An interview with Startup@Brown lead organizer Valentin Perez ’18

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Even in an era of startup culture, where buzz terms like “disruptive innovation” and “knowledge economy” dominate headlines, College Hill stands out for its potential for digital creativity and innovation. The presence of both Brown and RISD on this elevated land has given rise to events like Hack@Brown and a Better World by Design, programs dedicated to the marriage of tech and aesthetics. And yet, for all these opportunities, there remains a notable lack of events focused solely on the startups themselves–with all the creative, financial, and corporate challenges that actually “starting up” a startup entails.

Filling this niche was the idea behind Startup@Brown, a self-described “weekend-long conference from Sept. 26–27 at Brown University that brings together innovative startups and talented students.” Blog sat down with Startup@Brown’s lead organizer Valentin Perez ’18, a sophomore dual-concentrating in CS and Applied Math. Originally involved with both the Brown Entrepreneurship Program and Hack@Brown, Valentin talked to us about some of his influences, the goals of the conference, and what attendees can expect from the first ever Startup@Brown.

What led to your decision to revive Startup@Brown?

I was looking through a Google Drive with photos from Hack@Brown and happened to see a logo for Startup@Brown, so I asked what it was. I’m really into startups. The original creators–Mackenzie Clark and Molly Long–had the idea together, but it had never fully happened because they didn’t have the time to follow through with the event. For me, when I saw it, I asked and they explained what happened and I told them that I had actually been thinking of doing something like this, partly because of my involvement with the Brown Entrepreneurship Program. I was thinking it could be a collaboration between the Brown Entrepreneurship Program and Hack@Brown. Then Atty and Sharon (Atty Reddy ’17 and Sharon Lo ’16, co-directors of Hack@Brown) put us in contact with the CS department in May and that’s when we started talking about what the event could end up being. Jeff Huang, a professor in the CS department, and Ugur Cetintemel, the department chair, were all excited about it, and said that we could take the lead of organizing it as students and that they would sponsor the event. They helped us a lot with contacts and people in the tech world. It was also super useful to have Lauren Clarke, who is the manager of the Industrial Partners program, helping us. After that I just started cold-calling startups. It was a pretty cool experience because some didn’t reply and some replied right away. Sometimes the CEO would even respond.

What niche do you think Startup@Brown fills that Hack@Brown doesn’t necessarily fill?

I think while both events do share a theme, which is learning, Hack@Brown functions more on building products and things for a weekend, whereas Startup@Brown is more about non-hands-on learning and hearing from experienced people in the business. It’s also a tech fair–an internship event–where part of the goal is to connect students with startups and other tech entities. It’s an event whose goal is really to inspire students about the startup world and demystify the idea that students themselves could also be startup founders. The way the event is structured is also specifically to achieve those goals because if it were just a big conference, just a lecture with 400 students listening, it wouldn’t be effective. So we structure it in terms of workshops where students split up into groups of 30 to 40 students and then a main leader talks about certain topics relating to startups. The second day is small group discussions where students can really get to know people related to startups. They can ask questions, engage in one-on-one conversations, which wouldn’t happen at other events. The resumes from the students are also being shared with the sponsors.

What are some exciting aspects of Startup@Brown that students can look forward to this year?

In addition to what I already mentioned, as always at tech events, there’s gonna be swag both from Brown organizations and the startups themselves. There will be food sponsored by the CS department, Hack@Brown, the BEP, and the startups. Also something cool is that we’re having directors from the two top tech accelerators in the world–TechStars and Y Combinator–come to speak. We’re actually having office hours with Kevin Hale of Y Combinator for 20 minute segments. And he will be giving very valuable advice to students working on startups at Startup@Brown.

If there’s one thing that you hope attendees will get out of Startup@Brown, what do you think that would be?

For me personally? I want them to feel empowered and made aware of the fact that they are able to build and be founders of their own startups. I want them to learn about the startup world, to see how it is, and to know that they too can be a part of that. It’s really hard, it’s tough, but it’s also fun. I just wanted to expose that super fun, fast-paced, hard but exciting world to students, if they’re interested.

Assuming everything goes well, can we look forward to another Startup@Brown next year?

I think it’s definitely an event we will do next year. We’ve gotten a lot of amazing responses from students; they’re really excited about the event. On the application, we put in the the question “why do you want to come to Startup@Brown?” And they wrote really cool reasons they want to attend. Also, the startup world unifies Brown and RISD, and I think kicking off the year with that unification of the schools is a great way to start. We’re also thinking of opening up the program to other schools in the future. It could be a way to connect to students of other schools, not just RISD.

Where do you see the event going in the future?

I’d like it to be an event that’s recognized across the US: that Brown is really a place where innovation and startups can thrive. You can definitely see that fact with this event–I feel like I want to attract other students, even prospective students, to see the events and realize how startup culture really is thriving on College Hill. More ambitiously, it might even start another movement like hackathons, startup events at other schools and across the country. Events that are not really as high-pressure as hackathons, but more learning about startups and getting together with entrepreneurial minds for a weekend.

While applications for this year’s event are closed, you can find out more about Startup@Brown on their website or Facebook page.

Image via Valentin Perez ’18.

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