Get Ready. Set. Open the 'Starting Gate' to follow '3' Diverse student Ideas!0
At first glance, a board for engineering prints, a company that hosts murder mystery events, and an unmanned aircraft designed to help farmers might not seem like they have much in common. Yet, the entrepreneurs behind each of these innovations all participate in WMU's Starting Gate Program.
Starting Gate is a Western Michigan University student business accelerator that gives students resources to develop their startup companies. Vladimir Lezzhov first heard about Starting Gate from his advisor at KVCC. He explained the appeal of the program, "I always knew I wanted to own my business and I wanted to use college resources as much as possible. I heard about this business incubator and that is one of the reasons I transferred to Western."
Lezzhov’s company, Mystery Social, coordinates interactive murder mystery games for both social and corporate events. Lezzhov describes it as, "a unique and very fun way to help new workers adjust to a team or strengthen the relationships of the current members of the team." Mystery Social is also offering open games. He went on to share, "This allows people come to a restaurant and see what the game looks like, try it out and meet new people."
Amber Delgado is the creator of BlueBoards, which are boards that are designed to make managing large printed engineering plans much easier. Delgado's idea came to her out of her own frustration handling plans as an intern at Perrigo. She talked about searching online for something that was portable, but would prevent the crumpling and maneuvering she had to do with the large scale paper. When she couldn't find anything, the Industrial Engineering major at WMU created the product herself. "I only knew about Starting Gate a week before the application deadline. I thought, I can make this myself, I just need to know how to go forward."
Like Delgado, David Ajoku's Starting Gate project grew out of a problem that he wanted to solve. Growing up in Nigeria, Ajoku noticed the decline of agriculture in his country. As a student in WMU's Aerospace Engineering program, Ajoku developed a fixed-winged, unmanned aircraft that can take off and land vertically so no runway is needed. He spoke to farmers about how this technology could be used to help them as part of Starting Gate's Initial Customer Discovery Program. Those conversations led to his Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) project which can give farmers up to date information about their fields using real time ground mapping via GPS. This allows for effective agricultural product dissemination. Ajoku made clear, "My goal in life is to use what I have to help other people make their lives better."
As different as the products and the backgrounds are for the three entrepreneurs, there are certainly many similarities. When they were each asked to give advice to other young entrepreneurs looking to start out, all three of them spoke of making sure there was a need or a desire for the product. As Lezzhov explained, "Often times you can be really excited about your idea. But the whole point of business is selling things." They also all spoke about the value of believing in yourself because there will be setbacks along the way.
All three students also spoke about the value of the Starting Gate program. This value went beyond the practical advice of the legal and financial speakers the program brings in, to a sense of community. The willingness of local business owners to help out these entrepreneurs who are new to the process provided inspiration to the students. As Amber explained, "Talking to them makes everything feel possible. Here are people. They are doing it. So can I."
There was a love of the larger Kalamazoo community that was evident in talking to each of them as well. They noted the many available resources, the openness, and values of the community. Diversity for them was also key. In Ajoku's words, "Diversity breeds innovation. When you are around people who come from different backgrounds, it inspires you to think outside the box."
A final similarity was the 'entrepreneurial spirit' apparent in Lezzhov, Delgado, and Ajoku. They are all passionate about their products and excited to take the next steps with their innovations. One of these steps was Starting Gate's Demo Day, where they would have a chance to pitch their ideas to potential investors and clients.
In the future, whether these three students are applying for patents, launching websites, or creating their next products, it seems nothing will stop them. Thankfully, Kalamazoo has the Starting Gate program that has helped them and many others to get on a track to lifelong success that will stretch far beyond their time at WMU.