Izabella Pivo is a 3rd year student at Northeastern University, double majoring in Business and Communications. She is the CEO of IDEA. IDEA is Northeastern’s student-led venture accelerator. They’ve supported over 70 ventures that have raised $200,000+ in external funding or can self-sustain on their revenues. I talked with Izabella to learn more about how IDEA supports the founders they work with, how to apply for up to $30,000 in grant funding, and how to join the internal team.
- IDEA is open to all Northeastern-affiliated students regardless of where you are at with your business. You can join without an idea or any experience starting a business. IDEA will support you in brainstorming an idea, finding complementary people to work with, and all the aspects of getting a business off the ground.
- Participants at the Go stage can apply for funding from IDEA. They are eligible for $30,000 in grants, which they can apply for up to $10,000 of that at a time on a bi-monthly basis. Participants need to upload their pitch and demonstrate a need for the money. Past participants have used the money to order their first batch of inventory from a manufacturer, market their products and services, and more.
- IDEA looks for internal members who are passionate about entrepreneurship and have a strong desire to work with the ventures in the program. They look for empathetic individuals who can ask the right questions to help the founders solve their problems for themselves rather than pushing their ideas onto the founders.
- People interested in plugging into the IDEA ecosystem and helping the students in the program can participate by helping conduct workshops or speaking on panels, providing mentorship in a 1:1 capacity as a Venture Advisor, or attending their community hours in Boston.
Edited lightly for clarity.
Kieran: Thanks, Izabella, for joining me today. To kick us off, do you want to introduce yourself?
Izabella: Thanks for having me. My name is Izabella Pivo. I’m in my 3rd year at Northeastern University. I’m from Los Angeles, California. I’m a double major in Business and Communications, with a concentration in Entrepreneurial Startups and a minor in Mindfulness Studies.
Kieran: How did you first learn about IDEA?
Izabella: I was in the explore program in my very first semester, which is the undecided program. I got introduced to entrepreneurship in a very wacky way. There was a pitch competition with Dunkin’ Donuts that was happening on campus. As a previous Starbucks Barista, I thought, why not jump in on this? I can definitely make a drink. From there, it’s just been an upward trajectory. I learned about IDEA after participating in an accelerator for a semester called the Husky Startup Challenge. So, from having my first startup idea, I learned about IDEA and got involved that way. I was part of a different organization called the Entrepreneurs Club, and then I was tapped by faculty to join IDEA after the spring semester of my second year.
Kieran: So, IDEA is a student-led venture accelerator for Northeastern-affiliated teams. Businesses can apply for up to $30,000 in grants bi-monthly when they are in your program’s “go” stage. Is there any other background information that’s important to know?
Izabella: Something that’s super important is we’re not application-based. If you come in with something, we won’t accept or deny you off of that idea. Regardless of your stage, we help you, which I think is very important. We support the venture process from pre-idea startups through launching it and getting you funding.
– let’s start with questions directed to help Northeastern-affiliated founders considering IDEA –
Kieran: You are not application-based, but I saw on your website that students have to attend a venture information session. Can you talk about how they enter the program?
Izabella: We have our new website up and running. We rebranded the new venture information session to orientation because the impression was you needed a venture to be a part of IDEA, and that’s not the case. We implemented new software that launched yesterday, and that’s an online accelerator platform, what we call the brain of IDEA. So, to get involved in IDEA, even if you don’t have a startup idea but want to be a member of the platform, you attend an orientation and become a member of our software platform called Bevel. The first module is a venture and advisor pairing form where the E-Board of IDEA manually pairs you with an advisor from our system. You can choose when to meet with them, and then the mentor moves you through the process by approving workshops and completing meetings.
Kieran: The program is broken down into three stages, named Ready, Set, and Go. Can you share more details about what happens at each stage?
Izabella: People come into IDEA at different stages. Maybe they ran a business in high school, and they want to continue it, or they just had a shower thought and want to turn it into a reality. We take both ends of the spectrum. The essential thing that we want to emphasize is you have to start in the Ready stage. The Ready stage typically involves customer discovery and validation. It’s the earliest stages of iteration of your idea. You then do a pitch to move from the Ready to the Set stage. The Set stage is building out your entire business model and prototype. For example, if it’s an application, you’ll code it. If it’s a consumer good, you’ll finish your formula. Afterward, you pitch again to go from the Set stage to the Go stage. The Set stage tends to be the meatier stage of IDEA because you build the entire business model. You also get access to the entrepreneurs-in-residence at that point, and they conduct whiteboarding sessions to help you with your business. The entrepreneurs-in-residence have 10+ years of experience in startups and entrepreneurship education, so they have the expertise to help you build your business even if you have no business background. In the Go stage, you’re executing your go-to-market strategy. Hence, this is where the Gap fund comes in. The Gap fund can help you order your first batch from a manufacturer, pay for marketing to get early customers, and help develop your business. It can fill the gap up to $10,000. As you mentioned, you can apply for that amount on a bi-monthly basis and altogether receive up to $30,000.
Kieran: What does the application process look like for the Gap fund?
Izabella: So for the Gap fund, you must be a Go stage venture. It opens up a month before the pitch. You upload your pitch deck and have to demonstrate a need for the Gap fund. So, essentially, it’s just an online application. We have analysts on our team who review all of the applications and write a one-page summary. We take those applications to our Advisory Board, which reviews them and decides who they want to see pitch. We have 8-10 pitches per round, depending on how many applications come through. Then, from there, we will designate how much every venture gets. We never cap the amount we give out per round, but you can only get up to $10,000 per pitch.
Kieran: What are the biggest opportunities to improve IDEA regarding how you support founders?
Izabella: We’re actively trying to improve IDEA’s educational programming by tapping into our successful ventures. For example, in fundraising, we’ve had a venture pitch on Shark Tank. We want them to create an educational module based on their experience. Other things include creating a Kickstarter campaign, pitching on popular media platforms, etc. We’re really trying to tap into our resources and build out that education for new ventures going through the program. IDEA has been around since 2009 and needed a facelift. So, that’s what we’re doing now. I think the biggest opportunity is to make the education as robust as possible.
Kieran: What percentage of student founders you work with continue on their businesses after graduation?
Izabella: Our main goal of IDEA is not just to create unicorns or companies that get venture capital funding. We emphasize the educational aspect of entrepreneurship. You can fail safely in our environment. We don’t take any equity, so the teams own everything they build. Even if you don’t have a successful company during your undergraduate career, you can return to IDEA, use our resources, and work on your next thing. With that being said, sometimes students start a venture, work on it for two years at IDEA, and realize that maybe it’s no longer needed or they need to start over. That’s totally fine, so maybe they restart a venture at another point in time after they’ve graduated or during their graduate program. People continue working on their ventures all the time. Above me, there are tiles in the IDEA lab that represent all the launched ventures. There are over 70 launched ventures that can self-sustain from their revenue or have raised $200,000 in external funding. A lot of those ventures are still operating, and even those ventures that are not at that point of being launched are still operating. So, I’d say 75% are still working on their venture ideas. Those who have left the IDEA program and decided to engage, whether or not they have a venture, are much higher. At least 90% of people stay engaged with us in some capacity.
– now, let’s transition to questions to help students who want to join the IDEA internal team –
Kieran: Can you give an overview of the application process for internal team members?
Izabella: We recruit internally on a semester and a yearly basis based on the role. All of our positions are for undergraduates, except for our legal fellow, a graduate student on their co-op. We like that we’re run by undergraduates because many of us have experience with our own companies and know how to relate to people in that sense. We have some administration that helps us, but we’re student-driven. The CEO role opens up every year. So, I will be ending sometime in June. The Venture Director, Investment Coordinator, Venture Advisor Coordinator, and Tech Director are also hired yearly. Sometimes, the Stage Coordinators may stay the same. We allow people who start for the fall season to reapply for their role or stick in it based on performance and other factors, like whether our students go on co-op. So, it depends, but the roles we typically recruit for on a semester basis include the Ready Coordinator, Set Coordinator, Go Coordinator, analyst roles, marketing, logistics, operations, and technology team. Students apply online, and we review them.
Kieran: What are you looking for when selecting students to join the internal team?
Izabella: You have to have an entrepreneurial spirit and desire to work with ventures. I’m currently sitting in the IDEA lab, which is the hub where entrepreneurs are meeting on campus. We look for E-Board members who are curious, kind, and know how to ask the right questions when working with ventures. We don’t want backseat drivers. A lot of ventures come in with assumptions they are testing, so we want our management team to be patient, kind, and inquisitive. We want them to improve the educational journey of the entrepreneurs.
Kieran: As you onboard new team members to your org, how do you train them to give good advice and be helpful?
Izabella: We know that everybody has their way of delivering advice from their experience with startups. So, we want them to be really empathetic with the founders and put themselves in their shoes. For particular questions, we like to ask them what their problem statement is and follow up to understand why they are building something and how. We want the founders to share more about themselves. We want our E-Board to know that it’s not about talking and overtaking the meeting. It’s about helping the founders hear themselves and figure it out rather than pushing our ideas onto them.
Kieran: How many businesses are you helping per semester?
Izabella: We have over 500 ventures and growing. With our new software, not all of our companies are in it yet, but every semester historically, we’ve had ~150 ventures engage. Our new software soft launched on October 4th, and the official launch was yesterday. So far, we have 70 companies in our database. So, not even a month into this new software, we already have 70 companies signed up, so we’re on track to get even more this semester.
Kieran: How big is the internal team? What is the time commitment?
Izabella: The leads, the Venture Directors, and the Venture Advisor Coordinator can expect 10-15 hours per week. The Stage Coordinators can expect 8-10 hours per week, depending on how many ventures want to meet with them. I’m full-time on my co-op in the CEO role, which is 40 hours per week, and I’ll be at 20 hours per week next semester. The analyst roles can expect 5 hours or less per week, depending on how much they want to engage. As you move up in the organization, you can expect your time commitment to increase. The team used to be 45 people, but I downsized it to 25 people. We’re looking at expanding in some areas depending on the new initiatives. The team size fluctuates based on the CEO for that year. Last year, we were focused on the brand, and they had an entire brand team. For me, I’m focused on educational programming, so we’re going to build an education transformation team.
Kieran: For people who want to plug in and help this community, how do they best do that?
Izabella: The main way we do that is through coaches, but we’ve rebranded coaches to Venture Advisors because it sounds more professional. They can be graduates, alumni, or people who want to help out because they have some expertise in an area. They tend not to be undergraduates. If you want to get involved as an undergraduate, you can apply for the student management team. So, talk to me or anyone else on the team that you can find on LinkedIn. Regarding venture capitalists and angel investors, we do have investors who are part of our network and get uploaded to our software. We’ll conduct specific workshops on themes and invite professionals to the panel to speak or have them host it. We have a lot of room to incorporate professionals through workshops, as a Venture Advisor in a 1:1 capacity, or by just having them come to our community hours in Boston.
Kieran: Is there anything I didn’t ask about that is important to know if you’re considering IDEA as a student founder or someone who wants to join the internal team?
Izabella: Our primary focus is the interdisciplinary part. IDEA stands for The Inter-Disciplinary Entrepreneurship Accelerator. I have a philosophy of how the best startup teams form. It’s to have operators and experts. Operators are business students who know how to make a business model, revenue models, go-to-market strategy, and all the operational things of running a business. The experts have specific industry expertise. Maybe it’s biology, theatre, or environmental science. Together, you can look at the problems that exist within the particular industry that the expert has access to, and you can figure out what problems there are, how to solve them, and how to scale the business. So, even if you don’t think you’re a business person, we have all the tools here at IDEA to help you create a business.