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The AUCI’s Annual Startup and Stand Out Competition Gives Students Real-World Experience

Aspiring entrepreneurs from the Kogod School of Business and AU use their business education to create meaningful change in the world.


Participants in AUCI's third annual Startup & Stand Out event.


Members of the Kogod School of Business community teamed up with other AU professionals for the Third Annual Startup and Stand Out Competition, a summer event hosted by the American University’s Center for Innovation (AUCI). The event began with panel sessions where students, alumni, and faculty entrepreneurs spoke about their post-graduation endeavors and career successes. The program culminated in the Meaningful Change Video Pitch Challenge, where students worked with Kogod faculty to pitch a new product or service that would create meaningful change in the world.

The first panel, Launching and Growing a Startup Venture, brought together five Kogod alumni who have established their own companies. The speakers included Kaben Clauson (Kogod ’13), cofounder of Pigeon Loans; Matthew Pilsbury (Kogod ’18), founder and CEO of Solidity Finance; Laura Iaffaldano (Kogod ’15), cofounder of BizLove; and Danyal Sheikh (Kogod ’17), CEO of The Dwellers Private Limited. Fellow Kogod alumna and founder of Upace, Rachel Koretsky (Kogod ’14) moderated the panel discussion.

Self-confidence, passion, and bravery were common threads in these entrepreneurs’ experiences. Whether they quit a stable job, invested their own money, or started from scratch after a failure, all the panelists agreed that their business endeavors allowed them to know themselves better and persevere.

Believing in yourself means that you’re already halfway there. It gives you a real chance to become a leader.”

Danyal Sheikh

Danyal Sheikh

CEO, The Dwellers Private Limited

When the alums from the first panel were asked if they had advice for aspiring entrepreneurs, the panelists stressed the importance of developing a network of peers—not only to continue growing a business but to feel supported. Iaffaldano emphasized that asking for help is not only okay but also recommended. Pilsbury agreed, pointing out that connecting with people makes the journey easier to weather the failures many entrepreneurs face along the way.

“Things are going to go wrong, but you can get out in front of these challenges and power through,” Pilsbury said. “If you keep your communication channels open, you’ll come out on the other end just fine.”

The next panel, Creating Social Impact Ventures, was moderated by Kogod professor Brett Gilbert. She led a group of panelists, including Adeola Ajani (Kogod/MBA’22), founder of FemEquity; Diego Mariscal (SIS ’14), CEO and chief disability officer at 2-Gether International; Danielle Vogel (WCL ’07), founder of Glen’s Garden Market; and Elli Wachtman (SIS/MA’22), executive director of Sikhona Rescue.

This panel focused on entrepreneurial endeavors that drive social change in various sectors. A significant theme among the ventures featured in this panel involves determining how to measure the social differences they’re making. For Wachtman, measuring impact entails a continued focus on her program’s longevity and sustainability; for Ajani, it involves interviewing women and documenting data to ensure that FemEquity’s platform matches the needs of the people it helps.

This group of panelists agreed that potential entrepreneurs should put their best foot forward if they have an idea they want to pursue.

There’s no good or bad time to be an entrepreneur. You can never know everything, but you can leverage what you do know.”

MicrosoftTeams-image (8)

Adeola Ajani

Founder, FemEquity

“Students at AU are in a perfect position to try new things due to its home in the nation’s capital—and access to the AUCI,” added Vogel. “The university’s location in DC is so close to power—there are many ways to take advantage of it.”

The final panel, STEM Technology, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship, focused on business related to technological advancement. Speakers on this panel included Nikki Blacksmith, professor at Kogod and cofounder of Blackhawke; Irena King (CAS ’19), CEO and founder of Surgicure Technologies; Steve Shapiro (KSB ’69), managing partner at eHealth Ventures; and Robert Wines (CAS ’20), an analyst at FedTech. Kathryn Walters-Conte, who recently became head of innovation at the American Physical Society, moderated the group.

Throughout the panel, this group of entrepreneurs highlighted the use of data in interdisciplinary situations and how gathering information is used to improve a product and determine its need. King, for instance, emphasized the importance of data in exploring demand and improving individual devices. Blacksmith and Wines both expanded this idea to human-driven data—the kind of information conversations with consumers provide.

Everything needs to be data-driven, and everything needs to be proven. In the case of customer discovery data, this means going out and talking to people, not just relying on surveys.”

Robert Wines

Robert Wines

Analyst, FedTech

Entrepreneurs in the tech sector must anticipate new problems, ask further questions, and ensure they keep the customers’ best interests in mind.

“Since many of these technologies are still new, it requires forethought into ethics and morals to use them properly,” explained Blacksmith.

Students used the panelists’ examples of entrepreneurship as social impact to motivate their work in the Meaningful Change Video Pitch Challenge. Working in small groups, students created and presented a video that proposed a solution to a current issue. This year’s winning group, comprised of Kogod undergraduate students Caleb Morato, Luke Bataresh, Mia Baez, and Mikias Goshime, proposed BridgeCity. This startup addresses digital access inequality by improving computer access in low-income areas. The BridgeCity group won five thousand dollars in funding for their project, providing additional support in turning their idea into a reality.

Over the course of this year’s Startup and Stand Out event, attendees saw how past and present Kogod students utilize their education to make a difference in the world.