By: Paula Perez
At the start of this year, I spent four months in Boulder, Colorado going through the Semester Incubator for Social Ventures from Watson Institute, an intensive program designed to support young entrepreneurs from around the world tackling social problems. Additionally, I lived the entire time in Chautauqua Park, right under the beautiful Flatiron Mountains and only a walk away from downtown Boulder. It might be the most enriching experience I’ve had, and I hope other students can take advantage of this incredible opportunity.
I applied to the program a few months earlier with a venture StartUP FIU has helped me start, SWEET, focused on bringing safe and sustainable water to rural communities in Colombia. Needing to readjust our solution and keep moving forward, I knew I needed some time to step back from classes and focus on developing SWEET.
From the very start, Watson is very clear that you get out of the program as much as you put in it, they’re only there to help expose you to the right resources. The Semester Incubator program offers a combination of formal classes, a strong network of mentors, access to funding and connections to the vibrant entrepreneurial community in Boulder. I had access to content and coaching on topics related to entrepreneurship, transformative action (an empowering approach to personal development for social leaders), hard skills and master courses from brilliant entrepreneurs and innovators like Justin Gold and Phil McKinney.
Beyond this, any time I asked for help, someone from the Watson staff, or even a scholar themselves, would either have a cup of coffee themselves with me over the issue, or suggest a person, an event, a competition, that could be helpful.
The Spring 2019 cohort
Due to the small size of the program (only 21 scholars in my cohort) and the uniqueness of each venture, Watson is also designed to be flexible to everyone’s journey. Whereas I had some research and validation of the problem I was tackling, one of my flatmates had only come with an idea of a venture, while the other had impressive traction and was looking to make her next great leap. Again, you get what you make of the experience.
I must admit, I felt truly overwhelmed at times in the program; despite the beautiful mountains surrounding us, you never forget you are there to do your best work. Everyone had demanding goals to meet daily, weekly and monthly; and the Watson staff challenged and pushed us constantly. I had three brilliant mentors assigned to me as well, and with each developed an additional part of my venture that I couldn’t cover with the Watson staff.
Nonetheless, the Watson team knows fully well how exhausting it can be, and helped us with valuable tools to keep ourselves accountable to our goals, understand our productivity patterns better, and even step back occasionally to enjoy this unique experience.
Most surprisingly however, amongst scholars we formed some of the strongest relationships many had ever had. Coming from places like Papua New Guinea, Wyoming or Uganda, every scholar inspired me with their endless hustle for a good cause and their wisdom beyond their years Just getting to know them was already enough for the four months to be worth it.
Regarding SWEET, I had several failures but many successes too. With one mentor, I developed great part of a human-centred framework to develop water solutions with community input from start to finish, ready to be put to test in the coming months. I participated in several pitching competitions, learning how to leverage particular angles depending on the audience, as well as winning some funding and making meaningful connections. I figured out how to connect with our rural community members and understand them better even being thousands of kilometres away. I could go on for long about the countless learnings and advances I have been able to make.
Recipients of small grants at the Watson Summit
On a more personal level, my four main learnings are as follows:
People first. With meaningful relationships, everything else falls into place. People are always the most valuable resource, so nurture those relationships genuinely, giving more than you take.
Just ask. If there is anything you think could help you or your venture become better, just ask someone for it! The worst that can happen is getting turned away, but you never know what the best could be.
Failure is good. We hear this time and again, and being honest, it still often scares me. Yet either you learn or you win, so the more you practice and experience it, the more you gain.
Know what you need. From making sure your venture or job truly aligns with the life you want, to understanding where and when you focus best, listen to what you need. Not only will it make you happier, but your work will be better too.
Undoubtedly, this opportunity was possible for me due to all the support and selfless teachings from StartUP FIU. I was prepared to take advantage of all the resources around me, ask the right questions to the right people, and even benefit those around me with learnings from Bob Hacker and everyone else.
If you would like to know more about the program or my experience, or know someone else who would, do not hesitate to reach out! I would love to talk.
Paula is a mechanical engineering student working to address today’s toughest social problems through entrepreneurship. As the co-founder of SWEET, she is committed to providing rural communities with sustainable clean water. Feel free to connect through LinkedIn or at firstname.lastname@example.org.