Innovators and entrepreneurs share keys to success at Penn State Startup Week

Alumni panelists share their experiences as entrepreneurs during an event at Penn State Startup Week. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — “Figure out who you are and try it out. You have to follow your path.”

These were the words of wisdom to inspire budding entrepreneurs from Derris Boomer, founder and CEO of Boomer Technology Group, as he kicked off the 2018 Penn State Startup Week. Having worked for Fortune 500 companies since he was 16 years old, Boomer discussed with students his tenacious perseverance, leadership and a drive for success.

“Your biggest hurdle is in the mirror. It is yourself. If you don’t believe in you, then you’re never going to go anywhere,” he said.

Similar inspiring speeches were delivered throughout campus March 26-30 during the University’s seventh annual Startup Week. Forty-one events featuring 39 speakers —many of whom were Penn State alumni — were held in 23 different venues across University Park, and the takeaway messages from keynote speakers were invaluable.

Many speakers shared their journey into entrepreneurship and conveyed firsthand experience on how to succeed in a career in innovation.

“Your gut instinct is very good, but you have to give it information,” said Darrell W. Gunter, president and CEO of Gunter Media Group Inc.

“I think it's really important to compel yourself, and propel yourself, by being willing to take risks. I think [it's important] to take classes or take advantage of opportunities where you have to kind of go outside yourself,” added Melanie Hagerty, vice president of innovation at Cubic Corp.

Not limited to inspiration, several Startup Week speakers shared practical tips for getting others to believe in an idea, including critical skills like pitching an idea to investors.

"At the end of the day, what is pitching? It's just persuasion. It's just convincing other people to get excited about what you're excited about,” noted Nayeem Hussain, founder and CEO of Keen Home. Hussain and Keen Home’s co-founder appeared on ABC’s "Shark Tank" in 2015, partnering with Robert Herjavec for one of the largest valuations in the show’s history.

Other speakers focused on the importance of strong communication skills to getting an idea of the ground.

“The communication skills for technical people may be the differentiation between you being able to be promoted and somebody else being selected, so please take every opportunity you can here [at Penn State] to practice your presentation skills,” said Elizabeth King, former vice president of global human resources solutions and services at Starbucks.

“The ability to communicate your ideas at any stage of development is an advantage. You’ll talk about your company every day, to everyone, for as long as it lives,” added Jason Cohen, founder and CEO of Gastrograph.

Collaboration also was a recurring theme in the speakers’ presentations, with many citing the ability to work with others as critical to startup success.

“Innovation has to be really collaborative,” said Hagerty.

“Don’t forget to have a broader network of other individuals [outside your organization]. You’ll never know when you’ll need to call on them for advice,” said Stacey Gleeson, innovation lab specialist at Munich Reinsurance America.

As much as each speaker focused on his or her individual journey to success, they also talked about a staggering statistic: at least 90 percent of startups fail. They gave candid examples of times their ideas and companies faced adversity, and how they overcame it. Most used failure as motivation to better their chances for success in their next venture.

“There’s so much failure in the startup world, and I think that we’ve really embraced that as a team. I had so many people when I was in college tell me I was crazy, and that Project Vive wasn’t going to last really long because I just had a really great story but nothing else. I think that also has driven me because I was aware that there was a really good chance that this wasn’t going to work — but I’m still here,” noted Mary Elizabeth McCulloch, founder and CEO of Project Vive

“You’re going to be at the bottom. There will be an abyss that you’re staring at. It’s what you decide to do while you’re looking at that abyss that will make or break your startup,” said Matt Rhodes, managing director of 1855 Capital.

While advice on overcoming failure and mishaps needed to be addressed, Startup Week speakers primarily focused on celebrating innovation and empowering young entrepreneurs to follow their dreams in bringing their ideas to life.

In a speech he delivered to student entrepreneurs to close Startup Week, Penn State President Eric J. Barron praised the innovation and entrepreneurial spirit that he witnessed firsthand during the week’s various events.

"This week has shown what's possible when Penn State alumni, students and professionals put their innovative ideas to work. The Startup Week presentations spanned disciplines from across the University, and provided advice and ideas for the next generation of entrepreneurs," he said.

Aspiring entrepreneurs can learn the keys to success by following the advice of others who have done it before them. Visit for details of events featuring entrepreneurs and innovators on campus throughout the academic year, as well as more information on upcoming Penn State Startup Week events.

Last Updated April 04, 2018