Money College presents part two of a series on college entrepreneurs -- those brave students who balance backpacks with boardrooms (even if the boardroom is in a dorm room) while planning their first business ventures, all before flipping that graduation day tassel.
Read on to learn about two grads whose aching feet inspired a line of clever footwear, a sophomore who's lighting up high-rises with an eco-friendly business plan, and one student poised to launch a revolutionary tree-counting computer program following a chance encounter in a forestry lab. You can read part one here. Heart and sole
When Katie Shea and Susie Levitt met through a mutual friend as undergrads at New York University, they had a lot in common: They lived in the same dorm, came from entrepreneurial families and bonded over the shared dream of one day owning a business. Each standing 5-foot-2, Shea and Levitt also loved sporting stilettos to their Wall Street internships, but found that after a full day of working and socializing, their "killer heels" really killed their heels.
Their solution -- to create a foldable flat shoe paired with a collapsible tote bag -- didn't just solve their own footwear dilemma, but sparked a business that has become a full-time job for both grads, now 23. They launched CitySlips less than a month after graduating in 2009 into one of the worst job markets in decades, and say the tough economy actually gave them a boost.
"I think it was a great time to launch a business," said Shea. "Because things were slower, we were able to negotiate really good deals [for] our website and manufacturing," and attracted customers with a reasonable price point for a two-in-one product.
One year later, more than 150 boutiques and the Home Shopping Channel carry their innovative shoes, which will expand into national retailers this fall. Even though people warned them that their age would pose a setback, Shea and Levitt say their youth has worked to their advantage, and they encourage other would-be college entrepreneurs to start early. Both agreed that low opportunity costs and university resources helped in launching CitySlips.
"Katie's mom has a great saying that naivety is directly correlated to courage," Levitt said. "When we first started we didn't know exactly what we were getting into, but I think it was a great thing because it helps us get our foot in the door. No pun intended."
A light-bulb moment
For a swirly, white, energy-saving light bulb, it's actually easy being green. But what's easy may not be attractive, according to 20-year-old Babson junior Dinesh Wadhwani.
"It doesn't give you the right aesthetics. It makes it look like cheap light," said Wadhwani, who started ThinkLite with fellow Babson student Enrico Palmerino (left). The duo's own light-bulb moment happened when they ran across an ad touting a new technology that can make custom-colored or styled, energy-efficient bulbs -- ideal for residences, restaurants, retail stores and other locations that want to be eco-friendly but don't like the generic swirly bulb's look.
The catch? Custom bulbs run up to $25 a pop, more than most people are willing to shell out, even if the bulbs can reduce electricity costs by 80%, Wadhwani said. But the students behind ThinkLite came up with a bright idea: relying on sweet deals they cut with GE and other bulb-makers to buy in bulk for cheap, ThinkLite buys and installs custom bulbs free of charge to customers, who then repay them a fixed percentage of the money they later save on electricity.
Since landing their first customer in April, the student duo has illuminated a slew of AT&T retail stores, brightenedup a factory for Kodak and is slated to do a complete lighting overhaul for a Herald Towers, athree-building high-rise residence in the heart of New York City. Thankfully, Wadhwani (right) says that their business professors are willing to work with their busy schedules.
"Having a venture in college is the best time because all the money that we make, I have no use for it so I put it back into the business and we grow it, and it gives us the liquidity to finance more projects," he said, calling his sophomore start-up experience "priceless." "I have nothing to lose at this point."
With ThinkLite now up to nine employees, Wadhwani's plan is to grow the company until graduation, then hopefully take it on full time. "It's a great feeling of achievement," he said, and even customers feel proud when they make the eco-friendly choice. "We not only feel great that we're actually helping the environment and helping people to commit, but that we're doing it in avery easy and accessible way."
Who says money doesn't grow on trees?
At an age when most students are learning to file a financial aid application, 20-year-old Yale junior Max Uhlenhuth and his partner are filing for a provisional patent. For software that counts trees.
The idea was born when Uhlenhuth had a chance encounter with a Yale forestry grad student working to develop a computer program that uses satellite images to inventory forests. Uhlenhuth spotted the business potential and convinced him to launch a company together based on the software.
"In the U.S. alone, people are paying $200 million dollars every year just to count trees,"
said, explaining that forest owners need accurate data about how many trees they have in order to value, buy and sell land, and to properly manage forests.
But counting trees has already paid off for Uhlenhuth's new venture, which recently nabbed the top prize -- and $25,000 -- at a Yale environmental business competition. "That means we'll get to eat this summer," he joked. The company will soon launch under the name SilviaTerra, from the Latin words for "forest" and "earth," and is seeking clients among timber investors and others involved in conservation and natural resource management.
However, it isn't Uhlenhuth's first business venture. Four high schools in his hometown of Louisville, KY are still using school administration software that Uhlenhuth and some friends created while they were high-schoolers themselves. During college, he also developed an iPhone app using augmented reality to enhance college tours. And his description of his work ethic mirrors the spirit of ambition so many college entrepreneurs possess:
"I'm just running as fast as I can in whatever direction I'm going," he said. "Friday nights are not always raging fiestas, but I have a lot of fun doing what I'm doing."
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College Entrepreneurs Part 2: Looking for A's in making money