In early April, I got a chance to not only photograph and document the USC Techstars startup weekend, but be an active (and winning) participant in it. Joining a team of strangers, coming up with an idea, getting our idea torn apart by mentors, and finally pitching our final product to judges all in the span of one weekend taught me so much about the entrepreneurial world and about myself. I want to share my experience and biggest takeaways from an unforgettable weekend made possible by Techstars and the USC Office of Research and Innovation. 

On April 5, Startup Weekend kicked off that evening with introductions by Techstars and an overview of what was to come. I’d never used a professional camera before, so I spent much of this time getting used to my new role as a photographer. Luckily, I was joined by a crew of professional photographers from the USC School of Cinematic Arts who I was able to shadow (you can see all my photos from the weekend here).

After a quick icebreaker activity, we were all welcomed to line up and give a 1-minute pitch of our idea to the group. I didn’t come in with an idea, so initially, I stayed in the crowd, but as more and more contestants pitched, I decided to take a leap of faith and try it myself. Though scary, getting up there to pitch gave me the full event experience, and I even got compliments and feedback on my idea afterwards. After our pitches, the voting began, and the winning ten ideas became the basis for our groups for the weekend.

Maybe the most difficult part of the weekend was choosing a group to join, as there were so many great ideas and interesting people to team up with. I found myself torn between a number of groups, but ultimately decided to work with a person trying to improve financial literacy for professional athletes. I liked the idea because I saw a real problem and a potential for my creativity to make an impact, but I never could have predicted what was to come in the following days. 

On Saturday, we migrated up to the Stevens Center office on the 23rd floor, where each team got a work room (ours had a killer view). The bulk of our morning consisted of fleshing out the idea, which went back and forth between a financial literacy platform and a sports content and podcast aggregator. We finally agreed to go with the finance route, and just as we were getting excited about our potential product, the mentors arrived. All the mentors we met with were incredibly accomplished and insightful, and they all had different insights about our vision. One by one, they came by our room and proceeded to rip our idea apart and help us build it into something better. After hours of pivots, obstacles, and breakthroughs, we finally had a vision that we really believed could make change. Though frustrating, this process was definitely the most memorable part of the weekend, and we owe our success to the mentors who shared their ideas. 

Sunday was the final sprint, and we spent it mocking up the product, designing a brand identity, and creating a compelling pitch for the evening. Before we knew it, it was 5 p.m., and we were all back downstairs, ready to watch the final pitches. There were so many great ideas and exciting pitches, and the suspense was killing me as we ate dinner and waited for the judges to make their decision. Finally, it was time for the announcement, and to my disbelief, our idea, called Momentum, got first place. 

The weekend was a blur of interesting conversations, fun activities, and hard work, and I took a lot away from it. I learned that with a team of diverse perspectives and skills, we could bring an idea to life in as little time as a weekend. I learned to always seek feedback and embrace change, and that the first (or second or third) iteration of something is never the best. And most importantly, I learned that I could be an entrepreneur. Being a student at Iovine and Young Academy, I’m surrounded by entrepreneurial minds and innovative work, but until this weekend, the idea of starting a company myself was still daunting. This weekend has energized me, boosted my confidence, and made me realize I’m capable of realizing my ideas. 

I want to thank Techstars for hosting events like these to foster entrepreneurship and give young minds the tools and guidance to create. I’m also incredibly thankful to the Stevens Center for allowing me to take part in this event as both an intern and a student, and for their support of innovation at USC. I know that this weekend will be one I look back on years from now.