Last week, alumni entrepreneurs came back to campus to offer guidance and advice to students at a panel in the Intercultural Center’s Executive Conference Room.
The School of Foreign Service and Georgetown’s Global Human Development Program co-sponsored the event, which was titled “What’s It Take to Be a Hoya Entrepreneur?” The panel featured Dan Berger (GRD ’10) of Social Tables, Ann Yang (SFS ’16) and Philip Wong (SFS ’15) of MISFIT Juicery and Jake Decicco (MSB ’16) of Sunniva Caffe, who each shared their insights on the startup process.
Dan Berger of Social Tables
Born in Israel, Berger came to the United States in 1990 not knowing a word of English. Twenty-one years later, he founded Social Tables, a web-based event-planning platform that now employs 135, has impacted over six million event participants, has planned well over one million events and raised $24 million since 2011.
Berger conceived of the idea for his startup when he went to a wedding in 2008.
“I thought to myself, there must be a better way for people who go to weddings to get to know who’s at their table before they actually get there. So I envisioned a digital seating chart of the wedding,” Berger said. “I could see that table and have more meaningful conversations than, you know, whose side of the family are you in or which hotel are you staying at.”
Berger cautioned that raising $24 million is significantly easier said than done. To get just three angel investors required four months of travel and 70 pitches.
Berger described the greatest entrepreneurship ideas as often arising by chance instead of from contrived deliberation.
“I think the really great people who start things are people who didn’t intend to, [for whom] it was an organic process,” Berger said.
Ann Yang and Philip Wong of MISFIT Juicery
Despite having secured $135,000 in funding and selling wholesale in 50 locations from New York to Washington, D.C., in its first full year of operations alone, Yang said MISFIT Juicery, a cold-press juice company she co-founded with Wong, had an extremely humble beginning.
“MISFIT started in a kitchen in Burleith that was in Phil’s apartment and we had four crates of ugly peaches that were otherwise going to be discarded from a farmer named Tim,” Yang said. “It was Phil’s senior year of college and my junior year of college and it was a hot mess.”
Despite being perfectly good to eat, over 20 billion pounds of “misfit” fruits — those that are the wrong shape, size or color to be sold at market — go un-harvested in the United States each year. These fruits and vegetables, which would otherwise occupy landfills, make up 70 to 80 percent of the juice MISFIT sells.
Much of MISFIT’s early fundraising came from pitch competitions including Georgetown’s own StartupHoyas Challenge, which gives all Georgetown students a chance at winning part of a $20,000 payout for finalists.
From personal experience, Wong said the most important part of being a successful entrepreneur in the midst of 18-hour working days and Herculean multitasking has nothing to do with business acumen or perseverance.
“I think the most important thing for us, along the same lines as the social justice education at Georgetown, is keeping a strong sense of self,” Wong said.
Jake Decicco of Sunniva Caffe
Sunniva Caffe began with Decicco’s younger brother experimenting with coffee in his freshman dorm.
“The girls across the hall actually broke into Jordan’s room and stole a couple bottles of his ‘super coffee.’ So at this point Jordan calls me knowing I was in the business school at Georgetown and said, ‘Hey, I think I might want to start selling coffee,’” Decicco recounted.
They started soon after and were emboldened by the positive response of their family, friends and the Georgetown community, especially after winning the StartupHoyas Challenge. Now, Decicco is the chief operations officer for Sunniva, and the family-owned business is sold in 25 Whole Foods Markets from Virginia to Philadelphia and in 29 states nationwide through e-commerce.
Its coffee combines an organic Colombian blend with coconut oil and protein that provides a longer lasting energy than a standard cup of coffee. Decicco, however, was sold on joining his brother not because of his product, but because of his passion.
“So I would say, talk to people who you’re friends with or who might be interested in [your idea] and just show them why you want to do it and express the passion you have about doing it,” Decicco said.
Devika Kumar (COL ’20), who attended the panel, said it helped her think more clearly about her future in entrepreneurship.
“You have all these things going on that I sometimes can’t get those minutes to think about my entrepreneurial ideas and my future,” Kumar said. “So this was extremely helpful, and I strongly encourage all people interested in entrepreneurship, actually all people in general — all people should be interested in entrepreneurship — to come to these events.”