In 1887, members of the Presbyterian Church with a desire to establish a community of learners took a risk in founding Occidental College. 127 years later, the ethos of entrepreneurship upon which the college was founded is still strong — dozens of young Occidental alumni and current students are pursuing entrepreneurship with creativity and confidence.
Several professors are helping to foster this entrepreneurial spirit in their students. Prior to being hired, Diplomacy and World Affairs (DWA) professor Sanjeev Khagram stressed to the administration and faculty his commitment to promoting entrepreneurship of all kinds on the Occidental campus. Backed by experience from entrepreneurial programs at other universities, Khagram expressed the value he saw in building such a community at Occidental. He got to work building an entrepreneurial network on campus right after joining the Occidental community in 2012.
“The ethos was there, all I had to do was light a spark,” Khagram said.
Khagram, alongside DWA professor Sherry Simpson-Dean, started a course in Fall 2013 focused on entrepreneurship and innovation, titled DWA 151: Entrepreneurial Leadership in the 21st Century. Based on demand from the student body, the course is now in its second year. In addition to teaching DWA 151, both Khagram and Simpson-Dean are on the board of advisors for Oxypreneurship, an initiative that seeks to arm students with the knowledge, skills and network to pursue entrepreneurship in the real world.
“Oxypreneurship is an environment for innovation at Occidental College,” Simpson-Dean said. “A goal was for Oxy to be the leading college for entrepreneurship and innovation in the country.”
Other Occidental staff members, including Courtney Strickling Burgan of the Career Development Center and Joe Shea, Director of Major Gifts, also noted the rise in student entrepreneurs in recent years. While it is apparent that entrepreneurship is and has been on the rise, the motivation for this rise is less clear. According to Simpson-Dean, it is all about the collective personality and drive of millenials.
“Millenials are asking themselves, what can I create and what can I do to make a difference and potentially change the world?” Simpson-Dean said. “It is the idea that millenials are concerned about the fate of the world, which is inextricably linked with how millenials see their future selves in the world.”
This thirst for meaningful work, paired with a drive for innovation and creativity, pulls millenials toward entrepreneurship and starting their own enterprises from the ground up.
Oxy’s Entrepreneurial Undergrads
Sarah Greilsamer (sophomore) did not want to wait until graduation to launch herself into the world of entrepreneurship and startups. Instead, Greilsamer found opportunity for innovation while observing a small, struggling business in Eagle Rock.
On a weekend walk, Greilsamer wandered into a small thrift shop in Eagle Rock and sparked a conversation with the shop owner, who she soon learned was closing her shop due to financial problems. But Greilsamer felt there were ways to improve the business.
“I just didn’t forget about her,” Greilsamer said. “Small businesses are built by people who have dreams and put them into practice, but often they don’t have the skills to bring them to life.”
Greilsamer saw an opportunity for innovation that would mutually benefit current students of Occidental and small business owners in Eagle Rock. From this observation and experience came her student consulting enterprise.
“The idea is to create a student-run management consulting firm that brings small groups of students to small business people, social entrepreneurs and NGOs,” Greilsamer said. “First and foremost we are students and our job is to learn. The great thing is that we can learn through these real-life processes.”
Greilsamer’s student-run consulting firm challenges the traditional concept of what constitutes a startup. For most, the terms ‘startup’ or ‘entrepreneurial endeavor’ suggest an end goal of maximizing profits without regard for social, environmental or economic impact. Greilsamer’s student consulting enterprise, meanwhile, will operate entirely free of charge.
Greilsamer views entrepreneurship similarly to Simpson-Dean and her colleagues at Oxypreneurship; they choose to define the concept broadly, seeing entrepreneurship as existing both within and outside the realm of for-profit business.
“We define it not only within business but also within global change-making,” Simpson-Dean said.
Occidental also has a large contingency of alums who have started their own businesses, and in doing so have become a part of the rapidly-expanding startup community.
Adam Neff ‘05 met many new people during his four years as an undergraduate, but one person in particular stuck out. That person was Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook.
While living in New York City and participating in Occidental’s U.N. program, Neff spent a weekend at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. visiting his friend Joe Green.
“I remember going up to Harvard to visit my buddy Joe. We hung out with Mark Zuckerberg—which was the semester just before he started Facebook—so we were fortunate then and fortunate now to fall into that community,” Neff said.
Inspired by this experience, Neff pursued his first entrepreneurial venture alongside Green and Erik Schultink, an intern from Facebook.
Along with Green and Schultink, Neff raised $250,000 to found Essembly, an action-oriented social network. Essembly, which eventually became Facebook Causes, is a platform for users to organize social campaigns to benefit their communities. Zuckerberg was hugely supportive of Essembly and even served on the advisory board. Fellow Occidental alumnus Zaryn Dentzel ‘05 joined Neff, Green and Schultink at Essembly just after its birth.
While Dentzel went on to start Tuenti, now known by users as the Spanish Facebook, Neff went on to receive his M.B.A from the USC Marshall School of Business. After his time as a Trojan, Neff joined forces once again with Dentzel, this time as a strategic consultant for Tuenti, and divided his time between Madrid and Barcelona. The Spanish broadband and telephonic provider Telefónica acquired Tuenti in 2010, and Neff once again found himself at a crossroads in his professional life.
In this time of transition, the concept for his latest venture, Ledge, was born. Neff established Ledge alongside Luke Weber, a founding engineer from Tuenti. The duo identified an everyday problem and set out to find a solution.
“Basically the idea was to build a very simple system to help people manage money and simplify IOUs,” Neff said. “It just seems like it is something that happens on a day-to-day basis, and it is awkward and no one really has a good system.”
The solution to the everyday problem of IOUs came in the form of an app suitable for IOS and Android operating systems. The application is a flexible mobile ledger that draws from each user’s address book to manage money and dues among groups of people.
In addition to existing as an independent application, Neff sees an opportunity for innovation within the popular Venmo application, which serves much the same purpose.
“We are hoping to finish a prototype with the Venmo integration by the end of this week,” Neff said. “We are not trying to replace Venmo, but there is a lot of benefit to keeping a running tab with IOUs.”
Neff’s ties to Occidental are still strong — he even employs a recent graduate, William Peck ’14. Neff and his colleagues, including Peck, are testing their product among the Occidental student body through various Greek organizations and student groups. Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Phi Kappa Psi and Delta Omicron Tau are already integrating Ledge into their dues system.
Neff, Weber and Peck hope to not only test their application at Occidental for the benefit of their venture, but also to foster new connections between themselves and aspiring entrepreneurs at Occidental.
“We kind of see Oxy as our sandbox because Oxy is a community that we are most involved with and it is a small enough population that we should be able to see how [the application] works rather quickly,” Peck said.
In testing the utility of the application, there is also an opportunity to further expose the Occidental student body to what entrepreneurship can look like in real-world application.
“I am excited to be more directly engaged with the student body,” Neff said.
Richard Highsmith ’10 found himself at Morgan Stanley/Smith Barney Wealth Management in San Francisco after graduating. As an economics major, math minor and president of the Blythe Fund, this seemed a logical move at first.
“At Morgan Stanley, I was working non-stop, especially from my phone, which killed my battery. That is how the idea for Birksun was born,” Highsmith said.
The mission of Birksun is to create innovative products utilizing solar energy to power portable electronic devices anytime, anywhere. While Birksun is best known for solar-paneled backpacks with charging capabilities, they also produce battery packs capable of recharging portable devices three times.
Initially, Birksun backpacks and batteries did not thrive in the retail setting. Highsmith and his colleagues took a step back to reassess the demand for their products, and to pinpoint a unique target demographic. They started by going to music festivals.
They attended festivals such as Outside Lands and Life is Beautiful, events where phones are generally used to the point of energy depletion for Instagram, SnapChat and finding lost friends. These experiences confirmed for Highsmith and his colleagues that the festival-goers could be an excellent consumer base for Birksun.
The company is now focusing their efforts on the branding side of their products, and concentrating on online sales. They are also making an effort to educate consumers on the realities of how solar energy and solar panels work — Birksun backpacks are just as useful in the city as the great outdoors.
“Solar panels don’t just need to be in Death Valley,” Highsmith said.
Jacqueline Steele ’11 considers herself a renegade.
“I didn’t want a boss telling me what to do,” Steele said.
And thus her drive for entrepreneurship emerged. Steele was drawn to the opportunity to define her own lifestyle through her career.
In the summer of 2010, Steele received a Richter grant to travel to France and study the artistic difference between synthetic fragrances and natural fragrances. Her time in France got her wheels turning, and she began composing fragrances and selling them at local design fairs. What started as a hobby grew to what is now Steele’s own fragrance line, Goest Perfumes, based in Los Angeles.
“I always thought of [perfume] as a functional product, but have found it to be in fact an art form, especially the idea of modern scents vs. traditional scents,” Steele said. “[Fragrance] is just a language I now know how to speak.”
What started as a curiosity and led to a Richter research project in the summer after her junior year has blossomed into a successful fragrance line. Goest has been featured in publications including The New York Times, Vogue and The Los Angeles Times, and her perfumes are now sold online and in retail spaces across the nation.
Sharing a drive for innovation
Neff, Highsmith and Steele are among the many Occidental alumni who took a chance and pursued their innovative ideas in joining the world of startups. Greilsamer represents current Occidental students jumping ahead of the game in launching their entrepreneurial careers. Stories such as theirs are steeped in triumph, but success in this industry is not always guaranteed. Acting with confidence and continually striving for innovation is critical.
“Entrepreneurship is having an idea, and taking risks and doing it. You try until you manage to do it,” Greilsamer said.