College Think Tank Boston, June 2014

It was a beautiful morning, with clear skies as far as the eye could see and a gentle breeze coming in from the waterfront. I had no idea where the event would be taking place, but trusted in Google Maps (as well as some business-casual college-age-looking people that I spotted waiting for the Silver Line with me!) to point me in the right direction.

The building where the Think Tank would take place, the brand-new home of startup accelerator MassChallenge, was much bigger and emptier than I expected. The walls were a clean, sterile white, the ceilings were several feet high with pipes snaking overhead, and the floor was made of slightly splattered concrete. Once inside, signs guided me in the correct direction, though I probably could have found my way just by following the excited chatter that echoed through the otherwise empty hallways.

I found the registration table, slapped on my name tag, and headed into the large main room. My eyes glanced around the room, looking for two things: my table number and the complementary refreshments. Upon finding the first, I put my belongings down and devoured some free pastries and coffee to wake my hazy, 10 a.m.-on-a-Saturday mind. Soon after, the Think Tank was called to order, and the festivities officially began.

Our task was deceptively simple: how can we foster communication and collaboration between startups and their communities? Of course, it was said in many more words and its importance elaborated was on by many different people, but they all reiterated this basic sentiment. Startups need the feedback and acceptance from the communities and businesses around them. Likewise, these communities could benefit from what the startups have to offer. However, both sides, for whatever reason, are reluctant to bridge that gap. How could be break down these walls and encourage everyone to benefit from each other?

With that, we broke into our groups, each led by a pair of advisors. Ours was actually a married couple – him, a professional engineer, and her, an industrial design professor at Wentworth who had previously worked at Nike – and I feel terrible for not remembering their names because they were awesome! They made an effort to talk to each of us individually before the challenge had proceeded and knew exactly what to say to get our motors running again whenever the gears in our brains started to slow down.

We started off by introducing ourselves and explaining our backgrounds. “Hello, I’m Trisha, I’m going to be a senior at BU studying biomedical engineering, etc etc.” My team drew from several different disciplines, including industrial design, mechanical engineering, education, economics, and finance, and almost all of us went to different schools. We then found an empty spot at a clean white wall and were told to grab some post its, pens, and dry erase markers – turns out the white walls are actually painted with whiteboard paint, and we were encouraged to go to town on them!

Our advisors stressed the importance of defining the problem before even trying to brainstorm a solution.We drew a line straight down the middle of our whiteboard space, labelled one side “Community” and the other “Startups”, then wrote our thoughts for each side on the post-its. What does the community need? What do startups want? What are their end goals? What do they need to grow?

Not surprisingly, many of us were not accustomed to such a long brainstorming and problem-defining process. We started off slow, posting maybe one or two post-its every minute, but with some encouragement and examples from our facilitators, we soon had most of the wall covered in brightly-colored post-its! We then grouped all of the post its on each side by type so that we could visualize the “big ideas” for each, utilizing the white-board walls and markers to clarify our categories.

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 “I’m so used to jumping right into brainstorming,” commented one of my teammates, “it’s hard to even think of where to start defining things…” 

Once we identified the motivations of each group, we finally started brainstorming solutions. As expected, our ideas started of very broad — “some way to put both communities and startups in the same space” became “a center where both communities and startups can spend time,” which turned into “a community center with programs that are beneficial to residents and startups.” We played around with other ideas, including building shared lab and office space, offering mentorship and internship programs, and giving businesses a place to display and sell their products and services.

 Our final product was the “Community Campus”: a community center that brings together startups and residents under one roof. It would offer programs like internships offered by the startups to the youth, mentorship programs provided by the elders of the community to the startups, a “storefront” for startups to display their products, and shared work spaces for all to share.

Of course, we were not the only group. One thought of a “Kickstarter” for Boston startups, where businesses could find funding for their products through the help of residents and their funds. Another thought of an advertising campaign for individual communities in Boston, touting their positive qualities and potential for growth. Some planned for government incentives and certifications, while others planned recurring events to pique community interest.

All together, the experience was an interesting one, and certainly unlike anything I had ever experienced in school. I learned a lot about the brainstorming and ideation process and got experience working with non-engineers and non-BU students, which I imagine will happen very frequently post-graduation.

My only gripe was that there was limited time to talk to all of the participating students, professionals, and professors. Perhaps this was just due to my own self-professed shyness and lack of networking experience, but I made very little contact with people outside of my assigned group. Even within my own group, it was difficult to find an appropriate time to exchange information because we devoted all of our time to the task at hand. The only times available to mingle were at the beginning and end, when people were either still getting their first few cups of coffee in or were already itching to leave and get on with their Saturday. However, I did appreciate that many of the facilitators who already knew many of the participants very well still made a conscious effort to include everyone in the dialogue; I was afraid that I would feel left out when I found out that many students already knew some of the professors, but, gladly, this was not the case.

Afterwards, a group of participants and I walked back to South Station together. The weather was still perfect, we still caught the last few minutes of a World Cup game, and I got to spend the rest of the afternoon wandering around Downtown Crossing with an old friend. All in all, it was a great (and surprisingly productive) day!

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