Baltimore Innovation Week / Education / Events / Pitches / Startups

Founder tips and pitches on a bus: BIW19 shows the road to starting a business

Between a panel of edtech founders and a video-equipped bus, a pair of events on Baltimore Innovation Week's Science and Education Day provided entrepreneurs with resources and connections.

Teachers-turned-founders spoke at Impact Hub Baltimore during #BIW19. (Photo by Stephen Babcock)
Should a budding entrepreneur pitch their business on a bus? Yes, yes they should.

That was among the questions answered for folks starting businesses at the University of Baltimore’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation on Monday.

Tech and entrepreneurship celebration Baltimore Innovation Week 2019 is now underway and weaving its way into the fabric of city life, a sentiment especially on view in Midtown, as the Startup Maryland bus was parked on the busy Mount Royal corridor outside the University of Baltimore’s Merrick School of Business, planting a flag for an event taking place inside.

The Center played host to a tour stop for the statewide initiative to galvanize entrepreneurs and investment. It offered info about some of the groups and individuals providing resources for entrepreneurs, such as Function Coworking Community in LauravilleStreet Investors Exchange founderBrittany Quinn, who runs a VC competition platform supporting women and minority entrepreneurs; and the forthcoming digital health innovation center from LifeBridge Health and CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield.

Throughout the afternoon, entrepreneurs could attend office hours, and pitch the crowd. With a crowd assembled, there was a chance to grab some quick feedback. And at the end of each pitch, the question went up: “Are you going to pitch on the bus?”

For all involved, this was met with a resounding “Yes!” So outside, they met Startup Maryland founder Mike Binko, who provided a chance to pitch on the bus’ fully equipped video studio.

As the event entered the networking portion of the evening, another panel was getting underway nearby on North Avenue at Impact Hub Baltimore.

Digital lesson plan company Common Curriculum gathered a panel of startup founders who made the jump from being an educator to starting a company.

In the city’s technology industry, a base of entrepreneurs building companies that solve problems at many different levels of education is a strength, and one thing that’s produced is multiple generations of entrepreneurs that pass on learnings. Attended by teachers looking to learn the ins and outs of making the transition as well as mentors in the community, the event showed that happening in real time.

While leading a classroom and a business involve different types of skills, the panelists said plenty of the qualities of both types of folks are similar. They also have a unique view of the problems in education that needs to be solved.

“Educators are some of the most inspiring entrepreneurs I’ve ever met,” said Ashley Lee-Williams, founder of Infinite Focus Schools.

When asked about the specific skills that carried over to help make a product better, Common Curriculum cofounder Robbie Earle said the ability to understand how to teach a subject that may be new and difficult for students is similar to a founder’s approach of talking to users and figuring out how they approach a software product.

“I think empathy is one of the most important traits you can have in software,” he said.

Danna Thomas, who started Happy Teacher Revolution to create a network to support the mental health and well-being of teachers, said listening to all of the stakeholders who are using a product is key to putting the users at the center of the design process.

Jess Gartner, founder of Remington-based education finances software company Allovue, said one of her favorite questions to ask users is what they would change if they had a magic wand. Talking about what someone might think is impossible allows technologists to consider how they would go about making it a reality, she said.

For those thinking about starting a business, the panel also offered plenty of tips to consider before making the jump.

Starting a business means striking out on one’s own, where a paycheck and eventual success might not be guaranteed. But even within the typically high-stakes realm of entrepreneurship, Gartner said there are different levels of sacrifice depending on a company’s goals if one thinks about what they want ahead of time.

“Be honest with yourself about the level of risk you can tolerate and what fits your life,” she said.

To Earle, it’s not the product that defines a business, but rather what it’s solving. There have been different versions of Common Curriculum’s features and approach, but the idea of making it easier to build and collaborate lessons plans has remained at the core.

“Fall in love with your problem, not just the solution you think is best right now, ” he said.

For Thomas, one big takeaway is that building a business doesn’t have to be lonely. She’s found support from Johns Hopkins Social Innovation Lab, where she was a member of this year’s accelerator cohort, and the Towson University Incubator, where the company is a member.

Entrepreneurs have to keep going, and “surrounding myself with people that inspire me” has helped to keep pushing forward, she said.

Companies: Allovue / Common Curriculum / University of Baltimore

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