How They Built It

Five entrepreneurs who found there’s no better place to start (up) than SESP

By Bonnie Miller Rubin Illustrated By Serge Bloch

At Northwestern, entrepreneurship is about more than launching a product; it’s about a process. Classes like Designing for Social Change, startup resources like The Garage, and alumni connections create an atmosphere that promotes resilience, teamwork, risk-taking, design thinking, and other qualities innovators need.

“Entrepreneurship complements other student interests, such as the maker movement, civic engagement, leadership in organizations, and social advocacy,” says SESP dean David Figlio. “Our approach is intentionally flexible—with a definition that emphasizes activating knowledge.”

SESP’s entrepreneurs come from a wide variety of backgrounds, interests, and experience levels. One thing they all have in common is what first attracted them to SESP: a desire to create positive change in the world.

Matt Zients illustration

Matt Zients

Cocreator of Connect & Care

Matt Zients was in high school when he realized he wanted to help young people connect with nonprofits.

That vision was why he chose SESP. It’s also why, in the first week of school, he beat a path to The Garage, Northwestern’s startup hub, to see if his project qualified for its residency program.

“SESP’s social justice curriculum and emphasis on policy were key. I loved the ethos and the mission of making the world a better place,” says Zients, a junior who cocreated the mobile app Connect & Care, which lets users browse, learn about, and donate to selected charities around the world. “I could tell the SESP community was going to be really strong and unlike any I’d encountered.”

Zients, who grew up volunteering at an AIDS orphanage in his mother’s hometown of Cape Town, South Africa, launched Connect & Care with his two younger brothers. In addition to helping millennials establish relationships with nonprofits they really care about, the app updates users on how their money is making a tangible impact. Like most startups, the project is always evolving in response to user feedback.

“You have to be critical of any initiative you’re in,” Zients says. “Community development includes understanding the stakeholders you’re mobilizing and not burdening them or creating anything inconvenient. This was a big takeaway from my SESP courses.” SESP classes also got him thinking about the power of privilege: “I knew I wanted to use any privilege I had to do something constructive. I’m privileged to feel empowered by having resources to start something. I want to turn empathy into action.”

Kristin Sanders

Kristen Sanders

Creator of People6

When Kristen Sanders couldn’t find a decent paid summer internship, she did what any budding entrepreneur would do: started her own business.

The company, People6, is a student-led digital marketing agency that provides everything from branding and web design to research. Since the company’s April 2018 launch, People6 has completed more than 16 projects for clients ranging from local schools to corporations.

Prior to the launch, Sanders was awarded a winter-quarter residency at The Garage, which supported her venture’s incubation phase. Those 10 weeks culminated in the company’s campus debut at Wildfire Demo Day—and a $2,000 third-place prize for Sanders.

Born and raised in Southern California, Sanders came to Northwestern determined to study economics. When she realized she didn’t love the field, she sought out SESP adviser Caitlin Burnett to learn more about the school’s learning and organizational change concentration.

“Months later I returned, and right away Caitlin remembered my name, which really set the tone for the kind of place SESP is,” Sanders says. “I took my first LOC class and loved it. I knew I was in the right place.”

Sanders appreciates the flexibility of the SESP curriculum and says her LOC classes bolster her entrepreneurial aspirations. At one point she was managing more than 30 students in various People6 projects while also keeping up with her coursework. “SESP gave me the courage to think differently,” she says. “And that’s not something you can get at other places.”

A first-generation college student, Sanders expects to graduate in June. She plans to continue growing People6 and to pursue a teaching career “to create more entrepreneurship programs for students, especially those of color and those who may not have the same opportunities as Northwestern students.”

Lucas Philips

Lucas Philips

Cocreator and chief growth officer of BrewBike

Founded in 2015 by SESP’s Lucas Philips and Brammy Geduld, BrewBike is Northwestern’s first student-owned and student-run coffee venture. The company has generated more than $220,000 in sales and recently expanded to the University of Texas at Austin.

BrewBike originally operated from a custom-built bike that Philips and his associates pedaled around campus between classes, strategically parking it near the Rock and other high traffic locations. Branded as “fuel, brewed by people like you, for people like you,” BrewBike’s namesake cold brew has twice the caffeine of other coffee, promising a competitive edge for its drinkers—and delivering a competitive edge for the venture.

An early turning point for BrewBike came when Philips took a call during English class telling him the company had made the finals of the New Venture Challenge at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

“I just walked out and started cheering. It was just the best moment ever,” Philips says. “We received $45,000 in funding. Then we placed second at Northwestern’s VentureCat competition— that was more validation. We got another $20,000, and with that, we were able to raise an $850,000 seed round and start expanding to other campuses.”

As part of a resident team at The Garage, Philips has gleaned advice from colleagues and entrepreneurial alumni, including Neal Sáles-Griffin (BS09) and Claire Lew (BS11), who team-teach the Engineering and Entrepreneurship class. Inside Annenberg Hall, meanwhile, the SESP administration allowed BrewBike to open its first retail location in the lobby.

Now BrewBike’s chief growth officer, Philips offers this advice to other young people launching a business: “Do less. Focus on fewer things and do them really well.”

Isabel Benatar

Co-creator of Bossy Chicago

Isabel Benatar (BS18) grew up in Palo Alto, the epicenter of California’s Silicon Valley, with an entrepreneurial father. At the dinner table, she often heard about his experiences as CEO of a fast-growing startup.

Those conversations fed Benatar’s own entrepreneurial inclinations, which first led her to study learning and organizational change at SESP and, three years into her degree, to apply to The Garage’s Wildfire Pre-Accelerator Program. During that program, she and engineering major Samantha Letscher created Bossy Chicago, an online directory that connects local women-run businesses to feminist consumers wanting to leverage their purchasing power.

In cocreating Bossy, Benatar conducted user and market research and attended entrepreneurial workshops. She hired and managed team members and fostered relationships with business owners. In the pitch contest at the end of the accelerator program, Bossy received funding and placed second out of 11 teams.

“I learned how to go out and talk to people and actively network—just for the connection,” she says. “In classes, you’re given a prompt and instructions and so much guidance. But with a startup, you’re doing it because you’re passionate about it.”

Benatar recently joined Plaid, a financial services startup in the Bay Area. As its recruiting coordinator, she says she is drawing on the “great combination” of her entrepreneurial experience and her SESP learning and organizational change major.

Entrepreneurship requires “believing in yourself enough to create something completely new,” Benatar says. Cofounding Bossy exemplifies it, but so does joining a tech startup rather than a big corporation. That’s because for Benatar, “it’s all about impact.”

Chuck Friedman

Chuck Friedman

Corporate vice president at Microsoft

It was 2013 when senior leaders at Microsoft asked Chuck Friedman (BS88) to head the team that would revamp the Windows “shell”—the part of the software consumers actively use. A self-described “startup-y kind of guy,” Friedman says the opportunity was a “fascinating entrepreneurial moment.” Rather than reworking the existing framework, Friedman began researching what users actually wanted from the operating system. He assembled a racially, culturally, and organizationally diverse team to speak with consumers about how they used their computers.

In the end, curiosity, empathy, and diversity were key elements in the successful Windows 8 redesign, Friedman says. “Everyone brings their own skill,” he adds. “Mine is that I’m a good listener and can work well across groups and the company.” His learner’s mindset is also a big plus. “Too often, people hear ‘Why did you get that wrong?’ instead of ‘What did you learn?’ I don’t need to be right all the time— I just need to get us to the right outcome.”

After graduation, Friedman joined and became a partner at Specialized Systems in Software, a startup founded by Kellogg School of Management faculty member Troy Henikoff. They built the company and sold it to Medline Industries. Friedman came to Microsoft in 1997.

He sees an entrepreneur as a creator of something others don’t think is possible.

“There are two mindsets—one that says, ‘We can do it!’ and the one the lawyers have, telling you all the reasons it can’t be done,” Friedman says. “You actually need both. But it’s that core optimism that defines entrepreneurs.”