I have always been infatuated with startup culture. Through religious reading of TechCrunch and skimming of Product Hunt, I realized that the ideals Silicon Valley stands for has always spoken to me in some sense. Facebook’s old motto of “Moving fast and breaking things” or the now cliched phrases of “changing the world” and “disruption” guided the high school version of myself in choosing where I would spend my four undergraduate years. I wanted to become part of this startup world through becoming an entrepreneur and decided that Wharton / Penn would provide me with the greatest skillset to do this. However, I understood that reading Eric Ries’ “The Lean Startup” is significantly different from actually working in and scaling startup. So this previous summer, I sought to gain experience with a startup to test my assumptions and see if my expectations lived up to reality.
I spent my summer working with Small Factory Innovations. SFI is an edTech company that develops SiLAS: a combination of cutting-edge technology with proven social skills training techniques and curriculum to help those with social skills deficiencies. SiLAS is sold to K-12 schools, specifically their special education faculty. In the past year, SFI has grown tremendously receiving an NSF SBIR Phase I grant and then launching their new software this summer to great reception. I worked closely with Chris Dudick, CEO and founder, to develop and help execute a go-to-market strategy as well as prepare the company’s NSF Phase II proposal.
My summer experience met and exceeded my expectations of working with a startup. The amount of autonomy and responsibility I was given made the process truly fulfilling. Aside from the NSF proposal, I had no specific deliverables. Chris was fully transparent with me on what the company needed and everyday I came into work I decided my objectives. A typical day consisted of a range of activities whether it be working on higher level strategy documents to present to the team, to hopping on phone calls with Chris and company advisors or VCs, to working with the company’s lead engineer on product decisions, or even prospecting clients and engaging in sales calls and emails. My work directly affected the company’s bottom line and as a result benefited those whose lives would be improved by SiLAS. Additionally, the entire process was an incredible learning experience for the company and myself.
One of the most memorable moments from my summer was when I went to the International Society for Technology and Education Conference and Expo in San Antonio, Texas. ISTE draws over 20,000 attendees and a range of companies, from technology giants like Google and Microsoft to niche players such as Canvas or VEX Robotics. At ISTE, I ran our booth with Chris as well as competed in a startup pitch competition. We made it to the finals and won audience vote for “Most Innovative” and “Most Likely to Succeed!” ISTE was the moment I realized I loved my job. As I crafted my sales pitch over the three days, it was amazing to see the excitement expressed by educators when they saw SiLAS.
Part of what made ISTE so special for me is that it was an opportunity to join a larger discussion on how technology can improve education. Similarly, as I worked for a startup near my hometown in New Jersey, I was able to join a community of like-minded individuals who, like me, want to improve NJ’s tech scene. The passion you feel when you talk to these entrepreneurs is truly inspiring and I am excited to stay involved in this community. After my work this summer, the CEO asked me to stay on part-time.