Monika is the co-founder and CEO of Open Runway, a DYO (Design Your Own) fashion platform that empowers shoppers to create, purchase and share their own fashion, starting with shoes and hand bags, online. Monika has been a mentor with BUILD in Boston since October of last year and she works with a group of students at Another Course to College School (ACC) in Brighton. We were thrilled when Monika volunteered to be interviewed by our team because we could practically feel her excitement bubbling the more she spoke about BUILD.
Here is Monika’s Story.
How did you first hear about BUILD and what motivated you to volunteer
as a mentor?
A fellow entrepreneur told me about BUILD and how the program uses entrepreneurship to motivate disengaged students. I thought it sounded interesting so I attended an informational session. At the session I learned that 13 million students drop out of high school in the US every year. I knew the drop out rate was high but I didn’t realize it was that high! When I found out that BUILD was focusing on students who come from disadvantaged communities that come from families where no one went to college, I started thinking about my own background and how getting a college education was never NOT an option. Everyone in my family had gone to college and it was always a given that I would too. Growing up in an upper middle class family, I had the incredible opportunity to live and travel around the world and always had positive role models around me. I started thinking about how much I had taken for granted while I was growing up and how tough it must be for students who don’t have the kind of influences or support system in place like I did.
At the session I learned how mentors help BUILD students start an actual business during their 4 years and have to go put together a business plan, pitch it to investors, participate in a business plan competition and build their products – all things that I have gone through myself in starting Open Runway. This really piqued my interest. I love being an entrepreneur and if I could pass on some of my passion and learnings, I thought that I could have a real impact on these students. I myself have been really lucky to be part of some fantastic accelerator programs. I was a finalist of the 2010 MassChallenge Competition and an alumni of Springboard Enterprises, a venture accelerator program for high growth potential women led companies. I know how much these mentors and coaches of these programs really helped to propel my startup forward and I thought this would be a great opportunity to pay it forward.
When I heard that students who go through the BUILD program have a 100% graduation rate with 100% going on to colleges, I was blown away. This stat had a major impact on my decision to become a mentor for BUILD. The numbers spoke for themselves on how impactful this program is. I figured if I could help even one student graduate high school and go on to college, it would all be worth it.
What sets BUILD apart from other college preparatory programs out there?
BUILD is unique because they use entrepreneurship as the hook to help disengaged youth get back on the road to college. We are able to relate the process of product design and marketing to the concepts and theories that the students are learning in school. The students then apply this learning in the course of designing every aspect of the product and sales plan. BUILD gives students a venue that allows them to feel ownership and pride in their work and that makes a huge difference.
What has been the most exciting and rewarding experience you’ve had with BUILD so far?
One of the most rewarding experience I’ve had in my short time as a BUILD mentor was watching my team present their project to an entire room full of mentors, business coaches and other BUILD students at MassChallenge. The students on my team designed a product called the Convert-A-Bag – a reversible backpack that can be converted to a messenger bag. The students envision customizing the backpack by adding new covers and other seasonal designs. Right before their presentation, the kids were scared out of their minds. While they waited for their turn, I couldn’t help but think that they looked exactly like a deer caught in the headlights.
But then they went up there. They were prepared and pitched their project with confidence. They did an amazing job. No one could have guessed that up until the last minute they were scrambling. It takes an incredible amount of courage for thirteen and fourteen year old students to go in front of a room full of adults and knock it out of the park. Those kids, my team, did it. I have never felt more proud of my team than I did at that moment.
What would you say to a potential mentor to convince them to join BUILD?
I would say, “Just do it!” Being a BUILD mentor is the most rewarding part of my week. By just taking a couple of hours a week out of your schedule, you have the potential to positively impact someone’s life forever. We all lead busy lives but if you can find a way to fit it in, it’s so rewarding. Watching the students progress and build upon their ideas week over week is really exciting – especially the ones that started out shy or insecure and are now coming out of their shells and realizing that they are good at this and are valuable members of the team. It’s a lot of fun and you really are making a difference.
We are excited to officially welcome BUILD Boston's new Regional Executive Director, Betsy Neptune! Betsy comes to us with many years of experience as an executive leader and brings to BUILD wisdom and experience in entrepreneurship, economic development, coaching, team development, and nonprofit management.
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