Tenacious and outspoken, Baltimore, MD, native Abby Nichols is passionate about many things. She’s an animal lover who volunteers at the Charlottesville Albemarle SPCA. She’s a competitive runner who has long incorporated fitness into her life, routinely challenging herself with goals such as training to compete in the Richmond Marathon, which she intends to do later this fall. She’s also the product of an all-girl school that instilled in her the importance of female empowerment and encouraged her to “speak up and take charge in the classroom without fear of judgment or gender bias.”
And as a self-proclaimed “control freak,” she knows what she wants. So when she came to UVA, Nichols arrived with every intention of being a Chemistry major. Plans changed.
Prompted by an incongruous fit with studies in General Chemistry and Biology as a first-year, she applied to McIntire. “I wanted to be successful in the corporate world and saw that as my only path,” she says. “My mom had also graduated from the Comm School and loved her experience, so I thought it was the best choice.”
But then she took Abnormal Psychology, and Nichols found herself immediately captivated by the inner workings of the human brain and the way people relate to one another. Her newfound interest won out, and she chose Psychology as a major, adding Statistics to buoy her studies with the power of data analysis.
That study plan didn’t end her academic exploration, though. The Echols Scholar began taking Entrepreneurship classes to learn more about successful entrepreneurs and how they got started: “I knew I could do this in the Startup class [ENTP 1010]. Although I could hear these stories in any Ted Talk on YouTube, I was intrigued by [former McIntire] Professor Alex Zorychta’s personal journey with entrepreneurship,” she says, noting that his stories about creating businesses and teaching others how best to launch successful companies were particularly enlightening.
Nichols quickly discovered the many different forms that entrepreneurship can take and credits McIntire Professor Eric Martin and his Managing Innovation course with teaching her about innovating within an existing company.
“I learned how entrepreneurship can be used without launching a startup,” she says.
While Nichols realizes it’s a bit of a cliché for a student studying Entrepreneurship to want to start her own company someday, understanding how to employ entrepreneurial thinking within an organization is already serving her well—and will likely provide a framework for problems she faces well into the future.
She intends to gain experience in the corporate world before trying to strike out on her own.
“I often fear that nobody will take me seriously in the corporate world because I am 5’0” tall, and feel that the only way I will be promoted to CEO is if I do it myself,” she says. “In reality, I know that if I am confident and use the skills I have worked so hard to gain, then I will be successful, but I find it more fun to imagine myself running my own business.”
In the meantime, those lessons from Martin’s class have already proven helpful in her summer internship as a Data Analyst at Premium Service Brands, a franchising agency for home service companies.
“This company was launched in the early 2000s as a startup, and in the day-to-day, we really embrace the entrepreneurial mindset, where my bosses give me and the analyst team freedom in many of our projects to investigate and interpret data ourselves and come to conclusions that we believe will positively impact the business,” she explains.
Nichols adds that her internship is the result of a conversation with Zorychta after attending the SPARK: Faces of UVA Entrepreneurs event. She had questions about internships that could potentially combine entrepreneurship with existing corporate jobs.
“The conversation—and my experiences in ENTP 1010—shaped how I acquired my internship for this summer,” she says.
Yet after a helpful call with a former UVA student who works at a sports analytics company who answered Nichols’ questions about classes and finding a job, she felt deflated—momentarily, anyway.
“It was clear that men dominate this field and that it was very unlikely I would find a position—let alone one I would be comfortable with,” she says. But then she had a change of heart. “I thought to myself, ‘What better way to not be in a male-dominated field than to create the field myself?’” She held on to the idea of potentially becoming an entrepreneur down the road and launching a brand through a startup of her own.
For now, she decided to shift gears and apply to intern at Premium Service Brands.
“While I don’t have previous knowledge about the home service industry, after taking ENTP 1010, I knew that working for a small, tight-knit startup would be an incredible way to continue learning about how to be an entrepreneur. The owner of Premium Service Brands is a successful entrepreneur whose experiences I believe will also function as a good teaching tool,” Nichols says.
“I am using my statistics knowledge in my data analytics internship this summer,” she says, “but I am also using my entrepreneurial skills by asking the right questions and knowing how best to use the data we have available.”
Resilient and Presentation Ready
In the classroom, the Entrepreneurship Minor has already proven practical, supplementing what she’s learned in her chosen majors and vice versa. Nichols says that by leveraging insights from her Psychology courses, she is developing a better understanding of how the marketplace functions, while also learning how to design marketing strategies and foster healthy company culture. Her Statistics classes are supporting her entrepreneurship interests, helping her to find insights about company performance and informing the methods for choosing the best course of action.
For someone who might want to launch a company in the future, Nichols learned a valuable life lesson about being adaptable—a skill that many a founder or innovator has had to cultivate during the inevitable but no less surprising rough patches they encounter. After having her car hit by three different people since starting at UVA, she’s had to roll back her controlling side to deal with the accidents, becoming better equipped to face things when they don’t go smoothly or according to plan. While the last incident was a hit-and-run, she fortunately seems to have emerged unscathed.
The focus of another lesson to emerge from her Entrepreneurship courses at McIntire was perhaps equally unexpected: fashion.
“My first two years of college I spent most of my time in classes with hundreds of students, so I would sometimes wear cute skirts and dresses, but sweatpants and leggings made up my daily wardrobe,” Nichols confesses, pointing out that her casual look was fine for her Psychology and Statistics classes. At McIntire? Not so much.
“I quickly realized that in the Comm School, you could be called on to give a presentation any day in class, and it might be that you are the only person presenting in sweats!”
She quickly upped her game and began to dress more professionally. But she didn’t stop with her wardrobe when it came to taking tips from her Commerce major peers: “I learned how to listen to them and grow my knowledge from what they knew and the insights they brought to class.”