UMass alumni share their entrepreneurship experience, business advice during the pandemic

“You have a choice between creating your own dream, or supporting someone else’s”

By Sofi Shlepakov, Collegian Contributor

The University of Massachusetts held a virtual event on Monday called “Good Doing Business With You: Advice from Young Alumni Entrepreneurs,” where four UMass alumni spoke about their experiences starting their own businesses.

The event was hosted by Molly O’Mara, associate director of external relations in the Isenberg School of Management, and included four panelists who spoke about their experiences as well as two mediators. Also on the call was Wilma Crespo, director of the Center for Multicultural Advancement and Student Success, as well as Gregory Thomas, director of the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship, and others who registered for the virtual event.

One of the panelists, Chris Bent, who graduated in 2012, founded his own company called Piccles, a platform for people to get together and unleash their creative skills as a group.

“I started the company that I’m building now, Piccles, to scratch that artistic itch,” said Bent.

Bent said having a differentiated product is a good way to stand out. He also explained the challenges that come with starting a business from the ground up.

“In my case, I was doing something new,” he said. “It was difficult because there were no competitors to benchmark ourselves on. That put us in this ‘nice to have’ category not this ‘need to have’ category.”

Some of the panelists are still in school or working another full-time job on top of their personal business ventures. Tenzin Thargay, class of 2018, is currently a graduate student at Columbia University while also working on Project Young Educated Tibetans Initiative (Y.E.T.I.), an online mentorship forum connecting those of Tibetan origin, which he started the summer going into his senior year.

Thargay spoke about the difficulties that come with a busy schedule: “You have to make a lot of sacrifices at the end of the day, but because these are passion projects you should be willing to make some sacrifices, and I certainly am.”

Susan Callender, class of 1986, one of the mediators and an entrepreneur herself, said sacrifices are what start a business.

“You have a choice between creating your own dream, or supporting someone else’s,” she told the audience.

Melissa Castro, class of 2010, started her own business named La Conexión, a food marketplace where Castro helps other local food vendors start their dream. When starting her business, Castro said she was uncomfortable reaching out at first but, “when you’re uncomfortable, that’s when the most thrill happens.”

Castro also works as a consultant with the CommonWealth Kitchen in Boston full time. During the pandemic, she said she has been able to find new ways to use her business in order to help consult and construct new outdoor eating areas that follow the COVID-19 social distancing protocols.

“I actually found a new opportunity through the pandemic to consult other restaurants,” Castro said. “I was able to find a lot of clients during the pandemic based on the nature of what I do during the day.”

The pandemic also affected the business ventures of Michelle Dalton, class of 2018. Dalton’s business, TheBomb.com, curates an easy space to shop from Black-owned businesses. During the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement re-gained prominence and media attention.

“After the murder of George Floyd, my website just blew up,” said Dalton.

“I had to really take my mind off of that, and this was the time I was really waiting for, for people to wake up to this concept and why it was so important,” said Dalton. “We were very reliant on in-person experiences and market, we shifted to really curating an experience online.”

Dalton explained that, in order to promote Black business owners, her company has come out with a monthly subscription box that includes products from Black-owned businesses, and a way to get in touch with those business owners.

The pandemic has allowed “these entrepreneurs to start these new businesses, new platforms, because there’s all new different needs and all sorts of different industries,” Bent said.

He also said new companies need to have a purpose to succeed, especially during a pandemic.

“I think that every company, who is starting especially in these days, not only a needs to pursue profits and have passion, but you’re not going to succeed if you don’t have that purpose,” he said.

Sofi Shlepakov can be reached at [email protected]