How To Start A Company Before You're 25

According to AOL, as of 2015, only 7% of venture funding was given to female entrepreneurs, partially because women only made up 4.4% of active venture capitalists. University courses and post-graduate incubators are looking to close that gender gap by offering students the guidelines and resources necessary for success. Women statistically receive higher grades in school than men and surpass them in college enrollment — it is time that they are encouraged to excel in the field of entrepreneurship, as well.

You may be familiar with Dear Kate, a line of apparel designed with leak-resistant Underlux fabric. Founded by Kentucky-native Julie Sygiel, Dear Kate's high-performance underthings and sportswear have been featured all over the web (including on our very own Refinery29).

What you may not know is that the groundwork for Dear Kate was laid within the four walls of a classroom. Specifically, a Brown University undergraduate course called The Entrepreneurial Process, which leads students through the steps of building a company from the ground up. The course has been taught for 10 years by serial entrepreneur Danny Warshay. He modeled the syllabus after a Harvard Business School course in which students learn and master business basics, but he tells Refinery29 that he wanted there to be an "experiential component" — students don't wait until a class ends to launch their ideas. In fact, the class mantra is "Make it real." Students are divided into teams and, with the guidance of Warshay, former students, and guest mentors, create a product or service from start (business plan) to finish (pitching to real-life investors).

Brown isn't the only university with a course designed to spark the entrepreneurial spirit of its students. Schools across the country have adopted specific classes and even entire incubator programs for that exact purpose, giving students a chance to see their ideas come to life and to meet industry professionals. In addition to providing students with a framework and resources, these courses and incubators are allowing women of all ethnicities and backgrounds the opportunity to break into the notoriously caucasian, male-dominated startup industry.

Ahead, we interviewed a few incredible women heading successful companies that were started in university courses or post-graduate incubators. Some you may have heard of and others are ones to watch.

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Photo: Courtesy of Julie Sygiel.
Julie Sygiel, Dear Kate

Dear Kate
founder Julie Sygiel, 27, has found incredible success through a line of underwear meant to prevent period-induced nightmares. Sygiel was a chemical engineer and junior at Brown University when she enrolled in The Entrepreneurial Process and worked with a team to develop Blink, which was later renamed Dear Kate.

In order to test the viability of such a product, Sygiel and her team posted surveys (and pens) on the back of doors in women's restrooms around campus. The response was overwhelmingly positive: 88% of women said they would be interested in the undergarments. In 2011, three years later, the first line was launched.

What inspired you to choose this product as your class project?
"Every woman has experienced some sort of disaster nightmare story during that time of the month. [We thought] about what would happen if we were to create a better pair of underwear."

How did your professor react when you told him about your idea?
"He nearly fell out of his chair. He said, 'Go out and do some market research and come back to me with data so that I can get excited about this. Come back and show me that there’s a market for this product...'

"Those surveys that we put on the stalls of bathroom doors were the best form of guerrilla marketing. [When we actually started selling the product, people] were like, 'Oh my gosh, I took your bathroom survey years ago.'"

Did you have any prior entrepreneurial experience?
"I didn’t have a lot of business experience before that. I mean, I sold Girl Scout cookies when I was younger. But I didn’t know the first thing about raising money."

In retrospect, do you wish you had gone to business school before launching Dear Kate?
"I think it would have been incredibly helpful to have a business school education to draw on when I was starting Dear Kate. However, given the timing of taking the class at Brown and creating the business plan, it made sense to run with it. I've learned a lot of lessons on the fly and have great advisors who help me out if I have questions about situations that are new to me."
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Photo: Courtesy of Jessie Becker.
Jessie Becker, InPress Technologies

Jessie Becker, 25, spent her undergrad years studying business and entrepreneurship at California Polytechnic State University (better known as Cal Poly) in San Luis Obispo. As a student, Becker helped develop the San Luis Obispo HotHouse, a supportive space for "students and community members as they work to create new innovations and start business ventures,” and the Cal Poly leg of Innovation Quest (IQ), an organization designed to fund the ideas of young entrepreneurs.

During the summer of 2011, Becker, a student at the time, met the inventors of InPress Technologies, who had applied for (and went on to win) the IQ Competition. InPress Technologies is a medical device company working to treat postpartum hemorrhage (PPH). PPH is excessive bleeding of a mother following the birth of a baby and makes up about 8% of the pregnancy-related mortality rate in the U.S.

With one semester left until her graduation, Becker became a co-founder and CEO of InPress Technologies, which was still in its infancy and being developed in the SLO HotHouse. She now works full-time on InPress, which is currently being developed at the Fogarty Institute for Innovation, a catalyst for medical device innovation.

What does your average work day look like?
“I don’t have an engineering background, but my main role is to support our entire team and make sure everyone has the tools and information they need in order to be successful and productive. Ultimately, I’m also the fundraiser for the company. I’m the one out on the road telling everyone our story, making sure the whole thing moves forward together.”

Did starting the company in a university setting make it any easier?
“It’s an incredible opportunity to start something in school because there are so many talented people that are very experienced and want to give back. And being a student and being able to tap into those resources is invaluable. The other part of starting something as a student is, when you start you don’t know how hard it’s going to be, and that’s almost a benefit. [What has] been absolutely critical to our success is the support that we’ve been able to get from people at the HotHouse, in the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and the Fogarty Institute. [Those resources have] been vital to our progress.”

How have you found that being a woman in your company and the startup industry has either helped you or hurt you?
“That’s a tough question to answer. I’ll start here: Because of the nature of our device, it’s been important that there is female representation on our team. It’s important, but it’s not the end-all-be-all.

"Women in the medical device field, especially in startups, are vastly underrepresented and that can help and hurt at the same time. And it has done both…I guess I would add on to that, ultimately, when you get down to it, our progress is based on the merits of our device and our company, and that’s the important thing to focus on, regardless of [gender].”
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Photo: Courtesy of Jasmine McDermott.
Jasmine McDermott, Z Living Systems

Jasmine McDermott, like Becker, is a successful Cal Poly and SLO HotHouse alum. However, McDermott’s line of work is more concerned with plant life than human. McDermott, 24, is — as she puts it — the "chief evangelist" of Z Living Systems. The startup is “a living wall manufacturer and design company” with the goal of “infusing nature into the places we live, work, and play.”

It’s pretty much the coolest design team you’ve (probably) never heard of, and is bringing new meaning to the term “urban landscape.” The company’s biggest installment can be seen in Playa Vista, Los Angeles, and is 12-hundred square feet — about the size of an Olympic swimming pool.

McDermott, who graduated from Cal Poly two years ago after studying business entrepreneurship, had tried her hand at a nonprofit and a friend’s startup before joining forces with Z Living Systems’ founder, Robert Zacks. At the time, Zacks was in the early stages of developing his idea in his parents’ backyard and was looking for a business partner.

The two entrepreneurs joined the HotHouse's Accelerator, an intensive, three-month long program, to develop their business model. McDermott and Zacks then graduated to the Incubator, where they've been working for just under two years.

What drew you to Z Living Systems?
“I think it was the company itself. [I think it was in] my subconscious, because my dad and grandmas are avid, avid gardeners. And I never realized how much I loved working with plants until I joined the company. I’ll be up on the wall pruning, and I can be doing it honestly for 10 hours straight, and I just have no concept of time. I think what mostly drew me to [Z Living Systems] is I felt that it was a great company and a great idea.”

How would you describe your position in the company?
“I like the term 'chief evangelist,' because I’m kind of the one who’s talking about the company; I like that aspect of it. I handle a lot of our marketing, but I’m also [Zack’s] right-hand person. My daily life, because we are startup, pings around.

"Last week I was in Venice, CA, for a week helping build out a wall, ordering plants. A couple months before I was doing our taxes. One great thing about the HotHouse is we have access to a lot of mentors, so I might be in a meeting with our marketing mentor. So it just varies on a day-to-day basis.”

What do you think is the most important or helpful aspect of the incubator?
“Without a doubt, it’s the resources. It’s the people that we get connected to. And like I said, a lot of people in our community that run successful businesses serve on our board. People donate their time, so we have access to an accountant, we have access to a patent attorney, stuff like that. That has just been so incredible for us because we’ve been able to work with amazing people and learn from them and be able to apply that to our company.”

How has being a woman affected you throughout your experience, either positively or negatively?
“My favorite question! I actually just finished reading Lean In. It’s definitely an eye-opener. I’ve kind of taken a step back to see how I interact and I don’t lean in in some ways...At the end of the day we’re a manufacturer, a construction company.

"So when I’m on site, I’m the only woman usually. I notice at times where I’m underestimated. Or people will approach me and say, ‘Oh you’ve been working for Robert.’ But it’s our company, we work alongside one another. In construction and tech, it’s still predominantly men. So it’s a very different experience. It’s very interesting...I’m trying to navigate it better and be more vocal and more present.”
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Photo: Courtesy of Sasha Spivak.
Sasha Spivak, Boxly, Inc.

Stanford University is known for producing successful tech heavy-hitters (SnapChat founder Evan Spiegel and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, just to name a couple), but you may not be familiar with some of the brilliant non-techies to come out of the Palo Alto school...

Sasha Spivak, ‘15, Alicia Seta, ‘15, and Carolyn McEachern, ‘15, are cofounders of the toy company Boxly, Inc., a 100% recyclable fort-building kit consisting of cardboard panels and injection-molded connectors. It began as a class project: The three product design students met in a mechanical engineering class in January 2015 where the assignment was to design a plan or product and make it real — a goal that these women achieved, and then some.

Spivak spoke with R29 about her experience co-founding the company.

How did you come up with the idea for Boxly?
"From the beginning, [my team] knew we wanted to make whatever we designed a reality, and we knew we wanted to [bring it to] Kickstarter. We all knew we wanted to work with kids in some capacity, and we knew we wanted to do some a toy or game...some kind of construction, some sort of creative element.

"The development process happened in several stages. We looked at some of the problems with current kids’ toys, and one of the things we identified is oftentimes they happen on screens, which we didn’t like, and they often have a very [rigid] set of instructions with one right way to play. We wanted to create something that let kids create their own play and make it different every time.

"Building forts [is] a universally loved activity...but kids want to use up all of the furniture in the house — which as a parent, is pretty problematic — and they don’t really want to take it down for a long time.

"We noticed a lot of interesting senses of nostalgia around the cardboard box. So many people we talked to said, ‘Oh, I used to love when my parents would get a new appliance, and I had this huge box to play in.’ We loved that idea. That’s how we came up with our initial prototype of Boxly, which was just a starter kit of panels and a set of basic acrylic connectors that we laser cut."

What was it that made you want to continue this after college?
"We were really passionate about the product and excited about the way that people perceived it. We incorporated people’s feedback. We tried to stay very connected and realistic. The Kickstarter was the first real test of that, because there’s a big difference between when people say, ‘Oh I would love to have that for my kids,’ and when they actually want to put down their credit card information.

"It was a really exciting step for us when we saw the market did receive it the way people were saying [it would]. The three of us work really well together as a team, and we wanted to make [Boxly] a reality."

How do you think being a student has helped you or been a challenge?
"I think the first thing that comes to mind is a challenge, which is that it becomes very tempting to design for yourself or market to your age-group, like the people that are around you...It’s great if [college students] can help us raise the money, but they’re not the users, necessarily. One of the hardest parts was really getting ourselves off campus, not only physically, but mentally, and into mommy blogs, mom communities, after-school programs, schools, things like that.

"Another challenge was that, especially at Stanford, the entrepreneurial energy is so deeply intertwined with tech, that it was actually a pretty interesting challenge to be not only creating a product, but a kids’ product — a toy, basically. A lot of the responses that we got were like, ‘Wait this is actually pretty cool.’ The ‘actually’ part was very present in a lot of our peers’ reactions. No one really expects you to be an entrepreneur in the toy space. We definitely had some defense to do in the beginning stages.

"But as a student — and again, especially at Stanford where there are so many resources for you to build a business — I would say we benefitted from that, we really tried to seek out the resources to help us."
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Photo: Courtesy of Milly Young.
Milly Young, Pallas Inc.

Milly Young, 24, is the cofounder of Pallas, Inc. and a graduate alum of the College of Engineering and Applied Science at CU Boulder. It was there, in January 2015, that she enrolled in a course called Entrepreneurial Business Plan Preparation and met a student named Adam Gold, who became her now-business partner.

It has been reported that hair loss is one of the aspects of chemotherapy that patients fear most about the treatment. Thanks to cryotherpay (scalp hypothermia), it’s now possible to significantly decrease the chances of hair loss. Due to its newness, there are only a few medical companies pursuing cryotherapy technology — and one of them is Pallas, Inc.

Can you tell me a bit about how you got involved with Pallas, Inc.?
“I took [Entrepreneurial Business Plan Preparation] as a grad student, but Adam was an undergrad student. The course is a combination between the engineering management school and the Leeds School of Business at CU Boulder. Adam pitched an idea that I’d never heard of before — it was a cold cap to mitigate hair loss in chemotherapy patients. My aunt, when I was a lot younger, was diagnosed with breast cancer...she would say that the hardest part was looking at herself every morning in the mirror and remembering that she was sick because she didn’t have any hair. So I was really moved by Adam’s idea."

What pushed you to follow through with the product beyond the class?
“I think the turning point for me was when I met up with the associate professor of medical oncology at the Denver Hospital, and she was really excited and very motivated and supportive of the whole idea...I asked her why she got involved [with] the cause, and she was saying there’s a specific type of chemo regimen where a lot of young women never grow their hair back...her emotion behind that — and then her excitement and support for what we’re doing —was the turning point for me."

Can you explain the technology behind it? What makes it work?
“It's basically a cap that goes on the patient’s head 30 minutes before, during, and two to four hours after a patient’s chemotherapy infusion. The cap cools the scalp, and the cooling of the scalp causes a decrease in the cell metabolism and also constriction of the blood vessels, so not as much of the chemotherapy drug, which targets rapidly dividing cells, gets into the hair follicles, allowing patients to keep their hair.

"The science is proven and the technology’s been around since the early '70s. Basically, we’re just trying to make a better mousetrap, because based on our experience talking to customers and clinicians, there are a lot of pain points in both the two competitors’ designs, and we’re going to be competing on efficacy, comfort, and ease of use.”

Did you have interest in the medical field in undergrad, or were you drawn to this specific product?
“I did my undergrad in finance and economics and my post-grad in environmental engineering, and always had dreams of getting into the social side of engineering. I had no medical background whatsoever, but Adam, he’s a mechanical engineer. I just really fell in love with his vision, and what he was trying to achieve…it takes a crazy person to try and live this [startup] dream, and statistically speaking, you’re probably going to fail. But if it’s something like this where you’re helping people, and it’s such a huge benefit to thousands of people globally...I think that’s what really made me fall in love with this idea.”
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