Student Life

Successful Startup Speakers Power the First-Ever Student-Run Founders Forum at McIntire

What began as an assignment in Professor Chip Ransler’s Entrepreneurship Minor course organically blossomed into a student-run, full-day schedule featuring founders and CEOs.

Chapin Zerner, Marlee Reiter, Brynn Earl, Jacob Swisher, Chip Ransler

Chapin Zerner, Marlee Reiter, Brynn Earl, Jacob Swisher, Chip Ransler

Entrepreneurship is exploding across the University. And a great deal of it is coming out of the Commerce School.

Events like the Galant Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship’s annual UVA community pitch competition, the Galant Challenge, on April 25, and McIntire’s 2024 installment of the Connaughton Speaker Series, which welcomes four alumni on April 26 for “A Founders Conversation,” are filling the School with the frenzied energy of startups on the move.

The excitement is so contagious that it’s got students getting in on the action as well.

What began as an assignment in Professor Chip Ransler’s Entrepreneurship Minor course tasking students with reaching out to ask well-known businesspeople if they would speak in class organically blossomed into a student-run, full-day schedule of founders and CEOs. The nearly 12-hour Founders Forum event at McIntire on April 10 hosted—in person and on Zoom—innovators from across the U.S. who shared their knowledge and spoke directly with students about their own ventures.

“In general, the assignment was actually a pretty life-changing exercise for all the students,” says Ransler. He notes that the event is a natural outgrowth of what happened due to the positive results that came from the assignment “because the students were so successful at finding speakers. We had to turn down a ton of them because we ran out of space. Also, many got internships, cool meetings—with someone getting the founder of TED to speak to him for two hours—and lots of interesting outcomes besides the Founders Forum itself.” All told, nearly 600 students attended the forum.

Motivated to Act

Marlee Reiter (McIntire ’25) and Chapin Zerner (A&S ’25) are both students in Ransler’s upper-level Entrepreneurship course this spring. Reiter, a TA in Ransler’s Startup: An Introduction to Entrepreneurship class last spring, is completing the Entrepreneurship Track at the Comm School, while Zerner, an Interdisciplinary (Statistics and Neuroscience) major, is in the Entrepreneurship Minor.

Reiter and Zerner, who have been running the insightful “Learning Out Loud” podcast, which they launched in May 2023 with Justin Guerra (A&S ’24), represent two members of the core team of students responsible for the Founders Forum; other team members include Brynn Earl (Engineering ’25), Jacob Swisher (Education ’23, Nursing ’25), and Andriy Shalkivskiy (McIntire ’24).

While Reiter and Zerner both have a keen interest in the subject and all that comes with startups, they confess that their draw to enrolling in another course with Ransler has an awful lot to do with their professor.

“The way that Chip teaches is very different from a lot of other professors, and I appreciate how he has this knowledge about a lot of different things and he’s able to apply it to basically anything,” insists Zerner.

“I enrolled in Chip’s first class because I wanted to see if I liked entrepreneurship,” says Reiter. “That was actually the reason I ended up applying to McIntire—because of that class and because of Chip. Honestly, I took his second class just to have another class with him. He’s just awesome. He brings his experience and a lot of his own stories into the class. We do a lot of real things in his class—things that will actually help us.”

“Most of the time, when I leave his class, I’m very excited,” says Zerner. “He definitely has a bias towards action instead of wondering what could be. Just do it, and then see what happens. That’s changed the way that I look at entrepreneurship and life.”

Indeed, that spirit of launching quickly and refining after is behind the Founders Forum.

For Ransler’s assignment to reach out to someone she was interested in speaking to in order to see if they could be persuaded to speak in class, Reiter connected with Brett Schulman, Co-Founder and CEO of CAVA. Her classmates managed to find others who also agreed. Suddenly, they realized they had more than just a guest speaker on their hands.

“It ended up turning into this big event,” Reiter says, pointing out that since the decision was made to take it from a class and evolve it into a forum, she, Zerner, Earl, Swisher, and Shalkivskiy were responsible for organizing and overseeing the event’s success—with some essential guidance and input from Ransler along the way.

“We were basically organizing all the logistics and getting the people confirming that they were coming, setting everything up for the day,” says Zerner, who secured the event’s final speaker, Managing Partner and Founder and entrepreneurship influencer Alex Hormozi.

“That’s another great thing about Chip: He lets us take the lead. It’s been super cool to be a student who’s the first point of contact with all of these founders and executives,” says Reiter. “I’m into the health and wellness industry, and I got four people to come in.”

In addition to Schulman, whose CAVA hosted a lunch for attendees, Reiter snagged Primal Kitchen Co-Founder and President Morgan Buehler Zanotti; Poppi Co-Founder and Chief Brand Officer Allison Ellsworth; and MUSH Founder and CEO Ashley Thompson, who hosted a breakfast chat.

“People who know this industry know that these people are a very big deal,” Reiter says. “When I tell my friends about this, they’re like ‘What?! How did you do that?’” Admitting that one year ago she herself would have been equally befuddled by the results of persistent yet respectful emails, she now has internalized the confidence to keep at it. “I know that was the point of the assignment,” she says.

Beyond the lectures, Zerner explains that they also carved out a two-hour slot for some speakers to meet with smaller groups of student entrepreneurs to workshop issues they face. “We asked on the application why students wanted to meet with the speakers, and it was very encouraging that everyone had these very diverse and relevant reasons, but the main reason is that they hoped the founders’ insights would help them with their own ventures and accelerate their progress,” he says. “It was very gracious of the guests to give up their time to help mentor the students.”

The Positive Results of Reaching Out

Biomedical Engineering student Earl, who is minoring in Engineering Business, took Ransler’s Startup: An Introduction to Entrepreneurship course because she was looking to differentiate her learning by enhancing her interpersonal skills. “I’m taking all these business, accounting, and engineering classes, but I don’t really know how to network,” she says, explaining that even getting lessons about sending cold emails to potential clients has been extremely rewarding.

But her Entrepreneurship class has been much more already. She has been developing her networking skills, working with media and photojournalism company 24 Media, a company founded by Jackson Ploeger (Architecture ’25) and Pranay Vittal (Architecture ’25, A&S ’25). And in her class, another project had Earl and two Engineering student partners build an MVP (a minimum viable product), which resulted in launching a baking company with low- or no-code tools. They jumped from ideation to fulfilling orders in just three weeks.

“It’s definitely a lot of work, and we have like 20 orders to fill in one weekend,” Earl says, debating if she and her team will be able to continue its bread-making venture in the summer. The action-oriented experience primed her for what has come of the Founders Forum event, for which Earl brought in Travis Rosbach, Founder of reusable drink manufacturer Hydro Flask.

“I wrote this very short email and heard back from him. But it was after the assignment was over. [Ransler] said, ‘No, keep pushing.’” While the students didn’t have the budget to fly Rosbach out from the West Coast, Ransler suggested that she ask him if he would be willing to Zoom in for the event. He was.

“That was big, too. We kept pushing,” Earl says. “I actually did not expect this to work and to have him [for the event],” she says. The process and what she’s applied from the course have given her a major confidence boost. She credits Ransler for his upbeat attitude and unflagging motivation. “Even through his class is about learning how to use a network, find email addresses, and to email those people, the power of literally being a student and being able to say, ‘Hey, I’m doing this, I’m a student at UVA. Could you help me?’ That holds so much power.”

She says it’s been reassuring to hear from Ransler that, despite the many loose ends the students faced in putting the Founders Forum together, its of-the-moment approach was fine. “There were a lot of times where the rest of us thought it was getting a little chaotic, and we started wondering what we were going to do,” she says.

Earl was driven by seeing the event come together—especially since she can trace it back to it merely being an idea. “It was five of us sitting in a room thinking, ‘What if we actually plan this?’”

Check out some standout episodes from Reiter and Zerner’s “Learning Out Loud” podcast featuring these insightful guests:

March 8 | Mark Galant (McIntire ’80) – CEO of Ultra-High Frequency Trading Firm & Galant Center discusses why college students should work at a startup, circuitous career paths, the importance of passion outside of work, iterating on an existing concept, negotiation, and more.

January 2024 | Shannon Nash (McIntire ’92, Law ’95) – Wing CFO and “OnBoard” film producer talks about the benefits of both accounting and law as a CFO, being open to pivots in your career, taking lessons from a small company to a larger venture, mentorship, taking advantage of opportunities in front of you, and more.

September 2023 | Professor Chip Ransler – Co-Founder of Husk Power joins the students to reveal his story of a near-death encounter with a poisonous snake, redesigning the inside of a Navy nuclear submarine, backpacking through the Swiss Alps, and running multiple million-dollar companies.


A Team Effort

Swisher, who graduated with a Kinesiology degree in three years and is currently studying Clinical Nurse Leadership, took Ransler’s Startup: An Introduction to Entrepreneurship course in spring 2023. Now Swisher is his TA.

As such, he’s involved in helping in a “strictly administrative” capacity with the Founders Forum, but he is genuinely interested.

“I absolutely loved this class, and I learned so much,” Swisher says. “I just wanted to be involved in any way possible moving forward. And since I’m in my master’s, I wasn’t eligible to take a higher-level class or to do the minor, so I offered to TA, and he accepted. It’s been an unbelievable experience, and that’s how I got involved in planning this event as well.”

“With an event like this, there are just so many moving parts that you never think of until you start the event,” he says, explaining that once they procured speakers, they felt momentarily settled—that is, until they remembered everything else. “And then we realized, ‘Oh wait, we need catering. We need to manage sign-ups. We need to send email reminders. We need all these different things,’” he says. “It’s just a team effort.”

Swisher, who has a company called EZ-EAP, an emergency action plan management app he started in Ransler’s class, already participated in the Darden School of Business’s eCup. Duty called him to the hospital on the day of the forum, and while he unfortunately didn’t have the benefit of hearing from the many founders speaking firsthand, he was able to catch the tail end. Equally important, he’s interested in reflecting on the process and learning from the overall experience of producing the event.

Zerner says that as each day moved closer to the event, the length of it expanded with more confirmed guests: “Chip was describing it like a music festival where we’re able to compress this semesterlong learning down into one day.” He points out that the organizers hope this spring’s event represents the initial installment of the Founders Forum. “Heads were spinning with all the inspiration and excitement about what these founders have been able to do. The energy in each room was palpable, and each speaker contributed a different perspective on what entrepreneurship can look like and where it can lead you. Getting to connect with the speakers and lead the event was an incredible payoff after months of planning. It was phenomenal.”

Earl echoed his Zerner’s feelings. “It was incredible to see the tangible impact of all our collective hard work. It served as a testament to my own belief in our ability to make things happen and effect positive change. I’m so proud of us, and I can’t wait to see how this inspires others and develops into an annual event.”

For Reiter, her biggest takeaway from all of the speakers speaks to the power of following one’s bliss to do what speaks to you. “With the right amount of effort, the rest will fall into place,” she says. “And lastly, I can’t wait to do this again next year.”

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