The 30th anniversary of the Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship arrived in the same academic year as the 25th anniversary of the Dempsey Startup Competition (formerly the UW Business Plan Competition). What many don’t know about that event is the role that a MBA student co-chair plays—or how participating, networking and working behind the scenes in that role can change their lives forever.
George Robinson (MBA 2019) co-chaired the BPC 20th anniversary celebration in 2017. He had spent almost ten years as an engineer at Boeing when he faced a critical decision: continue or join one of the top-ranked MBA programs in the nation and learn more about business and entrepreneurship.
And, like Robert Frost’s fork in the road, George says his choice has made all the difference.
On working behind the scenes of the competition:
My mental model of entrepreneurship was the following: Inventor has a great idea, works with close friends in a garage, then capital, hockey-stick growth, and IPO. Getting to experience the stages of the business plan competition and meeting with founders like Terry Drayton and VCs like John Zagula helped me realize how much more there was. I gained immense respect for the learning process that entrepreneurs undergo to disrupt industries and change the world. The students had amazing ideas and the ability to articulate why they would be the ones to solve their customers’ key problems. They backed their ideas up with customer learnings from research and often actual revenue, not just plans to go build something in a garage.”
On joining one of the prize-winning teams as an MBA as they entered the Jones + Foster Accelerator:
Joining ShopSight (think Google Analytics for a brick-and-mortar store) in the Jones + Foster Accelerator was a chance for me to learn some of these lessons first-hand. The Accelerator provided us amazing mentors and a springboard to connect with large customers and partners such as Nordstrom, REI, and Impinj. Looking back, I can’t believe we made so much progress developing relationships with customers in such a short amount of time (and launched a physical pilot at Made in Washington at Bellevue Square right before the holidays!). Working closely with our pilot customer also helped me realize how much entrepreneurship is about constantly learning from customers and iterating to make sure we were solving their acute problems.”
On choosing to continue in the startup world after graduation
A little over two years after graduating with my MBA, I had worked at a tech startup that had recently become a unicorn (Convoy) and an even earlier stage tech startup (Tomo). I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a bit uncomfortable and sometimes scary moving from a large organization with well-defined roles and products to a smaller company where I had to help chart a new path. But I have been able to lean on the lessons I learned at UW on entrepreneurship, breaking problems into testable hypotheses and treating failures as opportunities to learn. Pushing my boundaries can still be uncomfortable, but on the flip side, I haven’t had a dull moment since leaving school. My favorite part is I now get to focus my time on building our company into a learning organization where we constantly test ideas to learn how best to solve our customers’ problems!”
*A version of this story was featured in the December 2021 issue of the Foster Business Magazine. You can see that story here.