Thinking Outside the Box: LEAPS Academy Fights Odds, Adapts to the COVID-19 Economy

Following the country’s shutdown last spring, business analysts theorized  a “startup depression”—new companies would hesitate to enter the job market because of the economic damage caused by the pandemic.

 Mariem Bchir ’19 and LEAPS Academy are fighting those odds.  

Last fall, Bchir and Walid Hedidar—a graduate from the University of Denver and current UNESCO Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education—were awarded a microgrant through The Hurt Hub’s Avinger Impact Fund for their project LEAPS Academy, a tutoring service for educators in Africa and the Middle East.

Each Fall and Spring, The Hurt Hub offers seed funding through the Avinger Impact Fund, a competition for aspiring Davidson entrepreneurs who “demonstrate a serious commitment to their proposed venture.” Launched in the honor of retired Economics professor Dr. Robert L. Avinger Jr, the Fund awards microgrants up to $10,000 to jumpstart their ideas. In Fall 2019, three projects were awarded grants: FundNet—proposed by Sebastian Charmot ’22 and Oğuzhan Colkesen ‘22—Impact Network—engineered by Emre Koc ’20, Altan Tutar ‘20, and Huseyin Altinsik ‘21—and LEAPS Academy, co-founded by Bchir.

LEAPS Academy “aims [to] revolution[ize] the design, delivery, and evaluation of teacher education…[and] create a network of super teachers…[to] develop students’ potential, reform educational structures, and revive learning ethics,” writes Bchir. LEAPS students complete a five-point curriculum, including training in leadership, ethical frameworks and trust-building, the “art” of teaching and experimental styles, educational psychology, and classroom construction.

Bchir founded LEAPS to combat the “educational crisis in Africa,” she says. Specifically, Bchir contends students in Africa and the Middle East struggle to access a quality education. By providing teachers “with support and training,” Bchir thinks students will have access to an education that will generate change “in and out of the classroom.”   

Initially, LEAPS intended to use the Avinger award to cover the costs of the program’s initial training in Tunisia. Given the unprecedented conditions imposed by COVID-19, LEAPS had to adapt: “The COVID-19 pandemic changed the trajectory of this year’s timeline,” Bchir writes, “we had to think outside the box and bring a more creative approach to teacher education. Since the beginning of the outbreak, we have been working on designing webinars for teachers in Tunisia and working on a virtual strategy for future work.” In fact, LEAPS has already made progress on designing virtual resources: “So far, we have organized a virtual webinar for teachers around education in times of cris[is]…We are also planning on shifting our summer training online.”

By the end of the year, Bchir plans to “invest the funds in providing accessible technology to our teachers [while] also preparing…our marketing strategy” including establishing LEAPS as an LLC in the US.

Beyond The Hurt Hub’s financial support, LEAPS’s exposure to the support team at the Hub trained them to adapt to unpredictable conditions.  “The Hub… provided the space and mentorship for LEAPS…[We] enjoyed brainstorming and creating content over the weekends in the Hurt Hub. Furthermore, we participated in several competitions such as Failure Fund, Venture Fund, and Avinger Fund [which] provided mentorship from amazing mentors.” In particular, Bchir wished to “shoutout” Evan Charles Rozantes of Launch Academy and Connyre Corbett from Corvos Labs + Venture Studio, who serve as the LEAPS team’s mentors. “They [to this day] continue [to] encourage us and give us constructive feedback.”

 While some worry of a “startup depression,”  LEAPS Academy exemplifies how small startups can pivot according to the economic climate and continue to develop. Perhaps having the ability to adapt will, in turn, develop into a successful business. 

ermoreauThinking Outside the Box: LEAPS Academy Fights Odds, Adapts to the COVID-19 Economy
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One Year Later: Shea Parikh and “Jam” Adapt in 2020

Last year, six finalists—including three current Davidson students and three recent graduates—competed in the 2019 Davidson Venture Fund Pitch Competition (DVF), an annual event hosted by The Hurt Hub@Davidson. Winners of the competition are awarded a $25,000 seed investment to start their for-profit ventures. Contestants were given five minutes to pitch their ideas to a panel of investors and entrepreneurs, followed by a round of questioning from the panel. Their ideas ranged from an app to construct diet plans for cancer patients to a mobile beauty bar. After deliberating, the judges selected Shea Parikh ‘16 for his company Jam, which offers an app to help companies design face-to-face social interactions between employees, which leads to better relationships, connectivity and productivity across the firm.

After winning the 2019 DVF, the Davidson founder relocated to the greater New York City area to continue building Jam. Last month, Juan Diaz Mercado ‘22 checked in with Parikh to learn about Jam’s inaugural year.  

Parikh credits the generous investment from the DVF as the catalyst for the company’s development: “[the] direct investment [from DVF] helped give Jam the resources to hire engineers to continue building the product.” Beyond raw capital, he recognizes how the DVF “provided a platform to engage with Davidson alumni.” Parikh insists developing these connections were essential to Jam’s first steps: “establishing these connections…provided invaluable advice on how to navigate the early days of trying to get a company off the ground.”

However, Parikh reports that communications with the consumer significantly contributed to Jam’s growth over the last year. He writes that at the beginning of the year, Jam started “simply” as a “culture-building tool” which “uses metadata from communication networks…to help employees find the people and information they need.” Over the past year, the company pivoted its business model: “we learned there was value in [culture-building]…value [that] companies were willing to pay for. [So] over the past year we’ve learned we were dancing around a much bigger opportunity.” Through conversations with the consumer, Jam “moved away” from an optional culture-building tool to “an internal communications tool…for larger companies.”

According to Parikh, this dialogue with the customers—the “getting feedback, positive or constructive”—was his favorite experience. “It’s largely humbling because you realize customers don’t actually want the thing you think they want…with every new conservation, I think we take one step closer to finding that fit which is very exciting.”

But perhaps the defining moment of Jam’s inaugural year would be the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The ongoing pandemic—which has closed down businesses across the nation and forced many to work from home—made Parikh realize the importance of interpersonal communication. Accordingly, he made it Jam’s mission to maintain cross-team communication under these unprecedented conditions: “COVID has made it painfully clear that remote work is here to stay. Going forward, Jam can play an integral part in helping employees access the information and the people they need to do their best work.”  

Parikh concluded the interview with some advice to future DVF applicants: “Absolutely apply [for the DVF]…If you have an idea you’re excited about and you’ve done some work to validate it, the worst thing that can happen is you don’t win. On the upside, you receive some capital that can jumpstart growth and you get a platform to connect with the Davidson alum base.” 

Although the 2020 DVF Pitch Competition scheduled for late April was postponed due to COVID-19, The Hurt Hub looks forward to rescheduling it when it is safe for the community to return to campus. 

The author, Iain Anderson, would like to thank Juan Diaz Mercado ‘22 for sharing his interview notes. 

ermoreauOne Year Later: Shea Parikh and “Jam” Adapt in 2020
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A Leap of Faith: Greenhills Win Prestigious International SCALE Challenge

Although the ongoing coronavirus pandemic temporarily closed The Hurt Hub’s doors in April and May, coworking members Judy and Zach Greenhill continue to find success. 

Earlier this month, their company Greenhill AntiBallistics—one of the 82 companies operating out of The Hurt Hub—won the International SCALE Challenge, an international contest for innovative, high-tech companies to “advance the supply chain and logistics industry.”

“[We’re] exhilarated!” The Greenhills wrote.“Each validation we get….is a big win. [But] this one is especially sweet because CAI [Center for Advancing Innovation] is an international competition judged by experts…The life of a startup like ours…is exhilarating peaks and the deepest of valleys. This is definitely one of the peaks.”

For the competition, the Greenhills submitted their product, Force Disruption Platform (FDP), a nanotechnological material designed “to reduce force of impact up to 50% in the thickness of a dime” by “disrupting kinetic energy and reduction platform.” Greenhill AntiBallistics designed FDP to protect children, athletes, and soldiers from traumatic brain injuries. For the CAI SCALE Challenge, the Greenhills proposed using FDP to protect packages during shipping, which would “enable size and weight reduction” which would not only facilitate package delivery but could increase the capability of drone delivery. 

“FDP was conceived by…standing on a subway platform staring at a 75-gallon bin and thinking about how to protect people from terrorists. [Our] goal evolved as we learned about the terrible toll on children, soldiers, and athletes of Traumatic Brain Injury and blunt trauma,” the Greenhills write. “Since the current solution isn’t working, i.e., tweaking macroscale technology, which is thicker and heavier, we decided the solution is to be thinner and lighter with better protection.”

The Greenhills, however, acknowledged that their success did not come without challenges. “There were a lot of obstacles, e.g., composition, production and cost… Another problem [was] skepticism that a material thinner and lighter can offer greater protection than thicker and heavier, macroscale materials…but we overcame these by having a great team and skilled DOD contractors for R&D, testing, etc. GABC solved that…by benchmarking FDP against those materials; but any invention requires a leap of faith.”

The Greenhills also recognized the support from The Hurt Hub and the Davidson community: “The Hurt Hub and the Davidson community have been tremendous for us.  The Hub is exactly that: a place where entrepreneurs gather, share their travails, learn of opportunities, interact with the community, and launch.” They recalled how The Hurt Hub connected them with Startup Grind, the world’s largest community of startups, founders, innovators, and creators. This past February, the Greenhill AntiBallistics was one of eight North Carolina companies to attend the Startup Grind Global Conference. 

As winners of the CAI SCALE Challenge, the Greenhills will be a featured technology at an invitation-only Investor Forum in Northwest Arkansas this fall. Attendees are companies which work and invest in the supply chain: “we hope to interest these companies in a strategic partnership and investment to complete the integration of FDP into the supply chain.” When they return, the Greenhills hope to “approach large big box retailers and package delivery services to use FDP.” 

ermoreauA Leap of Faith: Greenhills Win Prestigious International SCALE Challenge
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To Our Community

Dear Hurt Hub community,

Today, we acknowledge the unrest and pain in our community and our country, stemming from systemic racism and police brutality. This past week, our team has reflected upon our collective responsibility and duty to respond with action. In that process, we returned to our values, posted on the wall above our coworking desks:
 
OUR VALUES 
Our strength is in our community.
Our passion is impact.
Our drive is to accelerate.

WE… 
Respect diversity of all kinds.
Make friends, not contacts.
Believe in giving, not taking.
Help others before helping ourselves.
Listen before advising.
Celebrate success and failure.
Never stop learning.

WHAT DRIVES INNOVATION 
Innovation exists where diversity of culture, age, origin, gender, experience and perspective collide to test our limits and push our boundaries.


Today we reaffirm these values as we stand in solidarity with Black, Indigenous, and people of color members of our community: students, colleagues, coworking members and local residents. We admit these values are only a start, and there is more work to do to become the community we aspire to be. It is not enough to respect diversity of all kindsas an engine of innovation; we must actively and loudly condemn racism, and the acts of discrimination and violence spawned by it, as utterly reprehensible and unacceptable. We pledge to never stop learning, and to listen before advising, as we educate ourselves, examine our own structures and practices, and work toward a more just and welcoming community.

Our strength is in our community. 

As a community, The Hurt Hub@Davidson is committed to diversity, equality, and inclusivity. We believe that while intentionality is important, actions speak louder than words. To that end, The Hurt Hub@Davidson is committed to: partnering with organizations, leaders and financial supporters who affirm these same priorities of diversity; building diversity and inclusion into all programs, events and services we provide; and increasing diversity among those we serve and who serve.

As we continue to resume our normal operations over the course of this year, we will host opportunities for community discussions including round tables, lunch and learns, and more. We encourage you to join us in doing this necessary work for as long as it takes, knowing we can’t solve the problem overnight.

We welcome your ideas, suggestions and ongoing dialogue about how we can continue to make The Hurt Hub@Davidson a diverse and affirming community for everyone. 

With hope,
The Hurt Hub team
ermoreauTo Our Community
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Interview With Bill Freeman: Co-Founder of PureSkill.gg

Interview With Bill Freeman, Co-Founder of PureSkill.gg

Tell me about your business, PureSkill.gg. Can you describe it in 2 sentences?

PureSkill.gg is an automated AI videogame coach. We help players get better by telling them what they’re doing wrong and how to fix it. 

When did you start PureSkill.gg and why?

It started as a project to get myself into Data Science after graduating with a Ph.D. in physics. This was in late 2018. I wanted to explore data that I enjoyed working with (video game replay files). On the side, I was helping players who were struggling to get better with their play. The combination of these two is basically where PureSkill.gg came from. I met my two co-founders in graduate school and we had stayed connected through playing videogames.

Now, what’s one thing we should know about Bill Freeman that most people don’t know?

I played the saxophone for 10 years and at LSU during my freshman year.  I also played Rugby for LSU my sophomore year! 

Has  PureSkill.gg  made any pivots recently due to COVID-19?

Gaming is one of the industries that is increasing during this time. Our business plan has not fundamentally changed but we are moving faster. The NC IDEA Micro grant came just at the right time to help us do that. 

Congrats on the NC IDEA Micro Grant (1 of only 16 companies to be awarded $10,000)! Can you tell me a little bit about your application process and how you plan to use the grant money?

This is the third time I have applied for a grant from NC IDEA. The first time was in 2018 before the business was fully formed. The second time was the fall of 2019 when we were further along. Those first two were applications to the SEED grant ($50,000) and then we switched to the Micro-Grant for the third time. It was helpful to go through and answer the application questions. It teaches you what you don’t know about your business. Each time, the application process got easier and we were able to complete it faster.

We are using most of the funds to update the frontend of our application. Right now we have built a lot of the backend software but the frontend is not where we want it to be. The microgrant will help push us forward. 

What does your team look like right now?

We have three co-founders. Me in Mooresville, Evan Sosenko in San Francisco and Ethan Batson in Seattle. From the beginning, our company has always been remote so that has not changed with us. With the funds, we are bringing in a front-end contractor. 

Have you leveraged the Hurt Hub’s network during this time? If so, how?

Yes, I have used a lot of resources out of The Hurt Hub. I attend Startup Grind Meetings, Pitch Breakfast, and 1 Million Cups. We also have two business mentors from The Hurt Hub Mentor Program. Additionally, I participated in a panel about esports investing at The Hurt Hub and I have leveraged the surrounding Charlotte entrepreneurial ecosystem.

I think I found out about the NC IDEA grants through something at The Hurt Hub!

How have you or your company grown since entering The Hurt Hub Mentor Program?

It was a very easy process to get mentors through The Hurt Hub. We have had a few meetings with them and they have helped advise on a few tricky business problems.

What are the next steps for you? 

The end result of the front end revamp will be a “pay what you want”, Kickstarter style of monetization. This will help us understand how much people will pay for our product at an early stage (when we don’t have a complete product yet). We believe this will be a good indicator of our long term success. 

What keeps you up at night these days?

The level of power that game developers have. Game developers have shut down similar companies for helping players while they are playing the game (which gives them an unfair advantage). We always help after they’re done playing, and we are confident that the symbiotic nature of our product with the game developers will only lead us to a good relationship.

What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve made for your business? (Could be an investment of money, time, energy, etc.)

I think our WordPress developer is our best investment. We lucked out by finding a low-cost overseas contractor who did really high-quality work to get some of our very early work done. 

What is a common advice, business philosophy, or metric that you do not subscribe to or actively advocate against? Why?

I think I might be against most advice in general. You know your business the best so be careful about taking advice. Feel free to not take everyone’s advice. 

Anything else you’d like to share?

Even though two of our co-founders are not in Charlotte, this is very much Charlotte-based company. A ton of resources have come of Charlotte and that is from all the networking and connecting that I’ve down here. The Hurt Hub has really helped out.

ermoreauInterview With Bill Freeman: Co-Founder of PureSkill.gg
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Interview With Ciara May: Founder of Rebundle

Interview with Ciara May, Founder and CEO of Rebundle

Tell me about your business, Rebundle. Can you describe it in 2 sentences?

Rebundle is a synthetic hair brand that is better for the scalp and better for the environment. My mission is to eliminate single-use plastic waste and skin rashes from the hair.

When did you start Rebundle and why?

I was working at Johnson C. Smith and my boss was flexible and one summer I got really into sustainability. To rewind a bit, when I joined VFA (Summer of 2018) I was completely bald and was wearing braids back to back for months. My head was on fire all the time from the itching. I started researching what the hair was made out of and realized a lot of women were having the same issues. Simultaneously, I   found out the hair was made of plastic and I wanted to find a way to recycle it. The point of Rebundle was to stop the waste and stop my scalp from  itching. I immediately knew Rebundle was a viable business. I thought of the idea last June (2019) and applied for my first grant in July. I have always been entrepreneurial in nature and so I had the resources to start putting my ideas to paper. The first thing I did was call anyone who might be helpful and conduct customer discovery. 

Now, what’s one thing we should know about Ciara that most people don’t know?

I’d like to think that my superpower is figuring things out and calling on people for help. I think this is a unique skill that not many people realize can help get your company from point A to point B. I get really creative to get the answers that I need. 

Has  Rebundle made any pivots recently due to COVID-19?

Since pre-launch I had intended to spend this time in salons with stylists learning how to get their business. Instead, I have been calling them to do this research. I also am going to start letting anyone (not just friends) mail in their hair to recycle. 

Congrats on the NC IDEA Micro Grant (1 of only 16 companies to be awarded $10,000)! Can you tell me a little bit about your application process and how you plan to use the grant money?

I came up with the idea last June, and  immediately got serious about grants. I went through the UNCC Ventureprise discovery program and thought that would help me get an NC IDEA grant. I applied last year and did not receive the grant. This time around, I focused more on tangible ideas. I showed them how the funding will help me get my idea from point A to B.   

I plan to spend most of my grant money on manufacturing and some on pilots with salons once they reopen. The rest will be used for marketing and my website. 

What does your team look like right now?

It has been just me all this time. I actually had a conversation yesterday with a woman who has a background in chemistry. I’ve been looking for a technical co-founder since day one. I have a lot of mentors who I lean on for very specific reasons such as accounting or marketing but I am the only full-time team member.

Have you leveraged the Hurt Hub’s network during this time? If so, how?

Yes, I have two mentors from the program. At first, I met with them on a monthly basis but now I reach out to them as needed. I speak to my mentor Louis pretty regularly. I like to figure out what I need and who has it. I spend a lot of time on the phone. 

How have you or your company grown since entering The Hurt Hub Mentor Program?

Well I hadn’t received my NC IDEA grant prior to joining the mentor program! My mentor, Louis, helped me focus on proving out the business model which was crucial to winning the grant.

What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve made for your business? (Could be an investment of money, time, energy, etc.)

Time. I left my job at Johnson C. Smith to work at a Fintech company to learn new skills. But by working at the fintech company, I had lost my time. I am now working full time on Rebundle.

In the last five years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life?

Asking for help.

ermoreauInterview With Ciara May: Founder of Rebundle
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A Quarantine Business?

Written by Lauren Wolfe ’20 (Failure Fund Recipient)

Last spring while browsing the internet for a birthday present, I found the perfect gift on Etsy—a customized bracelet with my friend’s initials. After I saw her wearing it, I realized I could make the same bracelet for a fraction of what I paid. I started researching exactly what I needed to make and sell stamping jewelry myself.

Serendipitously, I learned about Davidson’s Failure Fund at the same time. I wrote up a proposal to cover the cost of the materials (steel block, hammer, stamps, ink, bending tools, bracelets and discs) and was thrilled when they approved my idea. I ordered all the tools and started making jewelry.

One thing I learned running my Etsy shop was how quickly expenses can add up. I originally thought I only needed the tools previously mentioned. As an inexperienced seller, I never thought about things like jewelry boxes to put the finished pieces in, jute twine to wrap the boxes, poly mailers, packing tape, jewelry pliers, shipping label pouches. Or the cost of the wasted raw material I had to discard when the personalized pieces I stamped were not ‘perfect’ enough to be sold.

With the support of the Failure Fund, I learned to think more thoroughly and comprehensively about running a small business, from how one should request samples of the raw material before purchasing in bulk to packaging and shipping, and the importance of carefully budgeting for every step in the process.

Now that everyone is in quarantine, I noticed that loungewear is really popular. My Instagram explore page is inundated with expensive (and mostly sold-out) tie-dyed sweatshirts and sweatpants sets. Based on my jewelry-selling experience, I was pretty sure I could run a profitable tie-dye loungewear business. I bought a few crewnecks and some Rit dye in colors I thought would be popular. I loved the way they turned out! I thought other people would too, so I applied for the Failure Fund again. I’m unbelievable grateful Davidson offers a grant like this that encourages students to explore their dream business opportunities by offering start-up capital. Thank you so much, Failure Fund!

ermoreauA Quarantine Business?
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