Students create their own opportunities with successful startups
KENNESAW, Ga. (Feb 27, 2018) — Sven Cowart and Eban Bisong met in sixth grade and shared an interest in computers. In high school, they started a software development club and built their first piece of software.
Stephanie Carvajalino’s entrepreneurial spirit began at an even younger age. She was just 6 years old when she and her two older sisters started their first business venture.
Paul Ngalle took a more pragmatic approach. As the cost of his college textbooks continued to rise, Ngalle developed a less expensive, digital alternative.
While their backgrounds are different, those enterprisers share common ground. All of them launched successful startup companies while still students at Kennesaw State University.
Also, their efforts have been supported by IgniteHQ, a business incubator and accelerator that partners with Kennesaw State and is supported by the Cobb Chamber of Commerce. IgniteHQ assists entrepreneurs by providing workspace and access to mentors, educational programming and potential investors.
“One of the most rewarding things for all of us at IgniteHQ is fostering growth and success among our Kennesaw State-affiliated startups,” said IgniteHQ President and CEO Mark Hubbard. “It is thrilling to watch these young men and women apply and expand their education from the classroom to the real world.”
Idea Gains Traxion
In his sophomore year at Kennesaw State, Sven Cowart set a goal to have his own business by the time he graduated. That became a reality after he was approached with an idea by Benj Miller, an entrepreneur who had given Cowart his first software developer job.
Cowart, an applied computer science major, quickly recruited his friend Eban Bisong, an information technology major, to get on board. In January 2016, the trio launched Traxion (pronounced “traction”), a software platform that helps companies running the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS) to work more effectively.
“Starting Traxion while still in college feels like I learned how to run before I took my first steps walking,” Bisong said. “Many people feel limited in their ability to take on and build something bigger than themselves, but I have always strived to be a founding member of a mission with a purpose.”
Their software startup has grown faster than they anticipated, according to Cowart. The co-founders teamed a year ago with two business coaches who specialize in EOS, and the company now boasts a staff of 12 people – including another KSU applied computer science major, Nick Kammerdiener – and serves more than 100 clients.
“We’re really just beginning to open the spigot,” Cowart said. “Our vision in the beginning was to keep a very small team and just build very niche software that serves a very niche audience, but the vision grew .
The bigger vision is really about helping people build businesses, and, in turn, we’re helping them improve their lives.”
Bisong and Kammerdiener currently are seniors at Kennesaw State, and Cowart graduated in July. Cowart credits the foundation his alma mater and IgniteHQ provided as he sets out “to grow (Traxion) very rapidly within the next one to two years.”
“In computing and engineering at Kennesaw State, there is a sense of a lot of people wanting to build and create,” he said. “I love that people come out of those programs with knowledge about what to do in the real world.”
It's a Family Affair
For sisters Karen, Daniela and Stephanie Carvajalino, entrepreneurship is a family affair. The siblings were just 6, 7 and 8 years old when they started their first business, making and selling chocolates in their native Colombia. A few years later, they wrote a book titled Parents & Coaches, a guide for parents to help develop their children’s talents and maximize their potential.
The eldest, Karen, earned a scholarship to Kennesaw State and graduated in 2014 with a degree in psychology and statistics. Karen’s two sisters followed her to KSU, with Daniela receiving a degree in business administration last year and Stephanie now a junior majoring in professional sales.
“My sisters and I are a really good combination,” Stephanie said. “The three of us are totally different, but we all have the same passion about entrepreneurship.”
They also are passionate about sharing entrepreneurship education, which began with a talk they gave as children to a university audience 15 years ago. Since then, they have given motivational talks in the United States, China, Israel, London and nearly every country in Latin America.
The Carvajalinos’ business ventures also include Cookies and Cookies, a laboratory-themed cookie shop Daniela established while she was a KSU student. Their latest endeavor is The Biz Nation, an online learning platform that teaches courses on marketable skills, entrepreneurship and financial intelligence through a methodology designed to improve a student’s learning.
“Our end goal is to create a positive impact in our community,” Stephanie said. “For that reason, we use 15 percent of our revenue to fund Biz Nation programs in low-income communities in Latin America. We believe that if we provide people a productive education and transform their mindset, they will be able to add an economic and social impact in their communities.”
‘Netflix for Textbooks’
The software startup created by Paul Ngalle appeals to an important aspect of a college student’ s life – their wallet.
Motivated by his own experience of shopping around for the best price, Ngalle set out to create an affordable solution to the skyrocketing costs of college textbooks.
He got the idea to stream online textbooks – at a fraction of the printed cost – into the hands of college students.
“It’s like Netflix for textbooks,” explained Ngalle, a mechanical engineering student at Kennesaw State.
With the help of four KSU software engineering students and three marketing consultants, Ngalle launched TreeCabin in fall 2015. The team began by working at the University’s Marietta Campus library to build code for a digital platform that could create and store electronic books from multiple publishers.
TreeCabin’s platform is designed for laptop and mobile devices, and has both browser and app capabilities. Consumers can stream the textbooks for as long as they need, and they can highlight, annotate, take notes and bookmark in the textbooks.
The startup has come a long way from its humble beginnings, when Ngalle had no funding and said he “used my bootstrapping skills to get publishers on board.” He recently signed an agreement with investors to receive $1.2 million in venture capital.
“It is a huge accomplishment, but we don’t want to rest on our laurels,” Ngalle said. “We look at money as a tool to help carry out a job of making textbooks cheaper and widely available. Even with more profits, we would be looking to the long-term future of how we could change the publishing industry. Our way of thinking has allowed us to come this far.”
Igniting More Opportunities
The startups epitomize the entrepreneurial spirit that Kennesaw State emphasizes as one of its priorities. This fall, the University began offering Georgia’s first bachelor ’s degree program in entrepreneurship.
The Michael J. Coles College of Business is home to the Robin and Doug Shore Entrepreneurship Center and hosts the annual KSU Top 100, an entrepreneurship competition for students. Also, Kennesaw State has been developing several initiatives, partnerships and community outreach programs in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.
IgniteHQ became part of the mix when it was launched in 2015. Earlier this year, the business incubator opened its headquarters on the Marietta Square, about two miles from KSU’s Marietta Campus.
Hubbard sees Traxion, TreeCabin and The Biz Nation as just the beginning of startups that will be developed by Kennesaw State students.
“There is no doubt these students are remarkable,” Hubbard said. “It takes a mature and inventive evelop a viable idea and ambition and drive to see that idea through the startup process, which can be challenging. With students who are eager to make an impact on both local and global stages, we are continually impressed by the talent coming from KSU.”
– Paul Floeckher
Photos by Lauren Kress and David Caselli
A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers more than 150 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its approximately 38,000 students. With 13 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia and the third-largest university in the state. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the region and from 92 countries across the globe. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 6 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status, and one of the 50 largest public institutions in the country. For more information, visit kennesaw.edu.