Startup Summer, Our Paid Internship for Student Founders

by Jul 22, 2022

Crossposted from the Herald-Times, this is The Mill’s regular column, written by Pat East, Executive Director.

This week at The Mill, we’re celebrating the close of our inaugural Startup Summer. We couldn’t be happier about how it went. Six collegiate founders spent the last eight weeks at The Mill, working intensely to develop their businesses and forge closer ties with the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Next week at Demo Day on July 28, from 12-2 pm at The Mill, they’ll pitch their startups to an audience of Mill members, founders, and entrepreneurs, showing off the progress they’ve made over the summer. Demo Day is a celebration for these founders and the community. After their pitches, everyone in attendance will have the opportunity to speak with them one-on-one and learn more about what they’re building.

Their innovative business ideas span building supply, to ballet shoes, and beyond.

    • Andrew McMaster and Brandon Wening founded Finniva, a software company that streamlines the material supply order process for real estate development projects.
    • Eli Serrano founded Airoma, the first Augmented Reality social media that gets people connected and excited to go outside to explore.
    • Lauren Wanders founded Degasó, which uses a high-quality, innovative device to allow dancers to spend less time sewing their pointe shoes and more time chasing their passion.
    • Aiden Gonzalez founded Hiraeth, which aims to be an accelerator for apparel designers and provide a retail location for startup clothing lines.
    • Parker Busick founded Soloist, which allows musicians who are playing alone to practice with the other musicians.

It takes a lot of time and energy to start a business while also going to school full time, and that’s why we created Startup Summer. We wanted to give these driven collegiate founders a chance to really focus on their startups and get expert support. We also wanted them to build strong ties to Bloomington’s startup community.

And what we realized through collaborating with other entrepreneurial support organizations and mentoring student founders through our current programs was that in order to get those results, we’d need to pay students for their time. Essentially, Startup Summer is a paid internship for collegiate founders. Rather than working for a big business, they’re working for themselves—making progress on their startup, instead of making coffee and copies.

Providing a stipend is important because these talented, ambitious students have lots of options for internships. If we want to attract and retain talent in Bloomington, we have to step up to the plate and compete to offer them opportunities. When Andy Lehman, our Head of Accelerator Programming, asked this year’s participants what they’d be doing if not for Startup Summer, they said things like, “I’d still be working on my startup, just not here and just not focused,” and “I definitely would have gotten a part-time job.”

We started developing the concept for Startup Summer in fall of 2021, with help from students from the Social Enterprise Engagement at Kelley (SEEK) at IU. We figured if we want to run a program designed for collegiate founders, we should get some input from the target audience. SEEK ran a Case Competition to help us build a framework for the program. The competitors came through with some great ideas and suggestions that we were able to implement, including a budget plan, length of programming, a blind review process, and ideas for how to engage the ecosystem.

We kicked off the program on June 6. Over the course of the summer, founders have held weekly progress meetings with Andy Lehman, our Head of Accelerator Programming, attended focused sessions on key business growth areas, and learned from expert guidance and strategy. We put on roundtable sessions with JR Ricker of Townee regarding product/market fit, Hyundo Kwon from gBETA regarding metrics, Audrey Wessel of Gutwein Law regarding startup legal advice, and Michelle Casady and Mark Truax from Northwest Bank about financials. “The sessions have helped us contextualize the content — seeing how what we learned in class at IU and what we’re doing is applied in the real world from other founders,” one of the founders told us.

These founders have made incredible progress on their startups this summer. They’ve also taken advantage of special opportunities to engage with and support the ecosystem.

    • Founders attended the Elevate Nexus Conference, Indiana’s largest annual gathering of educators, students, and entrepreneurial support organizations, for a day of everything startup at 16 Tech in Indianapolis.
    • They served as mentors for the Young Entrepreneurs Camp and as judges for the Lemonade Day Pitch Competition, two K-12 programs The Mill runs in partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Bloomington.
    • They joined the Mandela Washington Fellows, 24 of Africa’s bright, emerging civic engagement leaders, for lunch and pitches in The Mill’s Event Hall. (Lauren from Degasó got a huge round of applause in the middle of her pitch.)
    • They took a road trip to Columbus to watch other founders pitch at the gBETA Bloomington/Columbus Demo Night. (On the bus there, Eli Serrano made a connection to someone at IU interested in developing augmented reality campus tours.)
    • They participated in their first mentor swarms (none of the cohort had experienced one previously) with Mill graduates (Jennie Moser of Stagetime and Hunter Hawley of Blueprint Stats) and others in the ecosystem.
    • They provided feedback on pitches to a group of entrepreneurs from the Global Business Institute, a joint program through the IU Kelley School of Business and American University of Beirut.

These opportunities helped contextualize what it means to be a part of an entrepreneurial ecosystem. As one of the student founders told us later, “The idea of an ‘ecosystem’ was really squishy to me – it was hard to know what that really meant. But being here this summer and meeting with all those people so excited to help us as well as us getting an opportunity to give back, I truly get what it means to be a part of an entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

We hope they continue to grow their startups, and in a few years, maybe they’ll serve as mentors to a new cohort of Startup Summer collegiate founders.