CUNY Startups Accelerator: Turn Your Idea into a Business!

By Anders Wallace

CUNY Startups Accelerator

Photo by LagosTechie on Unsplash

Ever thought of a better way of doing things? Ever had an idea that could make a splash? Ever wanted to start your own company? Entrepreneurship skills are useful not just for embarking on your own business venture. They’re increasingly useful across all kinds of workplaces, from academia to the tech industry.

CUNY Startups is an organization that helps CUNY students learn entrepreneurship skills by building their own business projects using design thinking, lean startup, and agile development methods. They offer a four-month accelerator program that takes students from ideation, to research, to prototyping and implementing their business idea (all with up to $5,000 funding for your project). In addition, they offer weekend-long hackathons—which pair students from different CUNY campuses to share skills while working on a project—and Smartpitch, where students do competitive research, tech planning, market strategy, and business prototyping. No matter your academic background, you can apply to one of these programs and jump right in.

For this blog post, I sat down to talk with CUNY Startups’ executive director, Olga Bartnicki, who is herself a seasoned entrepreneur. In this interview, we discuss some of the ways that CUNY Startups can help you build something different, all while learning new skills and meeting people across academic disciplines.

Q&A with CUNY Startups’ Executive Director

Q: Tell me about CUNY Startups.

A: CUNY Startups’ main mission originally was to help CUNY students launch a startup. We run a startup accelerator, which runs for four months—from September to December, and then February to May. You come in with an idea—it doesn’t have to be a very developed idea, just the very beginnings of an idea. What’s more important is that you have a team that you can execute it with. It’s very difficult these days to be an entrepreneur, so you have to have a team of two or three people with whom you’re looking to build something. Ideally, these people have skills that are very different from yours.

So what we have found on our mission are a couple of interesting things. First, there’s a large set of students at CUNY who may not have a startup idea right this minute, but they are of an entrepreneurial makeup—they probably will start something someday; or, at the very least, they could probably get a pretty good job at a tech company in NYC. But even though we are in the second-largest tech ecosystem in the world right now, our [CUNY] students don’t think about it this way. The majority of them think, “well, to work in a tech company you need to be a computer science major.” And that is not true. Tech companies also need marketers, designers, people who do social media marketing, and accountants. They need any of the professions you’d find in any other company. [But] we have a gap of knowledge between what students are being taught and what the technology companies in NYC want them to know. So, in parallel to running a startup accelerator, we also have two events—one is a CUNY-wide hackathon, and the other one is called Smartpitch. At the hackathon, we run thirty-minute workshops where we introduce students to all these technologies that they’re not learning [in their classes]—including Javascript, Google Vision API, and NodeJS. Hopefully this creates enough of a spark of interest for them that they can either learn it on their own, or find other ways to learn these skills that will be highly valuable. [For the hackathon] you also come to compete. You form a team, and you have a team of three or four people—including a programmer, a business person, a designer, and maybe a marketer—and you work for two-and-a-half days straight from Friday to Sunday in a beautiful co-working space in Soho. In addition, there’s a schedule of workshops that are optional. On Saturday—the day when you still have some time to work on your project—we have workshops on all those [coding] languages and tools. Some of them are drag-and-drop [tools]. So, even if you don’t know any coding at all—as long as you’re someone who understands logic—you can drag and drop certain modules and actually create something that works. You don’t have to be a developer to do that, and in the end you can create functioning apps.

These events are targeting students who may not have an idea [for a startup] right now, but who should know what they need to know in order to find a good job in a tech company. Basically, students need to understand that there’s a gap between what they’re learning and what’s employable. We’re helping students see that gap and address that gap. As a designer, when you go and interview [for a job], you need examples of work that you can show to a potential employer that you’re proud of. So where do you get this kind of experience? Well, you go to a hackathon and you build a project. Or, you get together on a team with other students and you build something. In order for your project to be successful, and for it to be something you’re proud of, you need to find students with other skill-sets. Say you’re a developer and you know how to code—but you also need an idea that has some business sense. So, it would be nice to have someone on your team with some business savvy—and you need it to look good, so you [also] need a designer. You want to mix at least three skill-sets together, so you can build something [successful].

Q: How do you feel these programs can benefit CUNY students who are not computer scientists?

A: Some of these [coding] languages are not very difficult [to learn]. If you’re going to work in a tech company, then go to a couple of these [hackathon] workshops, try it on, and see “hmm, can I follow what’s going on? Does it make sense to me?” Because whether you’re a marketer or a product person, you’ll need to speak with developers and understand what they’re saying. Trying to jump in and do that is a good idea. A hackathon is not only for computer scientists. We, as a human race, are moving towards having everything be affected by technology. Simple things are starting to have artificial intelligence in them. So you should look around. If before you thought about the question—”Am I gonna work in tech or am I not gonna work in tech?”—now, regardless of your field, you are going to be working on something that is profoundly affected by technology. And if you don’t understand how to communicate with developers and product people, you’re going to be left behind. So you need to change this mentality. You are going into tech—whatever you are doing, there are going to be gadgets there.

We are in the second largest tech ecosystem in the world. Opportunity is right here, we just need to take advantage of it. That’s why we’re doing the hackathon. It’s important that programs like this are run by an entrepreneur, somebody who’s actually built a company from scratch, and who has failed one or two times. I have been a tech entrepreneur, I have two degrees, and I’ve failed three startups in a row. Finally I got some luck and the last two startups that I launched were successful. I sold one to Oracle. Once I had some success as an entrepreneur—it’s difficult, you have to work both smart and hard to get there—I asked myself “what do I want to do?” And I wanted to find a way to give back. So, being here and running this program is my way to give back. I’d like to find students who are similar to me. I came from Russia with nothing, on my own, at the age of 18. I went to a community college, and I always felt I was going to be an entrepreneur, but my financial situation really didn’t allow that to happen. And I felt CUNY is the place for people like me—people who are recent immigrants, who are here studying and taking their first [university] credits just like I did; and people who are entrepreneurial by nature, who believe in the American dream, who want to live it. I’m here to help them, and show them, step-by-step, “this is what you need to build a company.” And it’s coming from someone who’s been there and done that. Now, of course we employ the cutting-edge methods of how to build a startup that anybody would use. Our three fundamental approaches are [using] design thinking, lean methods, and agile development methods. These are the methods that are used by entrepreneurs around the world at this point. Our accelerator uses these three best methods, and we go step-by-step from idea, to building a pilot, to talking to customers, to launching it, to getting feedback, to passively pivoting and doing it again.

Q: That’s really valuable. At the start you said the accelerator helps students who may not have a tech background but who have an entrepreneurial mindset. What is an entrepreneurial mindset in your view?

A: To be honest, my sense is you sort of have it or you don’t—you were born with it, or you weren’t. I divide people into two types—there are idea people, and there are doers, people who get things done. Both are important. You have to have an idea around which people feel some passion. But just as important—if not more important—is getting it done. [The entrepreneurial mindset] is an internal desire to build something out of nothing. I don’t know why some people have a desire to build something out of nothing. They are people who are driven by this desire, or feeling, that “hmm—this is only an idea right now—but something real can come out of it.” And you may not have any skills yet to do that. But building something from scratch just attracts them, it speaks to them. It could be [building] a fruit stand, or it could be a technology thing—or maybe it’s just a product. It doesn’t have to be tech-oriented—it could be a mailbox for god’s sake. [For example] You want to design a better mailbox—that it’s more functional, it’s more attractive—and you don’t know how you’re going to do it yet, but you know you’re going to figure it out. What I’m passionate about is making sure that things actually see the light of day—getting things done. If you’re a PhD student, if you’re an ideas person, you need to know that about yourself. There’s nothing wrong with that—that’s great. You’re an ideas person, so you’re coming up with the ideas. But you need to understand that you can’t just be so in love with your idea that you think “well, it’s just my idea, and without my idea nothing would be here.” You have to value the execution of it. And you have to respect your co-founder who’s executing [it]. And you have to value their contribution. Likewise, the person who’s the doer, he or she needs to appreciate and respect the person who comes up with the idea. That kind of mutual respect, understanding, and value—that’s what makes for success.

Q: What strengths and weaknesses do you tend to find among CUNY graduate students who do the accelerator?

A: One [thing] is that they don’t know what they don’t know. They don’t know that there is a path to build a startup that has been tried by the best entrepreneurs around the world—[these are] the lean method, design thinking, and the agile method. A lot has been written about them. But you need to try them, and apply them to a project, to see how and why they come together, and how one supports the other. They’re not only applicable to starting a startup. Larger tech companies around NYC all decided to accept and absorb this principle, because they notice they’ve been successful. Right now, if you look around—places like Kickstarter, or Etsy, or Ebay, or even places like Target or Staples—they are all now taking these methods in, because they’ve seen that this is the most successful way to launch a new product. You’d want to learn these three methods [even] for a job interview. [CUNY] has students who have a lot of knowledge on a strategic and theoretical level—and that’s great, you need to see the big picture, that’s why you came to University—but as you’re thinking about a career, we find that our students don’t really know what the tech companies in NYC actually want, how they work, which methods they use, and how to make yourself attractive to them.

Q: Which students tend to come through the accelerator? Is there a trend in what fields of study they’re coming from?

A: No, there isn’t. We’d like to see a greater diversity of students [here] in terms of skillsets. The success of a project is almost directly correlated to the diversity of skillsets on a team. Our success depends on us meeting each other, finding each other with different skill-sets—not just hanging out with other students in your department whom you already know—to form a team. You never know when you’re going to start something. But if you know them and even if you reach out to them five years from now, that would be fantastic! You can reach out to them and say “Hey, what are you up to? Do you want to try this thing with me?” And maybe they’ll say “Yeah, why not!” One of the greatest things you can do for yourself while you’re at CUNY is to meet students who have opposite skill-sets from you. Maybe they’re at the same CUNY campus, or maybe they’re at a different campus. Put some effort in.

Q: Do you have any tips for how students can meet people outside their field?

A: Well it’s not easy. It’s a challenge for everyone. There are meetups you can go to. You should certainly go to hackathons—there are hackathons in NYC almost every other weekend. Some are a little bit more tech than others, and others are more like startup weekend-like—not quite like a hackathon, but more about coming up with an idea. So if you’re less of a techie, you can go to one of those startup weekends. You should be looking for people that are the opposite of you. If you’re looking for a designer, then say to yourself—”ok, if I were a designer, what would I do? Where would I hang out?” And then go where they go and meet them there.

Q: It’s a bit like dating.

A: It literally is. You’re looking for people with a particular skillset that you can get along with. You’ve got to get along. If you don’t get along with them, you need to find someone else. Chemistry matters as well, because it’s going to be somebody you’ll be working with for quite awhile, so you need to like each other, respect each other. Mutual respect and mutual appreciation on a team is of paramount importance.

Q: Are there any other resources in the CUNY system that students might not know about, that could help them learn some entrepreneurial skills or test out a startup idea?

A: There are some programs focused around learning to code. There’s a program called CUNY Codes. There’s a CUNY tech pipeline. There’s also a new program, CUNY Revature. They spend a year teaching you all the cutting-edge coding skillsets like Python, NodeJS, and Javascript. Then they place you with an employer that is a partner of theirs, and you work with them—I think for two years—and part of your salary gets sent back to them as reimbursement for what you learned. After that you can move anywhere else. If you’re a graduate student and you’re looking to take the next step, it’s not a bad way to go. Otherwise, there are coding academies in NYC like General Assembly, but they’re very expensive. This is an alternative way of doing it.