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June 28, 2023

Graduate voice: Nurturing innovation, empowering entrepreneurs

Sheela Sethuraman earned her master's degree in education technology from the College of Education at Michigan State University in 1997. Today, Sheela brings over 20 years of experience in educational technology, specializing in K-12 classrooms. As the Founder and CEO of CueThink, she has successfully developed and implemented a scalable math problem-solving platform that promotes critical thinking and collaboration skills. Sheela's leadership has secured $4 million in funding from notable sources like the National Science Foundation, Advanced Education Research and Development Fund, LearnLaunch and angel investors. She has forged strong partnerships with prominent curriculum publishers and has effectively sold her product to school districts nationwide.

As a long-time EdTech entrepreneur, I have experienced many of the same ups and downs that several startups go through, from struggling to find product-market fit to pivoting to a more sustainable partnership model or going from making less-than-stellar hiring choices to building a mission-driven, agile team. I have a real-life story to tell that may be helpful to someone else. So, when I was invited to a fireside chat at Michigan State University in 2019 to share my journey with other young Spartans embarking on their own ventures, I immediately said, “Yes.”

Visiting East Lansing after 20 years brought back many fond memories. Having first set foot on campus in 1996 for a master's degree, the familiarity of MSU upon my return was a welcome comfort, though so much had changed. The buildings and spaces had been modernized and infused with all the latest technologies. Still, that same sense of community and collaborative spirit that had drawn me to the institution remains. I felt this vibrance in 2019 when I was speaking in the Minskoff Pavilion, and I felt it again when I went back in 2023 to judge the Burgess New Venture Challenge. During my first visit back, I knew I wanted to stay more involved and absorb this community, as much as I was interested in giving back. So, when the Burgess Institute invited me to join as an entrepreneur-in-residence, I couldn't resist.

As an EIR, we attend pitches on a weekly schedule and offer feedback on products, markets, financials, etc. These sessions help participants refine their vision and prepare them for pitch competitions within MSU and elsewhere. Hearing the names of the entrepreneurs and the companies many months later in newsletters and public forums, recognized for winning awards or closing sales deals, gave me a sense of pride and joy. EIRs are also matched with one or two companies to provide mentorship in an ongoing manner. This role is gratifying. Particularly so when I get the opportunity to mentor women founders and co-founders. As a solo founder of my own company and a woman of color, I am especially interested in helping young female entrepreneurs break down barriers in the startup world and accomplish their goals with tenacity and determination. In turn, my mentees have helped reawaken my youthful passion for new ideas and out-of-the-box solutions.

I was tentative during my early days of pitching to investors. As an EIR, I aim to ensure my mentees avoid repeating that mistake. Instead, I push them to paint a bold vision and back it up with a show of confidence. As minorities in the startup space, we often feel the need to gather all the validation metrics before investors can take us seriously. My mentees must know that they don't need all the answers to succeed, only a roadmap and a flexible plan for how to get there. Another young female founder asked me how to “lean in” to a conversation where she was the only woman at the table. I encouraged her to speak with authority while also building fluency and depth in the essential domains of her business. My message: Become an expert in your field of interest, and everyone will stop to listen. Believe in yourself, and others will start doing the same. These are words I often repeat whenever I have a chance to speak with other female entrepreneurs.

The opportunity to continue my journey at MSU has allowed me to learn and grow while sharing my knowledge of the startup space with the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs. This would not have been possible without the never-ending support of Chris Sell, who has provided me with numerous opportunities to give back to this vibrant community. A special thanks, as well, to Aaryn Richard, whose infectious exuberance keeps us mentors and mentees alike eager to show up every day. I would be remiss if I did not also thank Paul Jacques, Lori Fischer and Aubrey Haase for their tireless efforts to grow the EIR program from the ground up and the sense of family they have created. I am lucky to call them my colleagues and friends.

So many creative, innovative, and determined young changemakers at MSU are ready to take their businesses to the next level. All they need is the belief that they, and only they, can fill the gap. My mentors have encouraged me to pursue positive affirmations and mantras backed by intense hard work. I feel fortunate to be able to impart the same to these amazing Spartans.

This story originally appeared on the Burgess Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation website.

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