Business & Tech

SCOTT KIRSNER | INNOVATION ECONOMY

Meet the Class of 2017’s MVP entrepreneurs

28kirsner - For 28kirsner -- Josuel Plasencia. (handout)

Babson College students Josuel Plasencia (above) and Yulkendy Valdez cofounded Project 99, which aims to help Fortune 500 companies retain black and Latino employees.

It’s that time of year when we rent out thousands of polyester gowns, pass out sheepskins, and empty the dorm rooms.

But if you’re not invited to a commencement — and you don’t work on a college campus — it’s hard to get a sense for the talented young people entering the “real world.”

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So here’s my list of 21 MVPs who are earning their degrees this spring. I sought out students who have won entrepreneurship competitions, worked on social impact projects, and launched businesses — and I got a big assist from a small group of university-affiliated nominators. (Not a big enough sample to earn me more than a B- in Statistics 101, for sure.) Many of these newly minted grads plan to stick around in Boston, though some of the foreign-born MVPs are still trying to nail down a visa. Our ability to retain the best and brightest in that latter category still has lots of room for improvement.

Smaranda Tolosano

Boston University

Smaranda Tolosano was part of a project team that developed digital solutions for the global refugee crisis, focusing specifically on unaccompanied young people. The team created a mass-texting system to enable the staff at a youth center in a refugee camp in Calais, France, to communicate with the more than 600 children they served, before and after the camp was razed last fall. Tolosano, a native of France, “carried the entire project, and was able to communicate with the refugee children and understand their needs, work with the youth center staff, and also speak with developers and tech people about our constraints and needs,” says Boston University professor Kaija Schilde, who nominated Tolosano. Tolosano says she hopes to eventually work as a foreign correspondent; she’s hoping to land a visa to stay in the United States but so far hasn’t received one.

Ali Kothari, Johnny Fayad

Northeastern University

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How many people in your college class created a product, got it into 1,000 retailers, and generated more than half a million bucks in revenue before graduation day? Johnny Fayad and Ali Kothari also ran a successful campaign on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter, raising $44,000 from backers excited to get their hands on organic, vegan, gluten-free energy bars called Eat Your Coffee. (There’s the equivalent of an 8-ounce cup of coffee in each bar.) They’ve even got a fun backstory: Kothari was having trouble paying enough attention at his 8 a.m. accounting class but was klutzy with a cup of hot coffee. So why not eat a jolt of caffeine? Fayad says they plan to continue building the company in Boston.

Yulkendy Valdez, Josuel Plasencia

Babson College

The cofounders of Project 99 are both from the Dominican Republic, and their focus is on helping Fortune 500 companies retain black and Latino employees by offering new kinds of training and leadership development. “Our signature offering for large companies is a one-year-long cohort program that works with groups of 15 to 30 employees through a peer-led leadership development curriculum focused on navigating identity at the workplace,” Valdez explains. She and Plasencia run the program in-person and remotely over a year. One of Project 99’s first corporate clients is the German software company SAP. Valdez says she and Plasencia are planning an inaugural 30by2030 summit for Boston this fall, “inviting companies to commit to 30 percent black and Latino senior leadership by 2030.”

Lisa Conn

MIT Sloan School of Management

Conn helped roll out the Electome, an analytics tool that examined online communications related to the 2016 presidential election. The software, created at the MIT Media Lab, scoured about 500 million tweets a day, looking for those related to the campaigns, and provided reports on them to about 3,000 journalists and the moderators of the televised debates. After graduation, Conn is heading to Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif., to work as a strategist focusing on government and politics. She’ll remain an adviser to Cortico, a Cambridge nonprofit that is building and offering tools for newsrooms, advocacy groups, and other nonprofits to analyze digital conversations.

Angela Jin

Boston College

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Jin’s love for One Direction, and a parental loan of $2,000, led her to start an e-commerce site selling T-shirts inspired by the British boy band. (Jin’s cofounder, Nishiki Maredia, is wrapping up her junior year at the University of Texas.) But a growing number of the products offered by her business, 1950 Collective, don’t have anything to do with One Direction. They bear slogans like “Favorite Position: CEO,” “No Ban No Wall,” and “Make Racists Afraid Again.” The company has already brought in nearly $300,000 in revenue, with 10 percent of the profits going to nonprofits like United Muslim Relief and the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Justin Oliveira and Dan Nevius

Harvard Business School

The cofounders of Analytical Space point out that every few hours, the equivalent of one Library of Congress worth of data is collected by satellites orbiting Earth. Their startup is building relay satellites that will use laser communications to get that data from space to Earth less expensively. Oliveira previously worked in the Office of Management and Budget at the White House, in part examining NASA initiatives, and Pete Worden, the former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, is an adviser to the startup.

Jennifer Wei

Olin College

While an undergrad at Olin, Wei served on the board of the Foundry, the college’s entrepreneurship group, and Rough Draft Ventures, a student-run investment group that makes small investments in student-created businesses. She also was a leader of the human-powered vehicle team at Olin and landed summer internships at Boosted Boards (electric skateboards) and 3D Robotics (drones). After graduation, Wei is heading west for a job at Lever, a San Francisco company that makes human resources software.

Courtney Wilson

Babson College

Wilson is a former US Army Engineer captain who served in Afghanistan and was awarded the Bronze Star, and her startup, DropZone for Veterans, is a directory of benefits available to fellow vets — from professional development to entertainment to financial services. Wilson has been a participant in Babson’s Summer Venture Program and its Women Innovating Now Lab. DropZone has taken 1st place in several business competitions.

Andre C. Newland, Erika Marmol, Jessica Morales, Jorge Anton Garcia, Terence Tufuor

Tufts University

The group of electrical engineering and computer science undergrads won first place in the life sciences category of this year’s $100k New Ventures Competition at Tufts. Their idea? A headset that can potentially deliver an earlier diagnosis of glaucoma, the leading cause of preventable blindness if left untreated.

Shimon Elkabetz, Rei Goffer, Itai Zlotnik

Harvard Business School / Harvard’s Kennedy School / MIT Sloan School of Management

Elkabetz, Goffer, and Zlotnik are building a startup around technology developed in Israel that might be able to provide more accurate, street-by-street-level weather forecasts by leveraging the global network of cell towers: as levels of condensation in the air change, it impacts the way radio waves travel. In April, they raised $2.4 million for their Cambridge startup, ClimaCell, which already has 13 employees. Elkabetz and Goffer both are veterans of the Israeli Air Force, and their startup will focus on selling better weather data to industries like aviation, insurance, and emergency management.

Jared Pochtar and Gabriel Guimarães

Harvard University

Guimarães translated a Harvard computer science class into Portuguese and taught it in Brazil to about 200 students. He recorded the lectures and made them available online for free. He and Pochtar are the cofounders of Pagedraw, a startup based in San Francisco that helps designers turn their drawings and mock-ups of websites into working software code. The company has already raised $1.2 million from investors and is in the process of hiring software developers and designers.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.
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