Hot Takes at Waffle House: McIntire Students Talk Entrepreneurship with Dean Jenkins

Six Comm students met with McIntire School Dean Nicole Thorne Jenkins for a National Waffle Day roundtable conversation on entrepreneurship.

National Waffle Day, Aug. 24, recognizes the date in 1869 when the U.S. government awarded Cornelius Swartwout his patent for the country’s first improved iron used to make the breakfast favorite. Celebrating the innovative American inventor isn’t really the point, though, as much as it’s a fabulous excuse to chow down on some waffles.

The occasion also provides a good reason to talk about the entrepreneurial spirit and where it can take you. It’s the very same that motivated Swartwout, and one that would lead McIntire Class of ’05 grad Alexis Ohanian to the Charlottesville Waffle House on Route 29. It was there in Booth 19 where Ohanian would famously make up his mind to ditch his law school plans, a choice that freed him to co-found seminal content website Reddit; the location of the startup legend’s epiphany is even marked with a plaque. And today, six Comm students interested in entrepreneurship met at the restaurant with McIntire School Dean Nicole Thorne Jenkins for a National Waffle Day roundtable conversation on the subject.

All of the undergrads who took part in the conversation are motivated by their own distinct hopes for applying entrepreneurship in their lives.

Yasaar Ellis

Yasaar Ellis

Yasaar Ellis (McIntire ’24) hopes to combine his passion for theater arts with business by creating theater troupes that teach professional development skills to youth in lower-income areas; after doing work with local businesses through student group Enactus, Rhea Hemrajani (McIntire ’25) intends to launch her own charitable group on Grounds as she continues interviewing for internship roles with growth equity and venture capital firms. Yani Iben (McIntire ’25) wants to further what she’s learned in leadership roles at student groups Fashion For a Cause and Runway at UVA to start her own photography-focused venture in the future, while Akaash Kamdar (McIntire ’24, A&S ‘24) is drawn to the possibilities entrepreneurship offers to merge his Comm School and Economics coursework with possible ventures in chemistry or healthcare. Marlee Morgan (McIntire ’25) formed a custom gift box company during the pandemic and is intent on further developing her skills to create community outreach initiatives in financial services. The Virginia Venture Fund student group sparked the curiosity of Aryan Pandya (McIntire ’24, A&S ‘24), who sees investing as an important component of entrepreneurship that he intends to pursue.

“The financial side of entrepreneurship offers the potential to do good by deploying capital to ESG startups,” Pandya says. “The idea of having that experience in ethical investing early on and then, hopefully, leveraging that into an organizational perspective to create even more impact with the work that I do, the businesses I can help build, and the people that I can help.”

As students began digging into their dishes, Jenkins shared a bit about her own experience in the area, relating her parents’ decision to strike out on their own by launching what would become a profitable trash collection business in the Washington, DC, area for nearly 60 years before they sold the company a few years ago. Having procured real estate to house the business’ needs, Jenkins says she developed her entrepreneurial thinking in managing and advising them about the properties over the past two decades.

Entrepreneurship with Experience

The conversation then turned to McIntire and how the School has provided avenues to students investigating entrepreneurship to accomplish their long-term goals.

Rhea Hemrajani

Rhea Hemrajani

Hemrajani referenced her Intro to Entrepreneurship course last year, noting the extremely fertile startup ecosystem in that one class alone. “It was really cool to see everyone starting their own ventures and how passionate people are at UVA. Many students have that entrepreneurial side,” she says, recalling what she witnessed during the Entrepreneurship Cup competition and pointing to the success of QR code-based event management app DoorList, co-founded by David Roselle (McIntire ’23).

“I’m involved in Virginia Consulting Group (VCG), and we brought on DoorList as a client, starting with the founders when they only had the idea of it, and it’s been a wonderful experience to see their growth,” says fourth-year Kamdar. “There are so many different student startups tackling a diverse set of issues. Everyone is utilizing the same ICE coursework and pulling their own insights from it to pursue their passions. In my group alone, someone wants to launch a fashion label in New York, another plans to build a free clinic in Florida, and another person hopes to start an architecture firm on the West Coast. You can see how the community shares knowledge and then each person uses it in their own unique ways.”

Jenkins explained that while it’s clear that Comm students are constantly coming up with ideas, the Comm School learning experience empowers them to develop their business acumen to think deeply about those ideas, understand how to bring them to market, and then to scale them successfully.

“For McIntire students, interactions occur in a variety of ways,” Jenkins says. “Most of our alums go out of their traditional jobs where they find a problem and realize they know how to solve it. They have this profound expertise because they had that job first to discover what issues exist. As operators, they take their operating skills and apply them to an entity that’s struggling. Very few of our alums have an idea and build it from the ground up; rather, they frequently acquire a baseline set of skills, which they then use toward an interest or to fix a problem.”

Hemrajani says that idea resonated with what she learned from the talk given by shoe designer icon Stuart Weitzman when he visited the Comm School last year: “He said we shouldn’t try to immediately start our own businesses after we graduate and talked about the value of working in the industry we want to be in to learn those insider secrets from actually being in the business.”

Significant Connections

For Ellis, opportunities to get further experience with the subject have come through mentorship from alumni, collaborating with founders through his time in VCG, and direct interactions with faculty. “At McIntire, many of our professors have been in the entrepreneurial space themselves,” he says. “Professor Paul Seaborn often talks about his experiences in consulting, so I’ve had the opportunity to see it through his lens, and that’s an important way I’ve connected with entrepreneurship.”

Pandya mentioned that during the summer, while in San Francisco, UVA connections allowed him to connect with an alum who had held multiple executive roles, including Walmart during its growth period from a $5 million to $5 billion company. The conversation proved to be both insightful and affirming, regarding Pandya’s plans for investing in entrepreneurial ventures.

“I’m often impressed by the breadth of the UVA network,” says Jenkins, pointing out that when alumni return to Grounds to share their stories, they often remark that their classmate was their first investor, or that an alum they met when they were a student was responsible for putting them in touch with a pivotal venture capital firm. As such, she reminds students to maintain those relationships: “The people you’re in class with? Those are the people who, 10 or 20 years from now when you need someone to take a risk on you, those are the people who know you and will be happy to take that risk.”

Iben says that she’s learning a great deal from her classmates, thanks in part to McIntire’s different concentrations, and that she’s been keen to challenge herself about what’s possible by seeking out more connections: “It inspired me to reach out to someone from my high school, and now I’m working as a Marketing Manager at a marketing startup created last year by someone my age.”

Jenkins encouraged the students to keep an open mind.

“You don’t know what might interest you,” she says. “When you leave McIntire, our goal is that whatever your concentration is, you also know a lot about the other areas. You know much more about various business disciplines than the typical student from an undergraduate business program. The skill sets you’re obtaining at McIntire are very broad, so even though you’re concentrating in a particular area, there are a lot of things you can do.”

Marlee Morgan (left) and Yani Iben (right) point out the Waffle House plaque commemorating Reddit Co-Founder and Commerce alum Alexis Ohanian's entrepreneurial epiphany.

Marlee Morgan (left) and Yani Iben (right) point out the Waffle House plaque commemorating Reddit Co-Founder and Commerce alum Alexis Ohanian’s entrepreneurial epiphany.

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