By Alana Bonfiglio ‘22, Journalism

Classroom at Lehigh Nasdaq Center
Classroom at Lehigh@NasdaqCenter

Music industry startups, late night food in a college town, exploring the connection between video games and sports, innovative marketing strategies, and photography businesses, all while trying to pass their classes. College students are brimming with entrepreneurial ideas. But for these students, entrepreneurship is about so much more than a single innovative idea. Research has shown that having the right mindset is key to successful entrepreneurship.

Lehigh@NasdaqCenter spoke with student entrepreneurs across the country about their entrepreneurial journeys, and five critical attributes emerged as vital to the students’ success. Below, student entrepreneurs share their experiences cultivating their entrepreneurial mindset and lessons learned along the way. 

Uncertainty and ambiguity tolerance

While many people run in the other direction from the unknown, Lehigh University student Eve Freed '21 actually relishes uncertainty. So much so that she ran for the position of student government president in March 2020 despite having no idea what the next year would look like.

“The uncertainty, the ambiguity—I like that because I am, at heart, the most curious person,” she said. 

Freed said that while the connection between student government and entrepreneurship may not be obvious to some, every single skill she learned in her presidential role has prepared her for her current career in the startup world. 
 
“I think that something unknown means I get to learn about something, and that’s what’s so exciting to me about the ambiguity,” she said.
 
Madison Smith, who studied at Mt. San Jacinto College, hasn’t always seen herself as an entrepreneur, but said her life experiences kept pointing her in that direction. Now, Smith owns and operates her very own photography business. Despite being a full-time entrepreneur for over two and a half years, Smith still deals with the unknown. 
 
“I deal with uncertainty at every single photoshoot, whether it’s kids, lighting, or anything else,” she said. “I have learned over time not to put too much pressure on myself and to prepare for the uncertainty ahead of time.”

When Alana Hulse graduated from high school, she wasn’t sure what path she wanted to take. Instead of immediately enrolling in college with a major she wasn’t sure about, Hulse chose to begin her career in retail. 
 
“I think the great thing about the workforce is it teaches you what you like and what you don't like,” she said. Hulse said her experience in retail work helped her realize that she wanted a creative career that allowed her to help people. She is now pursuing her degree in marketing at Mt. San Jacinto College.

Resilience

After being exposed to entrepreneurship through Lehigh University’s Baker Institute, Eve Freed knew that she wanted to pursue a career in the startup world. But not every venture has been entirely smooth-sailing. 

Despite working on a startup in the music industry since January, Freed said that at this point she and her team are not as far along in the process as they would have hoped to be. However, she is not looking at the unexpected timeline as a negative. 

“Every single failure is an opportunity to learn and to solve a new problem,” she said.
 
UC Riverside student Javier Manzo has had to be resilient throughout his academic career. “I spent a lot of time trying to understand things a lot of people grasp incredibly fast,” he said. 

Manzo credits his resilient work ethic for his accomplishments. “It just takes time for me to understand things, and I take the time that’s needed,” he said. “That’s the reason why I’m able to get accepted into the Nasdaq program, or get really good grades or have scholarships.” 

First generation college student studying at Bakersfield College, Isabel Alcocer, has wanted to be her own boss for as long as she can remember. Alcocer said she had difficulty accepting failure during her younger years, but witnessing the resourcefulness of entrepreneurs through her internships at Bloom Bras and Ally Shoes has changed her mindset. 

“My main objective now coming out of failure is just to continue working hard and not let failure define me as a person,” she said. “It's just part of the process.”

Opportunity recognition and exploitation 

During his time at Lehigh University, Juwon Owolabi '22 and his classmate noticed the lack of late night dining options for local students and people of the Lehigh Valley. Soon after, their fast casual restaurant, LJ’s Midnight Munchies, was born.

Owolabi said he does his best to see the problems of the world as opportunities for solutions. “Once you instill that mindset into your life, you start to see the world in a different light,” he said. 

From making and distributing music to operating a moving business, Andrew Medina, who attended Reedley College, seems to have a sixth sense for entrepreneurial opportunities. Recently noticing the lack of video game repair around where he lives, Medina began a business fixing and selling retro video games. 
 
“I have new ideas I come up with constantly,” he said. 
 
During his volunteer experience with children with disabilities, UC Berkeley student Jayden Zheng became fascinated with the children’s affinity for sports video games. After speaking with the video gamers, Zheng recognized the games’ ability to facilitate connections and improve athlete’s performance. He became determined to bring that value to the world of soccer. It was the recognition of this opportunity that led to the founding of FAFA Match, Zheng’s online platform that matches athletes, coaches, and video gamers to form sports chaining sections. 

Hulse said that her time in the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center’s internship program was a turning point in recognizing her desire to pursue an entrepreneurial career in marketing. By seizing the opportunity to work for a startup, Hulse gained valuable skills she is now utilizing as she takes on her first freelance marketing client. 

While much of America baked sourdough and binge-watched Tiger King, Alcocer said that she recognized her extra free time during the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to develop her entrepreneurial skills. 

“At first I felt a lot of mourning for what I had lost,” Alcocer said. “At the end of the year, I felt really proud of myself for being able to make the most of it and learn a lot of new things about myself.”

Mistakes and failure competence

Shortly after starting his restaurant out of a residence hall on Lehigh University’s campus, Owolabi received a call from Lehigh Residence Services telling him he was not allowed to operate LJ’s Midnight Munchies out of his building. 

Owolabi said that since the company was at such an early phase of development, it would have been easy to call it quits on the business then and there. Instead, Owolabi finished his classes for the day and proceeded to spend two hours walking around Lehigh’s neighborhood of Bethlehem, PA, searching for kitchen space to rent.

“You can either look at problems as the end of the road, or you can find a solution,” he said. 

UC Davis student Rasleen Kaur also said that she takes every mistake as an opportunity to learn. Hulse said that she views life as a big learning experience. 

In high school, Manzo bought chewing gum in bulk at Costco and sold it to his classmates for a profit. But it wasn’t until his time at his local community college that he developed an understanding of entrepreneurship. After interning with Stockcard through the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center, Manzo began investing significantly in the stock market, where he credits his ability to bounce back from mistakes and failures.

“I’ve made a lot of errors,” Manzo said. “I’ve lost a lot of money, and I’ve learned from that. I’ve realized that I will never lose until I quit. If I just make small minor errors, that’s just an opportunity to learn and to grow.”
 
During the height of the pandemic, Alcocer took a risk by obtaining a job in a new field. She very quickly realized that she missed creating and being her own boss. Now Alcocer is developing her own brand. 
 
“I try not to get too overwhelmed or to focus on the feeling of failure,” she said. “I just look at it as an opportunity to move forward with stronger skills.”
 
Just a few weeks ago, Smith did a photoshoot she described as “not her best work” and said she felt really down about it. Instead of remaining frustrated, Smith took a step back and wrote down everything she wanted to improve on. 
 
“Learning never stops,” she said. “It’s about being able to get back up again.”

Value creation

Kaur said she was introduced into the entrepreneurial world by her first ever internship through the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center. During this experience, Kaur was tasked with student outreach and was struggling to recruit student applications using a traditional email marketing strategy. Drawing on her unique perspective, Kaur redesigned the student outreach effort by creating a Canvas campaign that specifically targeted students like herself. Ultimately, her campaign was responsible for driving over 40% of student applications. 

“I realized that I may not have the same education level as the managers or even my peers, but there's a lot of input that I can bring from my own experiences," she said. 
 
"The baseline of what you do as an entrepreneur is creating value for people," said Owolabi, who said serving his community motivates him to continue with his business. 
 
When we look at the Bill Gates' and Steve Jobs' of the world, it may be tempting to credit their success to innovative ideas. In reality, it takes years of trials and tribulations to build the kind of mindset that allows for entrepreneurial success. Through their own ventures, internships and academic experiences, these students show us that it takes time and effort to cultivate the mindset of a successful entrepreneur. 

Learn more about Lehigh@NasdaqCenter’s research on what makes an entrepreneurial mindset

There’s not just one path to entrepreneurship, there are many. What’s yours?

Rob Gerth

Rob Gerth

Rob Gerth is director of marketing and communications at Lehigh Business.