Student Startup Project provides valuable entrepreneurial experience

Great Valley LaunchBox program immerses students in startup culture
Nimisha Benoy and Utkarsh Singh sit in a classroom

Nimisha Benoy and Utkarsh Singh have been immersed in startup culture since beginning the Student Startup Project.

Credit: Penn State

MALVERN, Pa. — As Penn State Great Valley expands its entrepreneurial offerings, the Great Valley LaunchBox has introduced the Student Startup Project to immerse students in startup culture. Master of engineering management students Nimisha Benoy and Utkarsh Singh have had entrepreneurial aspiration for years, so when they heard about the program, they knew it would be the perfect supplement to their classes.

Since November, Benoy and Singh have spent 10 hours a week working with one another and LaunchBox Director Leo Daiuto to produce deliverables that help address three issues the LaunchBox faces: infrastructure, awareness and engagement. And just like employees at startup companies, they’ve needed to learn a lot fast and solve problems without much direction.

“It's been a learning curve, I would say,” Benoy said. “It’s not comfortable at all — I remember weekends when me and Utkarsh would get together and we’d be like, ‘What are we going to do? I have nothing to offer’ and then at the end of the day, we’d actually come up with something.”

When they first began working with Daiuto, Benoy and Singh assumed the experience would have set tasks each week. That’s not the case, though, and it’s by design. As anyone who’s worked at a startup can attest, things can quickly change day to day, which Dauito wanted reflected in the program.

The Great Valley LaunchBox — funded by Invent Penn State, a commonwealth-wide initiative to spur economic development, job creation, and student career success — was founded in May 2020, though its roots go back to the REV-UP Center for Entrepreneurship, established in May 2016. As a relatively new program, the LaunchBox is still expanding its reach in the campus and local communities — meaning there aren’t any set answers to what Benoy and Singh encounter. Just like employees at a startup company, they have to forge their (and the LaunchBox’s) own path.

“We have to think. We have to be uncomfortable … and that’s what I think Leo is great at because he believes in us,” Singh said. “You have to believe in yourselves in whatever you’re going to do. Nobody is perfect and no plan of action is perfect. There are always going to be challenges and shortcomings in your plans, but you have to be willing to change.”

Flexibility is one of the most important lessons Benoy and Singh have learned. Whether it was the target audience, communication modes, or any of the other multiple hitches they’ve encountered, knowing when to change their approach has been key.

Benoy and Singh knew they wouldn’t be able to base their work on how other Penn State campuses’ LaunchBoxes function. As the only campus dedicated to graduate studies and professional development, Penn State Great Valley’s students are a mix of working adults who take classes part time and full time students facing different needs and issues. With this in mind, Benoy and Singh opted to focus on one group to refine their goals for the project.

“We thought about how we can address the concerns of the current students because the demographics of Penn State Great Valley are very different compared to all the other Penn State campuses,” Singh said. “So right now, we are focusing on what benefit can we give to those [full-time] students.”

Part of that focus was directed toward planning the upcoming Student LionCage pitch competition, where participants identify a project that solves a market need and go through a guided process of putting together a solution for that problem. Benoy and Singh were tasked with deciding when the event would be held, as well as with promoting the event to full-time students.

The competition, in which Benoy and Singh will be participating, was held on campus on Wednesday, March 30, marking the first time the event was in person since November 2019.

After LionCage, Benoy and Singh will have just a month remaining in the program, but they know the decisions they make will impact the Great Valley LaunchBox in the short and long term.

Benoy and Singh are on track to graduate in December, and they expect they’ll head into managerial roles. While starting their own businesses might not be their next step, they’re confident the entrepreneurial, problem-solving, and decision-making skills they learned from the Student Startup Project will translate well to wherever they end up.

“The learning experience … was phenomenal,” Benoy said. “To work with Leo is a dream come true, actually. To meet a person like that, to have a person like that in our lives that we can probably reach out to even after this, I’m so grateful for the opportunity.”