The UTEP LaunchPad entrepreneurial program kicked-off with a virtual celebration on Feb. 16. The program aims to equip students from all colleges and majors with tools and resources to bolster their entrepreneurial skills and help them succeed as founders or contributors to the 21st century economy while supporting diverse and underrepresented students in exploring opportunities associated with entrepreneurship. Photo: Ivan Pierre Aguirre / UTEP Communications

UTEP LaunchPad seeks to set students on path to success as entrepreneurs

Jesus Hernandez, Timothy McCary and Erick Rivera are now better equipped to run a successful business, thanks to a new entrepreneurship program available to students at The University of Texas at El Paso that has the potential to positively impact the region’s economy.

The team that includes two computer science undergraduates and a software engineering graduate student was invited to represent UTEP at the Blackstone LaunchPad and Techstars global network’s Annual LaunchPad Pitch Competition for their startup company, InternBytes. They were selected as one of 30 semifinalists among 100 student startups across the national LaunchPad network.

InternBytes is an online platform for college students that serves as a one-stop-shop to access internship opportunities, answer internship-related questions and share and review their internship experiences at companies throughout the nation.

The InternBytes team pitched its business proposal to more than 40 judges from the Blackstone and Techstars networks for a chance at $55,000 in prizes. They received mentoring and coaching sessions from Alex Black, vice president of technology at Blackstone, an experience that helped build their confidence, boost their business mindset, elevate their pitch and sharpen their skills as entrepreneurs.

“We were off to a slow start, but this program has given us motivation and hope,” Hernandez said. “It has really helped me solidify my pitch deck and vision for the company’s future and business model.”

The success of this trio of student founders is an example of the ample opportunities available to UTEP students with goals of starting a business through the Blackstone LaunchPad College Entrepreneurship program. The program makes entrepreneurship accessible and relevant for all college students, regardless of their background, starting point, or future plans.

Blackstone LaunchPad Kicks Off at UTEP

UTEP’s Blackstone LaunchPad program kicked off with a virtual celebration on Feb. 16, 2021, with an introduction by UTEP President Heather Wilson and a program overview by Erica Lock, vice president of the Blackstone Charitable Foundation. Students who participated in Blackstone LaunchPad-sponsored events came together to share their experiences and encourage fellow UTEP students to pursue entrepreneurship. The event also introduced the campus community to the entrepreneurship resources and opportunities available to them.

The UTEP LaunchPad aims to equip students from all colleges and majors with tools and resources to bolster their entrepreneurial skills and help them succeed as founders of companies.

“A lot of successful companies hire UTEP graduates, and that’s great,” said Heather Wilson, President of UTEP. “But some of our students dream about starting their own businesses and creating jobs. Our partnership with Blackstone will help them do that.”

The Blackstone Charitable Foundation established LaunchPad in 2010 and partnered with Techstars eight years later to provide participants with access to their network of more than 10,000 mentors, invitations to signature events such as the LaunchPad Annual Pitch Competition, Startup Week and Startup Weekend.

Recently, The University of Texas System and the Blackstone Charitable Foundation announced the expansion of this student entrepreneurship program to UTEP. The $5 million expansion will give more students access to resources, opportunities and mentorship.

“We are pleased to partner with Blackstone LaunchPad to prepare more UTEP students as future entrepreneurs,” said John Wiebe, Ph.D., provost and vice president for academic affairs. “This preparation will hold our students in good stead throughout their careers.”

UTEP students will be able to take advantage of LaunchPad events, coaching and access extensive mentor and industry networks and content to develop programs to help them succeed in their entrepreneurial ventures.

“It is a pleasure to be able to work with the UT System and the Blackstone Foundation to bring the Blackstone LaunchPad to the UTEP campus,” said James Payne, Ph.D., dean of UTEP’s College of Business Administration. “The opportunity to provide students from across the campus with the tools and resources to learn and develop their entrepreneurial talents is quite exciting.”

The UTEP LaunchPad will be housed in Prospect Hall Room 320, where students can take advantage of the network and entrepreneurial opportunities available to meet their particular needs. Participants can also join the program’s virtual community – Startup Tree – an online platform where students can add and create ventures, collaborate with other students and RSVP to LaunchPad events.

Maria Fernanda Fiscal Centeno, director of Blackstone LaunchPad and Techstars at UTEP, said the LaunchPad program provides all graduate and undergraduate UTEP students unique experiential entrepreneurship activities and programs.

“Students will have space to start a company, join forces with another founder, or learn about entrepreneurship,” Fiscal Centeno said. “UTEP LaunchPad will equip students with the mindset, skills and network they need to succeed.”

Student Successes

UTEP students Josefine Murillo, Francisco Jimenez, Laura Sofia Ronquillo and Jose Smith were ecstatic when they won first place at the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp from the colleges of Engineering and Science for their startup idea, Tinkerer, an application to facilitate rental workspaces and tools for members of the local community.

UTEP’s Entrepreneurship Bootcamps are hosted by Blackstone LaunchPad and use the Techstars entrepreneur’s toolkit, an online educational resource to help students learn the fundamentals of entrepreneurship and accelerate success.

Murillo, a mathematics major, did not think it was possible for her to become an entrepreneur prior to participating in the bootcamp event but wanted to see what she could learn and try something new.

“Being successful as an entrepreneur is hard and complicated,” Murillo said. “But with the correct mentorship as received from this program, then maybe there is a possibility for me in entrepreneurism. I gained a sense that no idea is a bad idea, which will help me be more open about my own ideas and opinions in the future. It motivated me to want to participate in more entrepreneurship programs and maybe in the long run, I really will become one.”

Ronquillo, a sophomore biochemistry major, was not sure how to combine her love of science with her interest in entrepreneurship. She had won an entrepreneurship award during high school and wanted to hone not only her skills as a scientist and future professor, but as a business leader.

“The bootcamp helped open my eyes to new opportunities,” Ronquillo said. “It made me start thinking about how I could create something that combines teaching, science and entrepreneurship. The guest speakers inspired me a lot to pursue my goals and keep working hard.”

The Tinkerer team, along with two other UTEP startup teams, were among 50 student ventures in the country that earned LaunchPad national network Spring 2021 Fellowships. Each team will receive $5,000 along with weekly skill-development workshops, goal setting, mentor talks, and professional networking opportunities.

Blackstone LaunchPad and Techstars also help student entrepreneurs navigate the complex landscape of fundraising, job placement and recruitment. LaunchPad has provided nearly 500,000 students with the access to resources, personal connections and professional networks, and graduates have gone on to incorporate close to 9,000 businesses that have raised nearly $200 million in investments.

UTEP graduate student Stephanie Morales and her teammates Ileana Morales and Nubia Galvan won first place in the UTEP Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for the College of Liberal Arts for their business concept Southwest Wines, a wine subscription and delivery service that features local wineries.

Morales thought since she was studying sociology rather than business, she could never become an entrepreneur. Exposure to the resources and networking with experienced entrepreneurs and business leaders through Blackstone LaunchPad events helped Morales realize that she could not only be an entrepreneur but utilize the knowledge she gained through the social sciences to become one who better understands her customer base.

“Entrepreneurship is a way for one to achieve financial freedom in the future,” she said. “Skills that entrepreneurs have can be used in multiple areas in life, helping one be successful and more marketable. The experience and skills that I have gained through this program will definitely help me market myself more effectively. Not only that, but the program has also granted me the resources needed if I decide to open my own business as a consultant or if we go forward with our proposed business that won us first place in the contest.”

For more information about UTEP LaunchPad click here. If you are interested in joining Startup Tree, click here.

Author: Christina Rodriguez – UTEP Communications