The Evolution of an Artist

Allen Morris-Smith (aka Skvwalker, “Sky” for short) was born and raised in North Philadelphia. He fell in love with art when he was a young child, and attended the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts where he majored in Visual Art. 

For college, he chose to remain in Philadelphia and enrolled at Drexel University where he began studying Computer Science. It was not long before he realized he wanted to embark on a more creative path. He switched his major to entertainment and arts management (with a focus on digital media management and graphic design) at Drexel’s Westphal College of Media Art and Design. 

It was at this time, that Sky became interested in Cryptography; he began devising ciphers with his friend Daveik (aka “Isnotcynical”), mapping notes to letters in the composition of  music, which led to a more serious pursuit of  the craft of music-making and the creation of original, thought-provoking projects that combined music composition, film and animation.

Daveik (left) and Sky (right)

In 2018, he formed an artist collective, VodHavok, and produced his first mix tape, System Overload. Working with the collective in the creation of System Overload showed Sky the trans-formative power of collaboration and its unlimited creative potential. 

A three-month trip to Los Angeles followed, giving Sky an opportunity to meet and network with creatives outside the music industry. He worked with filmmakers and social influencers to produce a Pokemon YouTube short that inspired him to bring more visual aesthetics to his Skvwalker persona.  

It was in L.A. that Sky met Jordan Francis, who become both a friend and collaborator. Together, they began developing ideas for short films and skits and uploaded their first video, Goku v Uub, to their YouTube channel, Epitome Pictures. Upon returning to Philadelphia, Sky solidified his partnership with Jordan and they created a series of short music videos called Freestyle Fridays for VodHavok. Since then, VodHavok has grown into a full production studio (VodHavok Studios LLC) that works with videographers, photographers, fashion designers and other creatives who share Sky’s passion and dedication to producing quality art, expressed through the media of music, fashion, graphic design and film making.  

Jordan Francis

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenge for Sky, as it has been for everyone in the music and entertainment industry. Social distancing has resulted in the cancellation of video shoots, performances and other large events. One positive outcome of the pandemic is the increased awareness of the challenges that early-stage entrepreneurs face. Large, more-established, companies are coming together to support start-ups like VodHavok. For his summer Co Op experience at Drexel, Sky is currently incubating his company at the Baiada Institute where he receives mentoring and support, access to professionals, networking opportunities, and funds to finance the growth of his business.  

What does the future hold for Sky and VodHavok? Sky intends to continue his artistic journey as a Creative Director, Rapper, and Animator in the entertainment industry and in the field of music. On the horizon, is the roll-out of his LP, Broke Music and Broke Music in Surround Sound with BrandNameRecords. In addition to the production of original content, VodHavok Studios will continue to provide creative services to other’s looking to collaborate. 

According to Sky, “An entrepreneur is simply someone with a business idea. Anyone can say they are an entrepreneur. However, those who take the journey and see their ideas through, earn the merit of that title, which, ultimately determines how far they will go.”

How far will Sky go? Watch out Hollywood, watch out AMA’s, watch out world. Remember this name: Skvwalker.  

Follow Sky on Social Media:

Reilly Brady of More – Empathy

America is in turmoil. While suffering from a seemingly never-ending pandemic, America is also facing an “it’s-about-time” reckoning over racism. And it’s still answering for the predatory sexism brought to light by the Me Too movement. If that wasn’t enough, its citizens are ideologically divided on the verge of a national election. Who doesn’t need MORE EMPATHY now?

Reilly Brady

This is a question that Reilly Brady has been pondering as she considers her place in the world. Reilly is a Senior at Drexel University, majoring in Behavioral Health and Counseling. She is also a prolific maker and small business owner. For the past few years, Reilly has run a handmade jewelry company, called Tilly’s Art Box. Tilly is the nickname her parents gave Reilly when she was a little girl. Although she has great sentimental affection for the name, Reilly has decided that it is time for Tilly’s Art Box to re-brand to include her social agenda in her business model. Tilly’s Art Box is now More -Empathy, a brand whose mission is to raise awareness about the issues of diversity, inclusion, and accessibility; to advocate for non-profits that support under-represented populations; to raise awareness about the importance of mental health wellness and to normalize the discussion of mental health issues in the workplace.

Whew! That is a lot to think about, especially for one so young. Although More – Empathy may be in its start up infancy, Reilly believes that, for there to be true change in this world, brands and businesses need to step up and declare what they stand for – right from the start. Reilly aims to establish a company whose values reflect who she is as a person and as a business leader.

Reilly began making jewelry during her freshmen year at Drexel University after she contracted e.coli. Already prone to anxiety, this illness sent her mental health into a tailspin. She moved out of student housing and home to Doylestown to live with her parents. She began drawing and making jewelry and discovered that the act of creating helped alleviate her anxiety. These creative pursuits led to the establishment of Tilly’s Art Box; first, as an Etsy store, and then as a marketplace website, using the social media platforms of Instagram and, especially, Twitter for marketing.  She describes her jewelry aesthetic as “Funky, fun and different” with a bent towards bold colors. (Sounds a lot like Reilly’s personality, actually.) As Tilly’s Art Box has evolved to become More – Empathy, so has Reilly. She continues to learn new skills that include working with polymer clay and learning how to screen print as she plans to add a fashion component to her collection in the future.ti

If you would like to see more of Reilly’s work, you can visit her website at www.more-empathy.com. Her Instagram is www.instagram.com/moreempathynow; Twitter: https://twitter.com/moreempathynow. She is this week’s Proving Ground Pop Up’s Featured Entrepreneur at www.instagram.com/provinggroundpopup/.

The New Normal Post #7: How Drexel Entrepreneurs are Pivoting in the Age of COVID -19.


The focus of this blog has always been female entrepreneurship – after all, the name of the blog is The Ladies who Launch! But at this unprecedented time of COVID-19, I am pivoting to include male founders, whose stories of how they are adapting to the “new normal” are instructive to budding entrepreneurs everywhere.

Featuring Trey Lewis, Sports Fan and Entrepreneur

Drexel alum, Trey Lewis, grew-up in San Diego, California: a place where the weather is so nice that it was possible for Trey to play outside year-round participating in the sports that he loved. He played every sport under the sun, from swimming to golf to tennis. The only sport he wasn’t allowed to play was football, and with all the headlines in recent years regarding traumatic brain injuries, Trey is grateful to his mom, every day, for putting down her foot.

WeWager Founder and CEO, Trey Lewis

Trey’s father was an entrepreneur and he encouraged Trey’s innate entrepreneurial spirit. When Trey was ten, his dad asked him if he would ever consider following in his footsteps. Trey thought he was joking – he was too young to see himself someday in the same position as his father. It wasn’t until college that Trey realized that he had inherited his dad’s entrepreneurial drive.

Trey chose to attend Drexel University for two reasons: 1) the four seasons and 2) its Co-Op program. The thrill of everyday life in a northeastern climate quickly wore – off, but the Drexel Co-Op program proved to be a positive. Trey was able to hone his skills in the real world and these experiences cemented his belief that a person can learn more in practice than in theory. One of his Co-Ops included an opportunity to grow his business at Drexel University’s Close School of Entrepreneurship’s Baiada Institute, where he was given office space, access to technology, expert advice from mentors, and a stipend.

The Original SportsStock Team

Trey was awarded this Co-Op experience for a business that he began in high school with a friend, who was a business fanatic. His friend specialized in stocks, and by the age of 16, had amassed a portfolio worth thousands of dollars. They combined their passions and started SportsStock – a fantasy sports stock market. The premise behind SportsStock was this: sports teams acted as companies in the stock exchange; every team had a monetary value and that value changed depending on their performance on the field. Users of SportsStock could buy into a team with the goal of buying low and selling high.

There proved to be many complications with the development of SportsStock, and Trey decided to pivot. He created a new business – a sports betting app with a twist – and named it WeWager. WeWager is a social sports betting platform, where social media users can connect, compete, share, and participate in peer-to-peer sports betting with other sports fanatics.

As with many small businesses and start-ups, COVID-19 changed WeWager’s trajectory. The sports industry continues to struggle with the complex problem of how to combine public sports competitions with safe social distancing measures. Live sports events, at present, are non-existent, throwing the whole premise of WeWager into question. Trey credits The Close School with teaching him how to take a terrible situation and turn it into a positive: the WeWager team chose to see COVID-19 as an opportunity instead of a hindrance.  WeWager shifted its focus to eSports. eSports is an up and coming sports sub-industry that everyone is watching, even prior to the Pandemic. WeWager is now positioned to become one of the premier sports betting platforms within eSports. Users of the WeWager platform can remain safe while still doing what they love. With this pivot, opportunities for funding and marketing opportunities have increased, along with access to other resources.

As for the future of WeWager, Trey writes, “WeWager is a lifestyle career that I will not only love developing every single day, but it is a company that can also make an impact in the world. This is what makes an entrepreneur an entrepreneur: the ability to see a product as something much larger than anyone else can see it.”

Trey Lewis and WeWager are the featured entrepreneurs on this week’s Proving Ground Pop Up. They will also be the guest this week on Drexel’s Stay-Cation Summer Interview Series on Wednesday, July 22 at 1pm (RSVP here). Trey and WeWager are on Social Media! Website: https://wewager.io/ Instagram: www.instagram.com/wewagersports/



Casey Wood of Casey’s Photography

Casey's_Photography

Casey Wood remembers the first time she held her very own professional camera. She was a freshman in high school when her Nana gave her the gift of a DSLR camera (Digital Single Lens Reflex Camera). This gift represented the turning of a dream into a reality. Not only did she now own a professional camera, but she was also regularly being asked to shoot portraits and birthday parties. In her junior year, she was hired to photograph her first wedding.

Casey Wood

Casey began taking photographs in middle school. She was playing on her Nintendo DS one day and decided to try its camera function to shoot portraits of her friends. She was excited by its ability to create images, but she was also frustrated by its limitations – the user had little control over the images it captured. She upgraded to a point and shoot camera and enrolled in a local photography summer camp at The Wallingford Arts Center, which is near her hometown of Media, Pennsylvania. At summer camp, she learned how to use PhotoShop to manipulate her photographs in the editing stage and she was hooked.

Her interest in photography continued into high school but unfortunately, the once popular photography program at Penncrest High School had been cancelled before she arrived. Casey is highly motivated and she didn’t let Penncrest’s defunct photography program stop her – she formed a photography club. She asked her Visual Design teacher, Stephan Mescanti, to be their Staff Sponsor and he enthusiastically agreed to let the club use his classroom computers after school. Casey became its leader; she proposed photography challenges for her club mates to complete every week to keep them motivated and engaged.

When it was time to choose a program of study for college, she decided her best bet, in advancing her goal to become a professional photographer, was to study entrepreneurship and learn how to successfully start, operate, and sustain a business.  She enrolled in Drexel University’s Close School of Entrepreneurship and is currently entering her fourth year at Drexel.

Casey’s two Co Op experiences at Drexel have had a great impact on the growth of her business, Casey’s Photography, which she founded her freshman year. Her first Co Op was with JPG Photo, a photography studio. It was there that she gained experience shooting weddings and other special events. Her current Co Op is at the Philadelphia-based marketing firm, En Route Marketing, where she is learning skills that she is already utilizing in the marketing of Casey’s Photography. In reaction to COVID-19, she put her newly learned marketing skills to work by offering to take free portraits of first responders, graduating students and prom pictures for students who had their proms canceled. These free portrait sessions served to expand her network and have led to paid jobs. She also recently started producing another great marketing tool: notecard sets featuring local landmarks. She has Media, Swarthmore and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, sets available for purchase at a local gift store, Home and Gifts, located at 15 East state Street in Media, and directly from her.

Philadelphia Notecards

Casey’s Photography specializes in portraiture and special events. Check out her website to see the versatility of her portfolio: caseys.photography. She is also active on social media – Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CaseysPhotog/ and Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/caseys_photography_/. To purchase work or to contract her photography services, email her at cphotographypersonal@gmail.com.

Casey is this weeks Featured Entrepreneur on The Proving Ground Pop Up: www.instagram.com/provinggroundpopup/.

The New Normal Post #5: How Drexel Entrepreneurs are Creating Opportunities in the Age of COVID-19

Stealth.ify

Featuring Shannon Morales of Echo Me Forward and Stealth.ify

Shannon Morales was raised by her mother and grandmother in Northern New Jersey. She is the child of an African American and Colombian mom and dad and is also a first-generation college graduate. Shannon graduated from William Paterson with her bachelor’s degree in Accounting and Finance and is currently pursuing her MBA in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the LeBow College of Business, Drexel University.

Shannon Morales – Leveling the Playing Field

Shannon is also a single mother with three young daughters. As a biracial person, a woman, and a single mom, she has experienced more than her share of discrimination. Navigating a career in finance after graduating from Paterson was particularly challenging; she immediately despaired at her inability to find equal access to opportunities in the workforce. At one job, she was actively discriminated against. This was a turning point in her career trajectory: she realized that she would never have the same access to opportunities as her white colleagues and if she was to get ahead, she would need to create her own opportunities. Shannon decided to become a social entrepreneur and to work on building a business that would level the playing field for minority professionals such as herself.

Echo Me Forward became that business. Echo Me Forward is a software tool that enables employers to find and hire diverse tech talent. It targets industries that lack minority representation and gives companies the tools they need to change the disparaging racial inequity of their workforce. It also provides digital content, connects professionals with career opportunities, hosts networking events, provides career coaching, soft skills training, and mentorship to ensure that minority professionals have the tools they need to succeed.

When the pandemic began, Shannon recognized another challenge facing minority, urban communities – minorities were dying from COVID-19 at an alarmingly higher rate than whites. Shannon again saw an uneven playing field and decided to embark on developing a software tool that would provide healthcare and best practices information as well as real-time geo-physical risk assessment information. She calls this app Stealth.ify.

Describe your pre-pandemic business model.

Pre-pandemic, I was focused on my business venture Echo Me Forward – a recruiting and employer branding tool that connects diverse talent to equitable workplaces. The platform modernizes traditional employer recruiting sites, such as ZipRecruiter, by looking ahead to the future of work and taking into account the rise of remote work and an employee’s desire for career development opportunities, diversity and inclusion, equitable pay, and sustainability initiatives.

How has your business pivoted?

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, I decided to launch a new web app, Stealth.ify, that tracks the spread of COVID-19, while incentivizing social distancing. The name Stealth.ify is derived from a video game feature that allows players to use the stealth mode to avoid dangerous areas. Then Google and Apple announced that they were coming out with a similar app; I felt discouraged and knew that I could not compete with these two big tech companies. But then, I started to look at things from a whole new perspective: I wasn’t creating a widespread government solution, I was creating a local, community solution – one that took into account how moms, dads, grocery store workers, and others could use public information to keep their families safe. I went from focusing on a larger market to focusing on smaller, urban communities that lacked resources and awareness tools. By shifting my focus, I was able to stay true to myself and to my social entrepreneurship mission of lifting-up vulnerable, minority populations.

How important is “thinking outside the box” to the survival/growth of your business?

Being continuously innovative is key to the survival of all businesses, especially during times like these that force us to take a step back and to truly evaluate our business models. Companies like Uber and Facebook are always “thinking outside the box” by expanding their product lines to stay relevant. The key to a sustainable business is to “innovate constantly and innovate fast”.

How specifically are you “thinking outside the box”?

As a business strategist at heart, I love finding innovative new ways to solve a problem. The idea of having a Covid-19 tracker was not new, but the idea to gamify it and incentivize people to stay away from high risk areas was. People inherently don’t like being told what to do. It’s this mentality that made me re-think how to go about creating a solution for social distancing. Stealth.ify will continue to pivot to adapt to the market at least a few times during this pandemic. For example, we are currently looking at an employer solution that would create social distancing features inside businesses post-pandemic.

Discuss the importance of resiliency and flexibility.

I fell into entrepreneurship because my former employers could not see my vision for process improvement within their businesses. It was tough trying to express myself through work and being limited by myopic viewpoints. However, with each closed door, I built a resilience towards difficult situations. Resilience builds character and being flexible is necessary when going into business for yourself. Don’t get me wrong – I still receive a lot of push back and no’s, but the beauty of it now is that it is on my own terms. Sometimes creating your own path is the only way you will be heard.

How are you connecting with your peers?

I connect with peers through zoom and google meets. Since the launch of Stealth.ify, my life has been pretty much an all-day zoom meeting. I’m sure others can relate!

How do you imagine your business will look post pandemic?

Post-pandemic Stealth.ify will branch-off and become a B2B solution for employers to help their employees’ social distance. We also plan to keep our core functions for local communities that include access to healthcare resources, vaccine locations, and a telemedicine component. We want to be a reliable platform that gives local communities access to trustworthy health information both locally and globally.

To learn more about Shannon’s business ventures, visit:

https://stealthify.io/

https://www.instagram.com/stealth.ify/

https://www.instagram.com/echomeforward/

The New Normal Post #4: How Drexel Entrepreneurs are Creating Opportunities in the Age of COVID-19

Phoodie Logo Text

The focus of this blog has always been female entrepreneurship – after all, the name of the blog is The Ladies who Launch! But at this unprecedented time of COVID-19, I am pivoting to include male founders, whose stories of how they are adapting to the “new normal” are instructive to budding entrepreneurs everywhere.

Featuring Gaurang Bham of Phoodie

Gaurang Bham was born and raised in Northeast Philadelphia to Indian immigrant parents. He was a self-described “fat kid” who loved the rich food-culture of Philadelphia (which he considers one of the greatest food cities in the United States by the way!). Checking out the best foodie spots in town has always been a favorite interest for Gaurang. He was also interested in computers and technology: after graduating from Central High School, Gaurang went on to study Software Engineering and Entrepreneurship at Drexel University.

During one of his Drexel Computer Science classes, Gaurang was assigned a group project. The scope of the project was wide-open and could be anything as long as it involved programming. Gaurang’s group decided to design an app that would use foot traffic to optimize college facilities and called it “Crowds”. After the class ended, Gaurang continued work on “Crowds”.

It was at that time that Gaurang learned that one of his favorite restaurants was struggling. Like many Philadelphia restaurants, it was family-owned and struggling to survive with razor-thin margins. Could a third-party sales processing and delivery service app such GrubHub help smaller local restaurants increase business? Gaurang discovered that Grubhub (and DoorDash and UberEats) charge such high commission and delivery rates that they are actually bleeding these independently-owned restaurants dry. Restaurants pay a commission rate based on location and density of restaurants in their area. The more competition, the higher the commission (commissions average from 15 – 25% plus an additional 10% for delivery). If a restaurant wants to stand out, it can pay even more for a sponsored listing. Without a sponsored listing, a restaurant can get lost in the crowd.

Gaurang realized that “Crowds” could be used to help drive foot traffic to restaurants. Guarang shifted its focus and renamed his app Phoodie. Phoodie uses machine learning to analyze foot traffic, sales and food inventory to identify slower times when a restaurant needs business most. It then suggests to restaurants that they offer a discount at that time, notifies app users that a discount is available and then allow customers to purchase directly from the app, coupon code applied, for pick up. Both customer and restaurant benefit: restaurants see increased sales and reduced food waste and customers get a deal.

With the current COVID-19 pandemic, most restaurants are closed for eat – in dining. If they are open at all, it is for curbside pick-up or delivery only. On the surface, it seems like an ideal situation for a third party sales app such as Phoodie. Is it? I asked Gaurang to discuss the opportunities and challenges presented by COVID-19.

What was Phoodie’s pre-pandemic business model?

Phoodie, like any food ordering app, provides a restaurant-facing and customer-facing app. We used machine learning to automate pricing at restaurants based on demand. When restaurants are slow, the app suggests lower prices to entice customers to order takeout. We charged a variable commission rate based on sales performance through our app. (We do well when we help you do well!)

How are you turning the hurdle of social distancing into an opportunityHow has your business pivoted?

For the first few weeks, I had no clue what we were going to do. Phoodie was pre-launch and pre-revenue. The Food/Drink industry has been hit arguably the hardest from the pandemic and Phoodie was based on a unique value proposition powered by sales demand at restaurants. And it was pick-up only with no option for delivery.

It seemed like there was literally nothing we could do to launch our business. But as the CEO, I felt like I had to save face and be strong for my team even though I had no idea how to move forward.

My team and I focused on building our product and helping our partner restaurants in whatever way we could – spreading the word, featuring them on our social media, and through referrals. Eventually, I reached a crossroad where I realized that Phoodie could either:

  1. Build the product and wait until the pandemic blows over to launch. This would be a huge risk: the post-pandemic restaurant industry might be totally different than the pre-pandemic industry. We could spend invaluable time building our product for nothing. Or we could
  2. Figure out a way to add a delivery option and put dynamic pricing on hold. We could simply release our app as a totally free alternative to the big name GrubHub, DoorDash and UberEats, who are continuing to charge restaurants an arm and a leg even in these extremely difficult times.

Opting for option 2, we forged a partnership with Habitat Logistics, a local delivery provider for restaurants in the Philadelphia area. We are now aiming for an early May launch with the plan of providing a totally free food takeout/delivery service in which 100% of the sale goes back to the restaurant.

We earn 0% commission, but at the end of the day, restaurants learn they can rely on us. They can increase their sales and we do a good thing for the Philly Restaurant Scene. I would call that a win-win!

How important is “thinking outside the box” to the survival and growth of your business?

I think at this point, if you are not thinking outside the box, your business is at a standstill. If you are in an industry that does not conduct most of its business online, you are back to square one for the first time since the birth of that industry. All metrics are being re-made, so now is the time to experiment.

For us, thinking outside the box is more of a “nothing to lose” situation. If we wait for the pandemic to end, our product could be obsolete. If we try to sell the service “as is”, restaurants will slam doors in our face because a discount-based app is tone-deaf in the current climate. And if we give up, all the hard work my team has spent is for nothing. Besides, what else am I going to do with all this free time?

Releasing a free food ordering platform means we make a name for ourselves and we do a good thing and make an impact on the local food scene. That is our primary goal – making an impact.

How are you connecting with your peers? 

As a technical founder, I have designed my entire team’s framework around being remote-accessible. All our meetings, even pre-pandemic, are logged in a team calendar with Google Meet Conferencing Links attached so anybody can be involved. So luckily the transition to a totally remote workforce was the easiest thing about this shift.

Our team syncs up at least once a day for 30 minutes to go over what they have worked on, any issues they ran into and any questions they may have. This gives me insight into the pace in which we are moving forward and how to better-position each team member. Additionally, I have 1:1 calls with team members to go over more in-depth issues.

Prior to the pandemic, our team had a very close-knit relationship and it has been hard to find opportunities for the team to bond outside of work. We all ate lunch together at least once or twice each week and would set aside time to bond through a shared love of games (Our team is particularly competitive when it comes to Super Smash Bros.). Without a shared space to work, along with some teammates living in different time zones, opportunities for that have diminished.

That being said, I am currently trying to schedule the entire team to have a set “Happy Hour” of sorts for all of us to play games online, chat and catch-up.

How important are Mentors to you at this time? 

Mentors have played an incredibly large part in both my and Phoodie’s development. I would argue that our mentors have had an even larger impact as a result of the pandemic. Things have been crazy and having mentors to bounce ideas and strategy off-of has been incredibly comforting during this pandemic.

What new learning are you planning?

The past several weeks has extended my knowledge tenfold. I had a technical co-founder who left the company earlier in the year who was responsible for our entire database and back-end architecture. With his absence, I had to become an expert in all things Amazon Web Services. So that has really been the bulk of my learning!

How important is resiliency to you? 

If there is one thing that I try to impart to my team it is the value of “grit”. Things are never going to be easy in life and now, more than ever, I feel like a lot of entrepreneurs are seeing that reality up close and personal.

I was born and raised in Philadelphia and came up through the devastatingly underfunded public-school system. I am now a graduate from Drexel University with a Degree in Software Engineering, I have a startup about to launch and a corporate job lined up for the summer. The only thing that has gotten me this far is my resiliency and determination. Even getting Phoodie to where it is now was a 4-year process!

There are no shortcuts, not before the pandemic and certainly not after it. Grit means you want it even more. It means you are hungrier. And as Philadelphia Eagles Center Jason Kelce put it so eloquently, “Hungry dogs run faster”.

Phoodie Team: Gaurang Bham (center)

If you own a local restaurant that would like to be a part of Phoodie’s pilot program, please reach out! Email Gaurang at gaurang@phoodie.io.

Follow on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/phoodie.io/.

Visit Phoodie’s website: https://www.phoodie.io/.

Like Phoodie on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/phoodie.io/.

Hidden Gems – Sheetal Bahirat

AvocadoSeeds

Sheetal Bahirat was born in India in 1986, but spent her early school years in Cupertino, California, before moving back to India with her family to Bangalore, India, when she was in the 8th grade. Like all of India at that time, Bangalore was in an economic boom. Information Technology was exploding; in fact, Bangalore was, and still is, considered the “Silicon Valley” of India. It was there that Sheetal launched three startup businesses, all before the age of 30!

SheetalBahirat
Sheetal Bahirat

Sheetal started her first business while studying Business Management in undergraduate school at Sri Bhagawan Mahaveer Jain College. As a student, Sheetal was struck by the difference between her educational experience in California compared with her experience in India. In California, the education system included experiential and project-based learning techniques that helped in a child’s physical, mental, emotional and spiritual development. In India, the system focused on a teacher-based system, leaving a big gap in the development of students.

Born with an innate sense of fairness and a penchant for social responsibility, Sheetal saw how India’s educational system could be supplemented. Sheetal’s first business tackled this issue. Seed Leads, as it was called, attempted to bring the California educational model to India’s primary school system.  Seed Leads quickly landed its first Elementary School client; but, Sheetal had little actual business experience and Seed Leads closed at the end of that first school contract.  

Her next venture, Voonik, was a personal styling and shopping app geared towards wealthy housewives of Indian CEO’s. Voonik was extremely successful: it grew from 6 to 600 employees and raised over $10 million dollars. 

At first glance, Voonik and Seed Leads seem like two very different businesses. But there is a commonality: both businesses are about learning, self-help, personal growth and the idea that change comes from within.

The belief that change can be affected from the inside-out was even more evident in her third startup, Big Blender (a cold-pressed juice company). Sheetal had always had an interest in whole foods and their positive impact on a person’s well-being. There was just one problem: as the company grew, Sheetal became increasingly bothered by the amount of food waste generated by the production of her juices. Sheetal began researching ways to utilize every part of the fruit and plant and eventually found herself at the website for The Culinary Arts and Food Science Program at Drexel University. She contacted Professor Jonathan Deutsch, the director of Drexel University’s food product development program and Food Lab, Drexel’s culinary innovation testing ground. Deutsch was so impressed with Sheetal, her history of entrepreneurial ventures, and her passion for the science behind food that he offered her a position (which she accepted) as a Research Assistant in Drexel University’s Culinary Arts Graduate Program.

It was there, while making guacamole, that Sheetal and her co-founder, Zuri Masud, first started thinking about the avocado seed and whether it could be used to create a food product on its own. Could it be a resource, rather than a waste product? Guacamole only used the fruit’s pulp – but what about its seed and skin? Sheetal discovered that the majority of the healthy antioxidants contained in an avocado are found in its seed and skin. Her discovery that these antioxidants are also water-soluble led to the creation of a beverage made from the avocado seed. Sheetal used the resources at her disposal – all that she had learned in her Food Science classes and in her experiments in Drexel’s Food lab, as well as her experience in product development with Seed Leads, Voonik and Big Blender – to create a tea from the avocado seed which she named Avoh Tea.  In the process, not only did she create a delicious and refreshing beverage, she made a sustainable drink that is zero-calorie, sugar free, probiotic-rich, with three times the antioxidants of green tea.  

Sheetal and Co-Founder, Zuri Masud

In 2019, Avoh Tea was awarded a cohort with Food-X, a prestigious food incubator located in New York City. She has since re-branded her company, changing its name to Hidden Gems, and the name of her flagship beverage to Reveal. It’s mission:

Hidden Gems wants to change the way we look at our resources. Our mission is to create beautiful, environmentally safe, and socially responsible up cycled products by discovering the hidden value in the food people would normally call trash. Our hope is to reduce food waste, continue to create and support sustainable systems for sustainable living, and inspire everyone to discover the hidden gems in the world around us.  

At the heart of Sheetal Bahirat’s entrepreneurial journey, from Seed Leads, to up cycling Avocado seeds, is the goal of making the world a better place. Hidden Gems provides consumers with a healthy beverage alternative (healing again from the inside out – a reoccurring theme in Sheetal’s story), it keeps food by-products out of the waste stream and it educates consumers about the possibilities of sustainable living. I can’t wait to taste what comes next!

HiddenGemsReveal

For more information about Reveal and Hidden Gems, visit http://www.drinkreveal.com/.

Sheetal and her co-founder, Zuri, will be sampling Reveal at Drexel University’s Women’s Empowerment Summit, on Monday, March 9th, at Behrakis Grand Hall, 3250 Chestnut Street Philadelphia. Admission is free. RSVP here.