Fellowship helps MBAs follow their entrepreneurial passions

FilterEasy, a Raleigh-based company offering a subscription-based service for air filters, benefited from the insights of summer operations intern Brian Dienes (MBA ’19). With his passion for entrepreneurship, Dienes was thrilled to work closely with the startup’s founders and hone his entrepreneurial skills.

The Raleigh-based startup offered a salary that was a far cry from Dienes’ earnings in his pre-MBA career in investment banking. Dienes’ choice to bypass a bigger summer salary was eased by the $5,000 grant he received from the Carolina Startup Fellowship. The fellowship, a project of UNC Kenan-Flagler’s Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital (EVC) Club based in the Entrepreneurship Center, helps MBA students commit to entrepreneurship and venture capital summer internships which typically pay less than opportunities in other fields.

“We have a lot of EVC members who want to launch their own startup, work in a management position at a startup or go into an entry-level position in venture capital,” says John Huang (MBA ‘19), EVC president. “Summer internships opportunities in those areas are often unpaid or low-paying. Having fellowship money so students are able to do what they are passionate about is meaningful and helps them explore these options without the fear of not making some ends meet.”

Fellowship funding comes from a stipend the EVC club receives for managing the course-pack process for the full-time MBA Program. “We facilitate the conversation between professors and the publishing company to coordinate the articles and cases for each class,” says Huang, who was a fellowship recipient. “We then work with the bookstore to get the materials onto a web-based platform so students can purchase it through the bookstore.”

Historically, six summer fellowships have been awarded annually. But this year, a record nine students received funding thanks to the quality of the applicant pool, the hard work of the EVC Club, and supplemental funding from the Entrepreneurship Center (Eship Center).

Huang says that the fellows are chosen based on their passion for entrepreneurship, involvement in and desire to give back to the local entrepreneurship community, and activity in the EVC club. Along with Huang and Dienes, this year’s fellowship recipients were Carrie Carson, Mike Griffin, Mary Margaret Milley, Artur Oliveira, Rachael Paolino, Brendan Smith and Alex Waters, all members of the Class of 2019?

Mary Margaret Milley and Rachael Paolino incorporated their company Viyb Health in January 2018. “We will make the process of seeking a mental health professional easier, simpler and more personalized,” says Paolino. “We’re doing that through a web platform that empowers the patient to make the best choice when selecting a therapist.”

Since neither Milley nor Paolino is taking a salary, they used their fellowship money to push their business forward. “The EVC funding helped us with logo design, development of our behind-the-scenes technology platform and travel to meet with potential partners,” says Paolino. “It helped position us for when we do our seed round funding with potential investors.”

More importantly, the funding has helped the founders focus on creating strategy, enthusiasm and excitement while focusing on the bigger picture of what they are building. “We hope to create not just a company but a brand,” says Paolino. “We want to reduce the stigma behind mental health and make sure that everyone can use our platform to find appropriate care when they need it.”

Huang spent his summer as a venture capital fellow with IDEA Fund Partners, continuing a placement he began last February through the Venture Capital/Angel Intern course taught by Randy Myer and Mitch Mumma at UNC Kenan-Flagler. “During the spring semester, I worked in the office part time and got a feel for the partners, their business, investments and philosophy, and what they look for in companies,” he says. “Over the summer, I dove in and got my hands on all different aspects of the venture capital world.”

His responsibilities included taking a first look at and having an initial conversation with leaders of startups. “I also got to do due diligence, look into different markets and products, help with portfolio management of the fund, and be involved with strategic decisions,” he says. “Prior to business school, I worked in startups, I wanted to see this field from another standpoint. This experience and the support of the fellowship have let me jump into this without any risk and learn about the industry.”

“What I have learned over the summer, you can’t get from a classroom setting,” says Huang. “Working at a company that is meaningful to me is profound and lets me make an impact on things I care about.”

Dienes cares about creative decision making, flexibility and the ability to make an impact in the company he works for. He found all of those things during his summer internship at FilterEasy.

“FilterEasy is growing extremely fast, with triple digit growth,” he says. “I was able to help with a variety of projects including creating a model in Excel that optimizes the shipping box dimensions, resulting in cost savings.” Dienes also led a request-for-proposal process for the procurement of shipping boxes, helping the company improve gross margins.

The financial compensation provided by the fellowship helped level the playing field with his MBA friends who took summer jobs in large corporations, management consulting and investment banking. “Having this fellowship made the decision to do this internship much easier,” he says. “Working closely with the two founders of FilterEasy was a great way to learn from people who have built a company from scratch.”

Huang hopes the fellowship will excite more students about the entrepreneurial world. “While working during the summer in a big company might be a little more cushy, students who are interested in startups should just jump into one,” says Huang. “The summer between the two years of your MBA is a perfect time to take a risk and work on a passion project without having to commit to it full time upon graduation. Go work in a startup for a summer and learn what drives and motivates you.”