SU News story by Mary Beth Horsington
As sophomores in 2017, student-entrepreneurs Kevin Rieck and Tay Lotte faced choosing between their start-up company and pursuing a degree. With the support of Syracuse University they were able to reach their business goals while continuing their education.
When Kevin Rieck ’19 started college at Syracuse University, the Chicago native had a rather unusual plan for his path forward. He figured he’d start a company and then drop out of school to focus on making the company successful.
It didn’t work out the way he’d envisioned.
“I was able to start the company, Ravle, which is now my full-time job,” he says. But he also managed to graduate on time in May 2019, and bring in a partner, Tay Lotte ’19. The pair of entrepreneurs have built Ravle into a global collective of top videographers and photographers whose mission is to help established travel brands tell more authentic stories.
Rieck and Lotte met in Idea2Startup, a class offered through Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies’ (iSchool) minor in information technology design and startups. They were both enrolled in the College of Visual and Performing Arts; Rieck in industrial and interaction design and Lotte in communications design.
Rieck loved to travel, and came up with the idea of sharing and selling his itineraries to inspire others to design their own journeys. While researching top travel filmmakers, the original concept for Ravle unfolded. “It was a platform that empowered creators to turn their incredible films and photography into bookable adventures anyone can follow and enjoy,” Rieck says.
In class, Lotte heard Rieck pitch his idea and knew she wanted to be a part of it. “I come from a family of entrepreneurs in Boulder, Colorado, and every time we’d travel, my twin brother and I would make little travel videos,” Lotte recalls. “I discovered that exploring a new place with a camera in hand inspired me to find a more unique adventure.”
Rieck spent sophomore year fine-tuning his idea, and didn’t plan to take on a partner. “But I saw how hard Tay worked, the quality of her work, and her passion for the vision,” he says. “When she asked to join me, it was a no-brainer. We celebrated over sushi and started our journey together.”
Bringing an Idea to Life
The pair developed the company with the help of the Blackstone LaunchPad at Bird Library, Syracuse University’s innovation hub for faculty, staff, students and alumni. It allowed them to explore entrepreneurship and venture development through connections to a global network of 20 other universities around the world.
Rieck and Lotte got their vision off the ground with $7,500 in funding they received as second-place winners in the 2017 Panasci Business Plan Competition sponsored by Syracuse University’s Martin J. Whitman School of Management. A year later, theirs was one of just eight college student startups to make the finals of the Student Startup Madness (SSM) Tournament at South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas. The national competition was created by Sean Branagan, a professor at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
“SSM was my first time pitching and it was a huge success for me,” Lotte says. “One of my biggest fears was public speaking, and this gave me the opportunity to overcome that fear. Kevin, along with Linda Dickerson Hartsock (executive director of Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars) and Mike D’Eredita (adjunct professor at the iSchool and director of the Keenan Center for Entrepreneurship at LeMoyne College), supported and coached me in representing the company as a female founder. Since then I have pitched in front of hundreds at the New York State Business Plan competition and the Blackstone LaunchPad Techstars Training Camp.”
Rieck recognizes the advantages he had so early in his career. “Syracuse University has built a strong ecosystem of resources for entrepreneurs to start their business,” he says. “They provide students with opportunities to earn financial support through business competitions, team resources through business incubators on campus, and mentorship and education through courses. All of this, along with the supportive entrepreneur community, makes Syracuse among the nation’s top destinations when it comes to building scalable businesses in college.”
Syracuse connections are valuable too, Rieck points out. “I can reach out to any alumni and receive a positive response, with an offer to help in any way. People really do ‘bleed orange’ after attending Syracuse.”
Forging New Pathways
By the end of their sophomore year the partners were putting so many hours into the business each week they had little time for their studies. “Ravle was taking off and we needed more flexibility,” Rieck recalls. That’s when they discovered the bachelor of professional studies (BPS) part-time degree programs offered by University College of Syracuse University. “The BPS in knowledge management offered classes that directly related to what I was focusing on in the business,” he says. “I took what I learned in courses like Scripting for Data Analysis and Project Management and used them to build real products customers were using. I was still able to connect with all the professors at Syracuse that had become my mentors in design, development and entrepreneurship.”
The switch to part-time study didn’t prevent Rieck from graduating in four years. “They accepted more credits than if I had switched into another full-time major or school,” he notes. “Advisors worked with me to get into the courses that would benefit me most and master the objectives outlined in the big data and technology-centered curriculum. I took classes in fall, spring and summer to complete my degree on time.”
Lotte, who was drawn to the creative side of the business, opted to pursue the bachelor of professional studies in creative leadership, which focuses on strategic thinking and leadership skills. She graduated as an Alumni Scholar with one of the highest grade point averages in her University College class. “One of the biggest strengths of our team is our growth mindset and ability to adapt and move into new roles that the business needs as it grows,” she says. “I have been taking on a sales role and Kevin is the product manager for the design and development of our platform,” she explains.
Growing a Syracuse-Connected Team
The Ravle team has expanded to include two employees. “Our lead developer, Chan Yoon, is a wickedly talented full-stack developer who has been working with startups for years,” Lotte says. “Katie Reahl is a junior in the photojournalism program at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, and she is our social media manager. She has built Ravle’s brand, voice and connection to the community of travel photographers and videographers through our social channels.”
As he looks back at his academic experience, Rieck is grateful his dropout plan didn’t succeed. “Entrepreneurs who are seeking a supportive, well-rounded academic experience are wise to consider Syracuse. You learn how to start, build and scale a business through application and mentorship, not just in the classroom,” he says. “The amazing network and advisors I’ve been lucky enough to build around me is almost all thanks to Syracuse University.”