Brooklyn students get an inside look at local startups

Downtown Brooklyn Partnership’s Talent Connect Open Office series introduces Brooklyn college students to the neighborhood’s dynamic innovation economy through conversations with founders of local tech firms. This spring, despite the lockdown, Open Office was able to continue – reaching 70+ students through Zoom sessions with five Brooklyn-based entrepreneurs on topics ranging from how they got their start to how students should prepare for interviews.

Ilona Wilcox, COO of Urban Energy, spoke about her experience co-founding an energy installation company and the challenges and opportunities that come from being first-to-market with a product. The Newlab-based firm completes community solar installations in large multi-family buildings, tapping into the potential of otherwise-unused roof spaces. Wilcox gave students advice on how to gain more exposure to the field, from reading about government solar programs to participating in local meetups.

Some of the Brooklyn founders who shared their stories with local students

The second session featured Su Sanni, founder of mobility startup Dollaride, based in the NYU Tandon Future Labs incubator. Sanni spoke about growing up in Brooklyn, and how he drew from his family’s experience in the dollar van industry when building his product, a mobile app that connects van drivers with passengers and offers cashless payment options. He advised students on the broad variety of roles available at tech startups, from marketing and business analytics roles to software engineering.

Students also heard from Dawud Gordon, CEO and co-founder of cybersecurity firm TWOSENSE.AI, which uses biometric data to automate user authentication. He discussed the necessity of balancing usability and security and the growing demand for identity security products, particularly as businesses transition to remote work. Gordon recommended that students take advantage of the open source community as a resource for gaining experience and practicing problem solving by tackling known software bugs.

The Dollaride team at DBP’s Make It in Brooklyn Innovation Awards, Dec. ‘19

In the fourth session students met Andrew Hoppin and Christopher Sealey, co-founders of CoverUS, a healthcare tech startup that securely connects patients with clinical trials, paid surveys, and deals that match their medical profiles. They spoke candidly about how making the transition to entrepreneurship amidst financial and personal responsibilities can be both challenging and very rewarding. On what he looks for in a job candidate, Hoppin emphasized the importance of having a self-starting attitude – whether in a school project, a job, or a volunteer role – and desire to create something new.

Our series wrapped with Scroll CEO and founder Tony Haile, who spoke about his path from working in anti-terrorism consulting and polar expeditions to becoming a media entrepreneur. His latest venture offers consumers ad-free online news for a monthly fee that is distributed to publishers – a new revenue model the media industry. Haile emphasized the value of persistence and diverse experience in the startup space, and encouraged students to be willing to experiment: “It’s really about putting the energy out there and knowing your first idea will be wrong – you’d be surprised how your own life experience can give you insights as you go.”

The Spring 2020 Open Office series was made possible by sponsorship from New York University (NYU) Tandon School of Engineering and TD Bank.

Smart and Curious

While enrolled at RC, Recursers work on self-guided projects to hone their craft and experiment with new technologies. After RC, alumni go on to start their own companies and work at firms like Etsy, Jane Street, and Asana. They stay connected to each other and to new ideas through events like the monthly Localhost series, which features talks on topics ranging from machine learning to experimental music production.

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