Over the course of nine weeks, students in the HWS entrepreneurial startup accelerator have established a business model and honed their pitches for promising new business and social ventures including: a platform to find affordable short-term housing, a program that teaches young adults about money management, a non-profit that provides high school students of color with sexual and mental health resources, and smart glasses that aid the visually impaired.
Organized by the Centennial Center, the Summer Sandbox Startup Accelerator would ordinarily proceed at the Bozzuto Center for Entrepreneurship, with student startup teams living together, engaging in face-to-face customer interaction, providing feedback to one another and pitching their ideas each week to an audience.
This summer, the 19-member cohort — including 16 HWS students and three students from SUNY Geneseo representing a wide range of majors and minors — met virtually as they developed entrepreneurial and problem-solving skills and explored “lean startup methodologies” to find viable and scalable business models for their ventures.
The remote format has meant that Ed Bizari, the Centennial Center’s Entrepreneurial Fellow who manages the program, is facing new challenges to deliver the breadth and depth of the Summer Sandbox experience.
“Team members are now scattered generally in the Northeast U.S., Texas, and as far away as Bangladesh, and the face-to-face interactions were gone” says Bizari, noting that the cohort now meets regularly with one another and the Sandbox teaching team via online platforms. “Early in the program we realized that 30-minute check-in meetings were required to not only ensure team progress but to make and maintain personal connections with the members of the cohort.”
Meanwhile, the 120 face-to-face customer discovery interviews that the teams are required to conduct have also shifted online, as have the pitch rehearsals and coaching sessions, which are “as good as ever this year with Summer Sandbox intern Annie Crotty expertly moving teams and coaches in and out of Zoom breakout rooms,” Bizari says.
In addition to the SUNY Geneseo students joining the cohort, the HWS Summer Sandbox program is collaborating with the Rochester Institute of Technology Summer Startup program, which includes students participating from the University of Rochester, working together in joint learning sessions as well as Thursday morning “Coffee with Entrepreneurs” sessions.
Throughout the program, Summer Sandbox has a team of approximately 30 alum, regional and national volunteers who serve as guiding coaches and subject matter experts to the student cohort in their 9-week accelerator journey. In lieu of appreciation gifts for the coaches and experts, the Summer Sandbox program is donating those funds to the Launch NY “Founders 走 Big” program, which is an Upstate NY venture development program providing mentorship and investment to underserved black founders to help build businesses in our region. Entrepreneurship at HWS believes that now, more than ever before, is the time for the Summer Sandbox Program, the Centennial Center, and HWS as a whole to demonstrate our commitment to anti-racism, and our commitment to equality and diversity in entrepreneurship.
The Summer Sandbox program concludes on Thursday, July 30 with a Zoom-based pitch presentation session, with teams presenting to an audience of community members, faculty, staff, alums, parents and regional entrepreneurs.
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