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Distinguished alumni panel gave advice to inspiring entrepreneurs during the second web event in the Aluminate Series.

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After kicking off a successful inaugural event in June, the alumni engagement team was excited to organize their next Aluminate Web Event: Small Business Survival: Stories + Strategies.

As a platform designed to spark meaningful connections between alumni and industry, Aluminate is committed to offering rich and original programming for the entire Hokie community. Their latest event on November 5th did not disappoint. 

We heard from a panel of Hokie alums, all of whom have deep experience with the peaks and the pits of entrepreneurship. Brett Malone, President and CEO of Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center, moderated the discussion and invited panelists to speak candidly about both the realities of owning a business and the lessons they’ve learned on their path to success. 

Panelists offered useful advice for aspiring entrepreneurs and also shared their reflections about how COVID-19 has changed the game (in some ways, for the better).

Panelist Pat Matthews, CEO of Active Capital, said “Many businesses are accelerating because of COVID. My advice? As an entrepreneur, you have to figure out how to iterate. Get good at dealing with your problems. If you’re a restaurant, it’s time to get really good at takeout.” 

The notion of “getting good at dealing with problems” opened up a deeper dialogue about the importance of pivoting in order to optimize your business model. 

Chiny Driscoll, CEO of MetiStream, spoke about the evolution of her business from data analytics startup to software company. “When COVID hit, a lot of our opportunities came to a halt. We had to pivot again—we had to change. [Before COVID] we were selling to hospitals, but we had plans to sell to the bio-life sciences sector and market. So we had to accelerate those plans...we had to in order to make our business sustainable...the core sector we were selling to had come to a halt.” 

Following Chiny’s lead, we learned about how other panelists have changed their businesses too.

Erik Gatenholm, founder of CELLINK, explained how his company has adapted in response to the pandemic. “We make 3D printers that can be used in labs. [And we make] gel mixed with human cells that can be used as human tissue...we’re good at making gels and we’re good at selling, marketing, and logistics. So in March, we switched our manufacturing in two countries to start making hand sanitizers. Then, hand sanitizing wipes. Now it’s a huge part of our business. This was not something we were doing six months ago.”

Chiny also added, “Sometimes people hear the word pivot and think it’s a negative. But you have no way to control industry, politics or buying behavior. You have to always be open to evolving.” 

In addition to a healthy appetite for change, panelists also spoke about the importance of persistence in entrepreneurship.  

“I think one of the main reasons companies fail is because founders give up...No matter how hard it gets, there’s always a way to continue on. If you don’t give up, there’s a higher chance you’ll find a way.”

- Bill Boebel, CEO of PingBoard

Similarly, Pat added, “Good entrepreneurs have to be the right amount of stubborn. What I urge people to do is pick the 5-10 companies they really admire. Virtually every company out there got it wrong at first and iterated their way to greatness. You have to be stubborn to a certain point but also flexible.” 

This willingness to be flexible (and to expect the unexpected) epitomizes the heart of this event. 

In Pat’s closing words, “We’re living in crazy times. I believe the pandemic is going to push people and businesses into creating all new habits for working and living. It will create tons of opportunities for entrepreneurs.”

Taking the leap into entrepreneurship already involves inherent uncertainty without COVID-19. The added complexity of the pandemic has tested the mettle of small business communities everywhere. With that in mind, we are so fortunate to have a community of Hokies who are committed to supporting one another and sharing their wisdom in times like this. 

And creating spaces where this incredible connection is possible? That’s what Aluminate is all about.