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Student entrepreneurs ignite their ideas at Wildfire

Pre-accelerator program gives students tools, guidance to grow their ventures

Jared Scharen is the first to admit that when he started developing eRetirements, the company he founded in January 2015, the process was like “throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks.”

That all changed last summer when Scharen applied and was accepted to the inaugural Wildfire Pre-Accelerator Program offered at The Garage, Northwestern University’s hub for student entrepreneurship and innovation.

The second-year business graduate student at the Kellogg School of Management has a much steadier path forward for his website, which helps future retirees determine their ideal retirement destination, thanks to the knowledge and skills he gained through Wildfire.

“Now I have a really clear plan with what direction we are going on a month-by-month, week-by-week basis,” Scharen said. “All that direction was provided by Wildfire. It’s been night and day.”

The summer Wildfire program is an intensive, 10-week extracurricular program designed for student entrepreneurs to work on their startups full time. Beginning with the current winter quarter, a lighter version of the program is offered for credit in partnership with the course “Special Topics In Entrepreneurship: Radical Entrepreneurship,” taught by Jay Goldstein of the McCormick School of Engineering’s Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

The pre-accelerator nature of the program allows students to take early-stage companies to the next level by teaching them the ins and outs of entrepreneurship in a low-risk environment, said Billy Banks, associate director, The Garage.   

“The analogy I use with students is Wildfire is a kitchen, not a restaurant,” Banks said. “I’m not here to take your order; I’m not here to cook your food. I’m here to provide all the tools and ingredients to help you learn how to cook and eat.”

Some of those “ingredients” include weekly pitch sessions in which teams are given honest feedback after mock-pitching their products; mentorship from volunteer experts who serve as personal “growth coaches” for each team; and $10,000 in seed money.

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The analogy I use with students is Wildfire is a kitchen, not a restaurant. I’m not here to take your order; I’m not here to cook your food. I’m here to provide all the tools and ingredients to help you learn how to cook and eat.

Billy Banks
associate director, The Garage

Scharen’s two-time mentor for Wildfire was Chris Steiner, a Northwestern alumnus and entrepreneur who previously sold a company to Groupon. Steiner also coached “College Turnout,” an app that connects students to on-campus events, during summer Wildfire. The Turnout team came to Wildfire with just an abstract idea, Steiner said, but launched the app in September. It was downloaded 400 times during Wildcat Welcome, the University’s first-year student move-in week

“In addition to teaching the entrepreneurial toolkit and how to pitch, we wanted to have the students focus on grit and resilience and the attributes that are important to be successful in entrepreneurship,” Banks said. “Having difficult conversations, working through your founder’s agreement, creating an operating plan, getting out there and talking to people and hearing the word ‘no’ a lot are all part of the equation.”

The academically accomplished Scharen had plenty of real-world experience before coming to Northwestern. After graduating Summa Cum Laude from Villanova University in 2010, he worked for Ocean Spray, PNC, J.P. Morgan and McKinsey & Company. But Scharen’s winding career path then took a sharp turn.

In June 2014, he packed his bags for Moquegua, Peru, a city of 60,000 nestled near the Pacific Ocean and Peru’s southern border with Chile and Bolivia, and spent 14 months providing pro-bono consulting to small businesses owners in impoverished areas of the city for the non-profit Technoserve. He embarked on the trip without much, if any, certainty. But the essence of a determined entrepreneur is the ability to take risks in the face of an unknown future.

“I believe we evolve and learn most when we are in uncomfortable situations,” Scharen said. “My goal is always to put myself in a situation with the steepest learning curve. My next logical move after all this —putting myself in rural Peru, in the middle of nowhere where I don’t speak the language —was starting a company.”

amount of seed money given to summer Wildfire teams

With Steiner’s mentorship, Scharen nailed down the revenue streams and website traffic eRetirements had been lacking. The number of returning users increased three-fold and new users increased by 35 percent over the 10-week summer program.   

Northwestern senior Ben Weiss expanded the team behind his 15-month old venture, Zcruit, to four members during summer Wildfire. He used his new teambuilding skills to transform an idea into the functional predictive analytics tool for college football recruiting he had envisioned.

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“I don’t think we would have been able to build anything or get off the ground without the Wildfire program because it gave us the time and resources to buckle down and code, build and develop this thing,” Weiss said.  

Now Weiss is beta-testing the software with three college football recruiting departments, including Northwestern’s. He said Wildfire helped him improve his teamwork and organizational and communications skills, all of which are valuable far beyond Zcruit.

Scharen said he felt similarly —that Wildfire prepares students for successful careers whether or not their ventures ultimately succeed.

“If eRetirements goes under tomorrow, I won’t look back and say, ‘Wow, that was a waste of time,’” Scharen said. “I will instead look back and say that was by far the most incredible learning experience I’ve had my entire life.”