Samba Soumare

Erin Miller ’16 on creative inspiration and evolution

Erin Miller is a native of the Bay Area who graduated with a degree in advertising from the  S.I. Newhouse School Of Public Communications in 2016. As a member of the Blackstone LaunchPad, Erin developed her entrepreneurial spirit and assisted others in growing their projects from the ground up.  To Erin, being an entrepreneur in any industry is “always about building something.”

Erin was the co-founder of Out There Productions in 2016 which was a vital experience in allowing her to further her entrepreneurial pursuits. The goal of the project was to curate promotional videos and advertise for small businesses and startups. Although this was her own venture, Erin also says that “You don’t necessarily have to have your own venture to be an entrepreneur.”

Leveraging Out There Productions to feed her desire to travel and visit startup communities, Erin and her co-founders took the summer after graduation to tour the company in a former school bus outfitted as a mobile recording studio, meeting startups along the way in interesting places. That led her to her deeper interest in connecting communities through venture creation and an eventual role at the Capital Factory, “the center of gravity” for entrepreneurs in Texas, with operations in Austin, Dallas, and Houston. She was actively engaged with building that ecosystem until she decided to relocate back to her home San Francisco Bay Area.

She is exploring her own innate creativity by writing and illustrating children’s books and expanding her freelance skills in visual and performing arts and filmmaking. She is also director of community at a company called  3 Day Startup which provides entrepreneurship education to underrepresented communities around the world, organize accelerators for women founders and put together fellowships for young people who have finished college and are struggling to get a job. The primary goal is to serve communities that do not have access to tools that build their business that other cities have. For Erin, her motive at 3 Day Startup is to make entrepreneurship education accessible. 

In addition, she remains an active mentor through the LaunchPad, and is a frequent judge for SU student startup competitions. Her connections to the LaunchPad run deep. She was the keynote speaker and cut the ribbon to the LaunchPad when it opened in April 2016 and won $10,000 in the first ever LaunchPad student venture competition, the iPrize, in partnership with the iSchool.

Erin Miller winning the iPrize at LaunchPad opening day in 2016

Erin has an innate desire to frequent those who are “obsessed with things” as she would say. Her interest in passionate people stems from her older brother who was an artist and writer. She was fascinated with how deeply he dove into things he loved, whether it be hobbies or in his studies. He always tested things out before her thus allowing her to follow in her brother’s footsteps in any facet of her life. She recalls a time where he became obsessed with the rapper Eminem and took the initiative to become a rapper. He prospered in rap, winning plenty of competitions and battles. Erin had first-hand experience watching someone close to her grow an obsession and have tangible success from it. For a young Erin Miller, this was a turning point for her to become the passionate and inspirational person that she witnessed her older brother become.

Like her brother, Erin’s obsession was about how people connect with one another. Going from in-person events to virtual events during the pandemic Erin understood the importance of connection amongst people. She then took the initiative to be involved in virtual environments and adapted to virtual community-building.

Erin slowly began to find her niche in the entrepreneurial world which became the ability to build communities. As she said before, being an entrepreneur is “always about building something.” Her enthusiastic and curious personality inevitably helps her to build collective spaces and foster connections amongst people anywhere she is, whether it is a virtual or in-person. 

Her advice for an aspiring entrepreneur is that “You should volunteer for a cause that you’re interested in just to get your foot in the door.” Erin’s philanthropic approach to life has allowed her to prosper in the entrepreneurship industry and beyond. If we can expect anything from Erin in the future, it is that her sympathy coupled with her passion to build will bring people from all walks of life together to create.

Story by Samba Soumare ’24; photo supplied

Ben Olender ’22 is a multi-talented inventor

Ben Olender ’22 was born and raised in South Orange, New Jersey. He’s a senior undergraduate at the Whitman School of Management, double majoring in marketing and management. Ben believes that success derives from persistence. He says that “Any entrepreneur’s biggest asset is problem solving. There is always a way around the wall or block in the road. I enjoy those challenges.”

Ben tells the story of how he created a unique multiplier tool. He knew an electrician who had to buy new pliers every time a set broke. Ben thought of a solution almost immediately, a detachable plier head that could easily be replaced. He then collaborated with an engineer to make a prototype. Ben had so much belief in the potential for the idea that he based his entire Whitman Capstone project on it and won the fall 2021 Capstone Competition.

Ben continued work on the idea, filed an LLC and won a LaunchPad Innovation Grant. Ben says it has been incredible to see the progress he made this semester, as he continues to see his idea come to life. He is currently refining the concept through the EEE453 LaunchPad class this semester, which he describes as exciting to be working in a cohort of other like-minded inventors and innovators.

“Shrink your toolkit and multiply your capabilities,” says Ben about his invention that connects the gap between traditional pliers and a simplistic, multi-use alternative. “We aim to alleviate the stress of too many choices, expensive nature of acquiring an array of pliers, and the inconvenience of frequent maintenance and replacements.”

Ben has received a great response to his concept. “People do not have a pair of pliers that can adapt to the needs of their project. Owning multiple pairs of pliers weighs down toolkits and is not cost effective. Pliers require maintenance and replacements which can be costly and inconvenient. First-time tool owners are overwhelmed with options and unsure of which type of plier they will need.”

“Our primary target market is the group we have coined the ‘DIY Lover.’ This group of individuals falls within the home improvement market, whose steady growth has been accelerated by the pandemic. Currently, total home improvement sales are projected to reach $510 billion by 2024. Secondly, we have identified the ‘First Time Mover’ market which consists of millennials who, as the largest group of homeowners, make up 37% of the overall share in 2021. Finally, the “Handyman’ group includes electricians, plumbers, contractors, and other tradesmen with extensive knowledge and utilization of tools.”

Ben is working on a utility patent to safeguard his unique and proprietary design. From there he will build out his business-to-consumer business model, expanding from online sales into hardware retail locations through proof of sales.

There is no doubt that he is a multi-talented inventor who has created just the right multi-tool at the right time for the right market.

Story by Zaccai Foundation Fellow Samba Soumare

Aidan Mickleburgh ’22 G’23 is a natural problem solver who wants to make life easier

Aidan Mickleburgh ’22 G’23 is concurrently earning an undergraduate degree in the College of Engineering and Computer Science and an MBA from the Whitman School of Management. Along the way, he realized that entrepreneurship isn’t as complicated as he thought. An entrepreneur solves problems with viable solutions. That’s what Aidan does naturally.

With this realization, Aidan began to leverage his academic skills sets and apply them to entrepreneurial endeavors. He has an ability to think forward, taking control of a room and commanding a space. Coupled with his surrealist nature, consideration of possible outcomes and openness to challenges, and tenacity, Aidan realized he has the building blocks to succeed in the field of innovation.

In his own words, “It takes a lot for me to back down from doing something.”

Aidan’s innovative drive stems from his belief that at the core of all innovation is a desire to make life easier. He says, “The core concept of efficiency is something with which I’ve been obsessed. To me, the driving factor of successful innovations is that they make our lives easier.”

At the end of last semester Aidan and his friend Noah Mechnig-Giordano went to the LaunchPad to pitch an idea. The idea was personal to him because he was especially busy. His idea was a digital platform to organize and prioritize messages, with a goal of building a platform to monitor, organize and prioritize personal communications from across many different channels.

Throughout the innovation process, Aidan’s biggest finding through research was realizing nothing like it exists. There was no cross platform technology that connects messages to actions and planning systems.

Aidan worked on the idea for his venture, Abridgd, and competed in several business plan competitions. He is also presenting the concept in the Intelligence ++ Showcase. He has been working this semester on the idea through EEE453, a course taught in the LaunchPad that is structured much like an accelerator, focusing on customer discovery, and developing product and business model roadmaps.

“I want to change how we deal with virtual messages using Abridgd,” says Aidan. “Since the start of the Covid pandemic, many of us have started to feel overwhelmed. We have low energy, low motivation, and at times struggle to complete even simple tasks. These feelings, for many of us, are new and uncomfortable. But for others, these feelings are familiar.”

Between Aidan and his cofounder Noah, they have strong technical and business skills. Aidan has a background in biomedical devices and Noah is a cybersecurity analyst. Additionally, they have built a team of excellent advisors, both experts in clinical application and research, with additional expertise in ADHD, anxiety, depression, and OCD.

“Our mission is to allow you to worry less, achieve more, and gain confidence. Abridgd is a cross-platform, AI-powered task list that connects to your messaging platforms, from Slack to Gmail to iMessage, that can help extract tasks and events from those messages. These tasks are then prioritized by urgency and displayed to you one at a time. To ensure functionality for as many users as possible, Abridgd will host many popular apps, so you can stay on top of your world, no matter where it is hosted.”

Aidan is raising $10,000 to get a web-based prototype in the hands of beta testers by this summer. “This funding will give us the ability to get our design and interfaces ready for a live product and covering the cost of contract developers and cloud fees. Together, we can change lives for the better, and we can make the world better.”

Story by Zaccai Foundation Fellow Samba Soumare

Eric Hong ’23 on empathetic design and his indoor mapping tech solution for accessibility

Eric Hong is in his fourth year at the VPA School of Design majoring in Industrial & Interactive Design. He is a board member of the SU Industrial Designer Society of America. After a long process of figuring out all the avenues he could take to make the world a better place, he found a home in entrepreneurship. He says that his infatuation with creative design is rooted in his upbringing. He was taught to be compassionate and sympathetic, which as a result, he says developed his 6th sense to resolve issues. 

As a youth he always questioned recurring global issues and why there wasn’t enough being done to resolve these problems. Eric possessed an inquisitive nature that is assisting him in his endeavors with Industrial & Interactive Design. What separates him from most, is that Eric grew aware of the positive impact that the entrepreneur industry could have on worldwide issues at an early age. 

Hong’s creative drive stems from a problem or issue that comes to his attention. An issue that requires help or repair from a third party. In his own words, he says “I see problems as a fun challenge”. His bright outlook on issues across the globe has resulted in much of his success as a student and entrepreneur. 

Eric is also a part of the Inclusive Design & Intelligence ++ on campus where he can trade off ideas and constructive criticism with his peers. Recently, Eric and his team began brainstorming a navigation system for indoor spaces which would benefit newly arrived visitors at complex buildings. They plan to develop an indoor mapping service that is designed to help people ease their anxiety, by having a virtual indoor map that informs the user with useful information like, accessible paths, general directions, and crowd flow. It will help people prepare their daily activities before stepping out of their home, making them familiar with their new environment before they arrive. The service will provide a virtual interactive space that the user can move around in and an orthographic projection of the indoor space.

No issue is too broad for him to help in some way. His motto – “A way for average people to make a difference”.

Story by Zaccai Foundation Fellow Samba Soumare ’24; photo by the LaunchPad

Samba Soumare ’24 on creative immersion and innovation

photo of a young man in a suit

Samba Soumare ’24, a Maxwell student majoring in international relations, has a superpower. It is the unique skill of being able to immerse himself in various cultures, whether it be a French or American linguistic context. Language is a tool to understand, a bridge between people. Traveling through Mali, Senegal, Greece, and India, while calling Brooklyn home, equipped him with the tools to understand the experiences of people in these regions on a more personal level. Being analytical and having cultural humility opened his eyes to the fact that we are dependent on each other which can lead to great human flourishing or disaster.  His linguistic, cultural, and analytical skills have allowed him to understand contemporary international affairs.

One interesting area of the international realm is the growing investment of China in foreign countries into foreign projects, more specifically infrastructure and land development. It is evident in Ethiopia, one of his home countries’ neighbors, that the Chinese government is expanding its influence into Africa. The international realm is growing ever complex and as a result is a dynamic landscape. This context is the reason he would like to be a diplomat at the United Nations. The growing connectedness of our world through the digital space and growth of children being able to speak multiple languages creates the context for globalism to grow.

As a diplomat, he wants to play a role at the government level.

Mentors help with constructive feedback and help building interpersonal skills. A trusting and honest mentorship relationship provides transparent feedback. It aims to stimulate growth by identifying weaknesses and advising them on ways to improve. Interactions with mentors serve as a medium to build communication such as active listening. Empathy and the greatest virtue which is patience. These skills have allowed me to collaborate more effectively. A creative collaborative community is a great way to meet other students considering emerging ideas and enterprises and gain a more informed perspective.

A new Zaccai Foundation Fellow at the LaunchPad, working with the Intelligence ++ program,  he was referred by a fellow LaunchPad student team member Brandon Henry. With a background and empathy for working with young adults with disabilities, he brings both skills and compassion to his new role as a peer mentor.

“My entrepreneurial strength aspect isn’t necessarily the ideas or project I have thought of, but instead my adaptive nature in dialogue,” says Soumare. “I wouldn’t consider myself an extrovert however I have the ability to find common ground with many people who might be completely different from me.”

Story by Brandon Henry ’24; photo supplied

Andreea Merloiu uses her experience and skills to create medical equipment innovation

headshot of a woman in a black suit

Andreea Merloiu is a recent graduate of Syracuse University with a degree in biomedical engineering who intends to continue her studies in the pre-med track while also tackling her innate passion for innovation. Andreea was born and raised in Romania and bravely took the opportunity to come study in the United States, 5,000 miles away from home.

Andreea’s inspiration to create derives from her family’s malignant history with health complications. A significant instance of these complications for Andreea was the growing sickness in her godfather with morbid obesity and her grandmother’s diagnosis with breast cancer. Her godfather was battling these issues for a long period of time, and this ultimately was the driving force behind Andreea’s creation of Lateral Assist. She used her godfather’s experience with sickness and improper procedures in the hospital to create the idea of an automatic device that allows people battling obesity to shift into a lateral position with no assistance from medical professionals. She ultimately lost trust in the nurses that were supposed to assist her godfather to properly adjust him into a lateral position. She recalls a time where these nurses attempted this procedure right after a surgery of his which resulted in the opening of his stitches leaving his chest cavity open.

To Andreea, an innovator, had to have purpose behind their innovations. She says help from a team and hard work remain factors in successful innovations however it is essential to have a “why”.

Andreea’s superpower is the way she leverages her “why” to innovate effectively.

Soon Andreea has plans to spread the use of computational research libraries for effective research on infections that have impacted her family and families alike. In her own words the implementations of these research libraries would “allow accessibility to more people, you wouldn’t need a lab, and it would require a lot less funding.

5,000 miles away from home and Andreea is still using her “why” as her fuel to make the changes that she deems necessary.

Story by Zaccai Foundation Fellow Samba Soumare