Cristina Colina is a junior at USC studying entrepreneurship at the Iovine and Young Academy. She is the President of Spark SC. Spark SC is a student-led non-profit at USC that runs 5-8 initiatives per semester to inspire entrepreneurial thinking and action at USC. I talked with Cristina about their different initiatives, whether they are open to all USC students, how to join the internal team and more.
- Spark SC is focused on increasing accessibility to entrepreneurship, including traditional tech startups, and for musicians, artists, and other creatives. This is represented in the various initiatives and events they put on each semester, ranging from a startup career fair to music festivals to art exhibitions.
- Spark SC looks for students who are passionate, driven, open-minded, and aligned with their goal of promoting entrepreneurship. You don’t need any prior experience with startups or business to apply.
- Spark SC is accepting new sponsorships. They work with external partners if they can find alignment between the committee, specific event or program, and the partner.
Kieran: Thanks, Cristina, for joining me today. To start, do you want to introduce yourself?
Cristina: Hi, I’m Cristina Colina. I am a junior at USC. I was born in Venezuela but lived nomadically, mainly in the US. I moved five times before landing at USC. I’m studying an entrepreneurship major called the Ivan and Young Academy, started by Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine, two music execs of the early 2000s who founded Beats. When selling Beats to Apple, they realized none of the tech people at Apple knew how to talk to the music people at Beats. So, they made this cohort-style program where we learn product design, entrepreneurship, and computer science. With this major, I’ve explored the entrepreneurship and US startup spaces at USC.
Kieran: You are one of the Co-Presidents of Spark SC. How did you hear about that organization on campus?
Cristina: When I entered college, I wasn’t familiar with entrepreneurship or didn’t have the words for it. I knew in my heart I wanted to make things for other people. I liked the creative agency and the financial potential of entrepreneurship, but I didn’t have words or definitions for it until stepping into my major, getting to know people on campus, and seeing some events pop up on campus. I went to a talk where the Founder of Hydro Flask was speaking and realized a club called Spark SC hosted it. I thought it was really cool, and that’s how the organization first got on my radar. Then, I went to another event two weeks later, a music festival called Arts, Grooves, & Foods. Spark also hosted it. I was like, how are these two under the same umbrella? What the heck is Spark? I heard about it, but since it’s kind of hard to define, I didn’t dig too much into it. But after experiencing some of the things that come out of Spark, I had to investigate. So, it was by the echolocation of what Spark was producing that I found it.
Kieran: Spark SC is a student-led non-profit that runs several initiatives each semester to inspire entrepreneurial thinking and action across communities of all backgrounds at USC and beyond. Is there any other important background information that people should know about the org?
Cristina: Yes, semester to semester, we run 5-8 initiatives called committees. On the internal 40-person team of Spark, we get together to jam on what we feel USC needs in the entrepreneurial space. Entrepreneurship is defined so loosely in the sense that anyone with an idea has the capacity to make something. We’ve run music festivals because artists are entrepreneurs, too. We host founder talks or startup career fairs to support a more traditional style of entrepreneurship. This internal committee format allows us to act as an ecosystem for all these various events and programs within one semester. They change from semester to semester, and we recruit people every semester to develop these ideas with us and build together. Once you’re in Spark, you’re in it for life. So, we are still connected with several dedicated USC alums.
Kieran: Are all these initiatives open to any student who wants to participate?
Cristina: Unlike many other entrepreneurship organizations at USC or on other campuses where you come in and all the work you do is for your internal community, Spark is structured to support the entrepreneurial education of the rest of the students at USC. We learn and get experience from running everything and having our internal community, but every program and event is open for anyone in the USC community to participate. This semester, we’re running a pitch competition of 1,000 pitches where anyone on campus can enter by submitting their pitch. So, you don’t need a team or anything formal. We’re trying to make the concepts of business, tech, design, and entrepreneurship more accessible for people on campus.
Kieran: You create initiatives based on need. Which initiatives happen every semester versus which ones are experimental?
Cristina: One of our foundational committees is the Startup Career Fair. We host a big fair on campus, sometimes partnering with the business schools at USC, to bring in 40-100 startups for students to recruit for in a more authentic setting than a typical career fair with bigger corporate companies. Another is the pitch competition, which we call 1KP, where we bring in 1,000 pitches. We host a Spark XM podcast that has ebbed and flowed throughout the years. Then there is Project Launch, a mentorship program we host at a local high school in South Central LA to teach entrepreneurship and nurture kids throughout the experience. Our baseline ideas for committees are to support existing entrepreneurs and provide platforms to scale their ideas, amplifying the ideas of people who think they may be interested in entrepreneurship but need better tools or access, or directly introduce people to the idea of entrepreneurship. That might be people who are artists who don’t understand they could be an entrepreneur or people learning about tech entrepreneurship for the first time. Many of the new projects we run over the past years have swayed a bit more creative. Initially, our roots were deep under the umbrella of tech, VC, or computer science. One of our new ideas is Operation Exhibition, an art forum for physical painters. This semester, we’re doing an Arts, Foods, and Grooves music festival that has not been run in a long time. I think part of our mission is to expand what entrepreneurship means for people post-COVID, which has meant making it more accessible for a wider variety of creative people.
Kieran: How do you measure success for Spark SC’s initiatives?
Cristina: At a high level, we strive for impact, but that’s a huge word. What does that mean? It truly depends on the scope of the program and the touchpoints to the rest of the USC community. If it is geared towards a smaller size event, like a founder talk with 20 students, what takeaways, feedback, or emotional reactions are we getting? It’s not necessarily measuring the size but the emotions or learnings taken away. There are some other initiatives, like startup career fairs. How many companies did we get for the event? How many students were we able to connect to jobs? So, quantitative outcomes can easily define some initiatives, and some are more qualitative, ethos, and emotions. I would say for the majority, we try to measure logistically the size of the events and how many people we were able to have pitch or attend a founder talk, but we prioritize most of all the initial reactions and connections that people feel to Spark afterward.
Kieran: When I read your website, it appeared as if Spark SC was intentionally staying away from programs around startup acceleration and investing. What’s the rationale behind that?
Cristina: It depends year by year based on where Spark’s leadership wants to move. We have an exciting leadership structure I haven't seen in other clubs or business organizations. It’s a flat and horizontal structure like a startup. The leadership team is myself and five other people. We have no roles. There are no e-board positions other than the two Co-Presidents. We all feel lots of ownership over every single part of what’s going on in Spark. From the internal community, feeling fulfilled and happy to what is every branch coming out of Spark. How are we impacting the rest of the USC community? This has resulted in the leadership team acting completely differently from previous leadership teams or having the freedom to at least do so. So, post-COVID, their immediate mission was to revive the culture of Spark. They weren’t really thinking about the scope of entrepreneurship. As the years have passed, we’ve had this more accessibility focus of getting people’s feet back in the door of the tech world since markets are down. How do we start at the introductory level? As we recruit new members, sometimes we get very passionate people about tech. We’ve revived past committees like Tech LA, where we connect with venture-backed companies to provide students with fellowship-style internships. We have frequent internal meetings and conversations about when is the right time to bring these historical and more traditional entrepreneurship initiatives back, but now we feel is still the time to focus on accessibility and bringing more people around on the idea of entrepreneurship.
Kieran: What do you see as the biggest opportunities to improve Spark SC in terms of how you support entrepreneurship on campus?
Cristina: One of the biggest things we can do is make it more of a habit of documenting and building out systems for what has gone right, what has gone wrong, and what should stay. Being this year-to-year, semester-to-semester fluid organization is beneficial for innovation and the constant questioning that comes along with it, but it hurts us in the beginning phases during onboarding, when we’re starting up our committees and projects, or shifting leadership. We have to start from scratch every single time. Once we do a better job of building out those onboarding processes and improving the transitions that will feed into the longevity of our projects, it will help us to scale any of the community ideas.
– – now, let’s transition to questions to help students who want to join the Spark SC internal team – –
Kieran: I know you have a very thorough overview of the application process for students who want to join the internal team on your website, but for those who haven’t seen it, do you mind giving a quick overview?
Cristina: At the beginning of any college semester, we open applications. They are online through our website and are open to anyone from any major; you don’t need any experience in entrepreneurship or traditional business. Our community has students ranging from Philosophy, Public Policy, Biology, Engineers, and conventional business majors. Throughout the application process, the most vital things we value are your passion and drive. What are you the most passionate about in your life that you’ve already done but also are willing to explore in the future? How curious and open-minded are you in learning new things and expanding outside your bubble? How much do you align with our mission of spreading entrepreneurship? Even though we’re this ecosystem of building projects for everyone on campus, we are a community of like-hearted and diversely-minded people. We are like-hearted because we share the same curiosity and values to expand entrepreneurship. However, we are all completely different in our interests, which makes it so exciting. I think going into the application process at Spark, know that you don’t need to have a specific persona type at all. The best thing you can do is not sound like anybody else or what you think Spark might want you to sound like.
Kieran: What’s the time commitment for students who join this organization?
Cristina: It’s a pretty strong time commitment for your first semester. We meet once a week on Mondays as an entire organization and jam on every project we’re running and what’s happening in the organization. In your first semester, you get to choose which two of the committees that we’re currently running that you want to be a part of and want to help build. That could look like 2-4 Spark weekly meetings on top of school work and other Spark activities we might be running for our internal team that semester. Nothing is mandatory. It’s less of a time commitment and more of an emotional investment because you will want to do everything. It might stretch your bandwidth a little, but you may be the most fulfilled you have ever been because of it.
Kieran: Are you accepting new sponsors? What are some of the ways you work with sponsors?
Cristina: It depends on the committee. We connect external sponsors directly with committees and see if there is alignment. What art companies connect the most with Operation Exhibition? What VCs want to have a voice in judging our pitch competition? Even if it’s a simple recruiting event that a company wants to host on campus, we think about how to make it a strong connection point or a better-than-average experience for USC students to interact with this sponsor.
Kieran: Is there anything I didn’t ask about that is important to know if you’re considering Spark SC as a participant in one of your initiatives or someone who wants to join the internal team?
Cristina: If you try applying and don’t get in the first time, you can apply again. We’ve had people apply three times before getting in, so don’t feel ashamed. Also, if you don’t get in, you can still participate in any events we host for the USC community. Once you get in, the spotlight is on you for the first semester. You’ll connect with some of the craziest, most exceptional people you’ve ever met.