeroPest.
AeroPest is a product project venture which creates drone-mounted aerial precision spraying systems for the Pest Control industry. It has evolved most during my freshman year at Drexel. My CTO and I are currently continuing the product development/prototyping process and refining the design and use of the product specifically for Pest Control professionals with no drone expertise. This technology will largely remove the need for dangerous ladder use to access elevated pest nests which is the main cause of significant injury in Pest Control.
3) How has your business pivoted in the age of COVID 19?
Being forced to come home to Idaho has been a curse and a blessing. The curse: our almost non-existent internet, which makes remote learning a complete hassle. I must drive an hour to an open coffee shop with Wi-Fi in Sandpoint, Idaho. The long orange extension cord running from the coffee shop to my car tells everyone that pulls up, “this kid has set up shop… a real out-of-home office.” The blessing: I’ve been able to put my attention to AeroPest. My CTO, Jason Giddings, is here in Idaho and this has allowed us to accumulate all the necessary hardware in one place and to hand-off parts when necessary. Jason is a forty-year-old aeronautical engineer whose daughter I went to high school with. I met Jason while attending the monthly Inventors Association of Idaho meetings as a member. Jason is a serial entrepreneur with his hand in many pots simultaneously. Previously, Jason has launched a glass-laser keyboard product, a phone rifle scope “Intelescope”, and a salivary health test which he is currently selling in bulk due to the pandemic. His other current company “RhinoHide” has created a hardening bulletproof wall filler to ‘harden’ any facility that he’s primarily selling to schools and US border facilities. Jason brings technical expertise to design, fabricate, prototype, build and eventually initiate small-batch manufacturing. Jason also has experience crowdfunding, securing investors, as well as marketing through trade shows which will be a primary sales avenue for AeroPest.
AeroPest has pivoted from a small office space in the Baiada Institute at Drexel University to a large acreage and workshop where prototype testing isn’t hampered by campus or Federal Aviation Administration laws preventing drone flight.
4)How are you turning the hurdle of social distancing into an opportunity for AeroPest?
Social distancing has resulted in more people quarantining at home, and this home living has resulted in more people becoming more aware of the other organisms that share their home! All people, and most importantly, homeowners, have been able to act as human surveillance for the past two months. This is great for Pest Control and great for AeroPest.
5)How specifically are you “thinking outside the box”?
AeroPest is thinking outside the box by creating a high-tech solution for a low-tech industry. To bring this invention to life, in a way that works in the context of Pest Control, we are developing hardware and software that presents a shallow learning curve for operators and an attractive payback analysis for ownership. We are taking an “out of the box” approach by assuming we will be able to educate the industry on the efficiency-increasing applications of drone technology. Drones don’t require physical proximity; this makes drones a great pest control solution during the coronavirus pandemic or a worse pandemic in the future.
6) How do you imagine your business will look post pandemic?
AeroPest hasn’t been adversely affected by the coronavirus. Pest Control isn’t an industry that fluctuates much on its own and it has seen steady growth due to global temperature increases contributing to rising pest populations. My business is so young and so early in development, that it never knew a pre-pandemic existence. Additionally, the basic premise of my product is mitigating downside risk: the remote spraying drone serves to mitigate high-risk situations such as ladder use. In a post-corona world, a remote spraying drone could also serve to de-risk physical proximity and the subsequent possibility for viral transmission.
7) Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
In 5 years, hopefully AeroPest will prove to be successful. In addition to having a hand in AeroPest’s future trajectory of product offerings, I hope to be involved in other product projects that overlay into the drone world, which is one of my passions. In 5 years, I see myself as a Drexel graduate with venture experience under my belt and a plethora of Pest Control and drone-related industry connections to support my future endeavors.
8) What makes a person an entrepreneur?
An entrepreneur forgoes the path of least resistance in an effort to make and share … entrepreneurship appears to be such a daunting mountain to climb – starting a business, doing anything yourself. The employer/employee track seems a lot easier. But, I guarantee entrepreneurship is more rewarding, even if you’re not successful.
Featuring Shannon Morales of Echo Me Forward and Stealth.ify
Shannon Morales was raised by her mother and grandmother in Northern New Jersey. She is the child of an African American and Colombian mom and dad and is also a first-generation college graduate. Shannon graduated from William Paterson with her bachelor’s degree in Accounting and Finance and is currently pursuing her MBA in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the LeBow College of Business, Drexel University.
Shannon is also a single mother with three young daughters. As a biracial person, a woman, and a single mom, she has experienced more than her share of discrimination. Navigating a career in finance after graduating from Paterson was particularly challenging; she immediately despaired at her inability to find equal access to opportunities in the workforce. At one job, she was actively discriminated against. This was a turning point in her career trajectory: she realized that she would never have the same access to opportunities as her white colleagues and if she was to get ahead, she would need to create her own opportunities. Shannon decided to become a social entrepreneur and to work on building a business that would level the playing field for minority professionals such as herself.
Echo Me Forward became that business. Echo Me Forward is a software tool that enables employers to find and hire diverse tech talent. It targets industries that lack minority representation and gives companies the tools they need to change the disparaging racial inequity of their workforce. It also provides digital content, connects professionals with career opportunities, hosts networking events, provides career coaching, soft skills training, and mentorship to ensure that minority professionals have the tools they need to succeed.
When the pandemic began, Shannon recognized another challenge facing minority, urban communities – minorities were dying from COVID-19 at an alarmingly higher rate than whites. Shannon again saw an uneven playing field and decided to embark on developing a software tool that would provide healthcare and best practices information as well as real-time geo-physical risk assessment information. She calls this app Stealth.ify.
Describe your pre-pandemic business model.
Pre-pandemic, I was focused on my business venture Echo Me Forward – a recruiting and employer branding tool that connects diverse talent to equitable workplaces. The platform modernizes traditional employer recruiting sites, such as ZipRecruiter, by looking ahead to the future of work and taking into account the rise of remote work and an employee’s desire for career development opportunities, diversity and inclusion, equitable pay, and sustainability initiatives.
How has your business pivoted?
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, I decided to launch a new web app, Stealth.ify, that tracks the spread of COVID-19, while incentivizing social distancing. The name Stealth.ify is derived from a video game feature that allows players to use the stealth mode to avoid dangerous areas. Then Google and Apple announced that they were coming out with a similar app; I felt discouraged and knew that I could not compete with these two big tech companies. But then, I started to look at things from a whole new perspective: I wasn’t creating a widespread government solution, I was creating a local, community solution – one that took into account how moms, dads, grocery store workers, and others could use public information to keep their families safe. I went from focusing on a larger market to focusing on smaller, urban communities that lacked resources and awareness tools. By shifting my focus, I was able to stay true to myself and to my social entrepreneurship mission of lifting-up vulnerable, minority populations.
How important is “thinking outside the box” to the survival/growth of your business?
Being continuously innovative is key to the survival of all businesses, especially during times like these that force us to take a step back and to truly evaluate our business models. Companies like Uber and Facebook are always “thinking outside the box” by expanding their product lines to stay relevant. The key to a sustainable business is to “innovate constantly and innovate fast”.
How specifically are you “thinking outside the box”?
As a business strategist at heart, I love finding innovative new ways to solve a problem. The idea of having a Covid-19 tracker was not new, but the idea to gamify it and incentivize people to stay away from high risk areas was. People inherently don’t like being told what to do. It’s this mentality that made me re-think how to go about creating a solution for social distancing. Stealth.ify will continue to pivot to adapt to the market at least a few times during this pandemic. For example, we are currently looking at an employer solution that would create social distancing features inside businesses post-pandemic.
Discuss the importance of resiliency and flexibility.
I fell into entrepreneurship because my former employers could not see my vision for process improvement within their businesses. It was tough trying to express myself through work and being limited by myopic viewpoints. However, with each closed door, I built a resilience towards difficult situations. Resilience builds character and being flexible is necessary when going into business for yourself. Don’t get me wrong – I still receive a lot of push back and no’s, but the beauty of it now is that it is on my own terms. Sometimes creating your own path is the only way you will be heard.
How are you connecting with your peers?
I connect with peers through zoom and google meets. Since the launch of Stealth.ify, my life has been pretty much an all-day zoom meeting. I’m sure others can relate!
How do you imagine your business will look post pandemic?
Post-pandemic Stealth.ify will branch-off and become a B2B solution for employers to help their employees’ social distance. We also plan to keep our core functions for local communities that include access to healthcare resources, vaccine locations, and a telemedicine component. We want to be a reliable platform that gives local communities access to trustworthy health information both locally and globally.
To learn more about Shannon’s business ventures, visit: