Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

June 28, 2022

By Laura J. Cole ’04 ’08MLS

Photo by Scott Cook.

From courses and programs to pitch competitions and mentorship, Rollins provides students and alumni a network of resources to transform ideas into successful ventures.

Many kids grow up dreaming of having a unicorn—not necessarily becoming one. And yet, on March 8, that’s what happened for Lyndsey Lang ’14 when Stax, the payment processing platform she helped co-found, was valued at $1 billion.

The unicorn nickname is given to startup businesses that reach the whopping nine-figure threshold. And while about a thousand companies across the world hold the elusive title, Stax (formerly Fattmerchant) is the only one that was completely homegrown in Orlando.

For Lang, the path from making $12 an hour to holding the title of chief strategy officer and being named among the 2020 Most Influential Women in Payments was far from being all rainbows and glitter—but it was filled with a little magic thanks to Rollins.

Lyndsey Lang ’14
Lyndsey Lang ’14 co-founded and served as chief strategy officer of payment processing platform Stax, which was recently valued at $1 billion.Photo by Scott Cook.

“Rollins was really the catalyst for everything,” says Lang. “We won Crummer’s Venture Plan Competition in 2015, which was such a launch pad for us because, by that point, we had been in business for six months and had gone to market. But the prize money that we had won from winning the pitch competition was then matched by venVelo, and then the two other leading institutional partners in Central Florida joined on.”

You could say that Orlando’s success in the entrepreneurial sector has grown with Stax—and Lang. The region was still in its early stages of supporting startups when Lang graduated in 2014 with a degree in communication studies.

Today, there’s a booming entrepreneurial ecosystem geared toward helping businesses and entrepreneurs alike excel. So much so that WalletHub recently ranked Orlando among the top 5 cities to start a business. Resources include everything from the National Entrepreneur Center and StarterStudio to early stage venture funds such as venVelo and Kirenaga.

“I have 26 years of experience being a serial entrepreneur in this city,” says Pete McAlindon, entrepreneur-in-residence at Rollins’ Crummer Graduate School of Business and founder and CEO of Blue Orb. “What I love about starting businesses here is that once you open one of the many doors, you can move very quickly. We’re all willing to help one another and make sure everyone succeeds. That’s what makes Orlando great. As an entrepreneur, you’re welcomed, you’re supported, and you’re guided.”

Rollins—like Orlando—gives students and graduates the knowledge, skills, resources, and support to bring their ideas to market successfully.

Students gather in the Social Impact Hub to brainstorm ideas.
The Social Impact Hub provides tools and resources for students to ideate and implement plans for social enterprises.Photo by Scott Cook.

Tools of the Trade

Tenacity. Grit. Dedication. If you ask any entrepreneur the qualities most required to start and run a business, they unanimously come back with some combination of these traits.

“You have to have confidence in yourself as a leader, as a hustler, as a worker, as someone who’s going to roll up your sleeves,” says Lang. “And you have to have a relentless belief in yourself because it takes a tremendous amount of self-accountability.”

It also takes key skills—such as the ability to listen, problem-solve, and think critically—which are at the heart of Rollins’ liberal arts education and our mission to prepare students for meaningful lives and productive careers.

“A Rollins education prepares students to incorporate innovative approaches to problem solving, creativity, resilience, teamwork, ethical reasoning, cultural awareness—all of which are core to entrepreneurial thinking,” says Tonia Warnecke ’99, George D. and Harriet W. Cornell Professor of Social Entrepreneurship and director of Rollins’ social entrepreneurship program. “The general education curriculum as well as the curriculum in various majors helps students think creatively about solving problems in their world.”

Students can hone their entrepreneurial expertise through any of the three AACSB-accredited undergraduate business programs, which include business management, international business, and social entrepreneurship. All three provide the acumen needed to launch and run a business, including ethical decision making, global perspectives, and resource management.

But these skills aren’t taught only in Rollins’ business programs. The beauty of a liberal arts education at Rollins is that every major—from art history and English to environmental studies and physics—uniquely prepares students to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to develop solutions, which is the foundation of starting a business in any sector or field.

It’s a concept referred to as design thinking, which also happens to be a course required of all full-time and professional MBA students at Crummer.

“Design thinking is rooted in empathy-based research,” says Mary Conway Dato-on, George D. and Harriet W. Cornell Professor of International Business and Social Entrepreneurship. “For the first half of the six-week class, students aren’t allowed to think of solutions. They have to leave the classroom, gather information about why people behave the way they do regarding the problem they’ve been presented with, and come up with ideations based on those observations.”

The six-step process behind design thinking includes conducting field research, forming insights, focusing the challenge, generating ideas, prototyping, and implementing. The goal is to focus on people, gain empathy, and find the “why” before moving to a solution. For a writer, this is akin to knowing your audience. For an artist or performer, studying your subject. For a business owner, it’s knowing why your customers want or need your product or service.

Lindsay Muscato ’07
Lindsay Muscato ’07 founded TELETIES, one of the fastest-growing companies in the U.S.Photo by Courtesy Lindsay Muscato.

For art history major Lindsay Muscato ’07, the why for her second business was inspired by being a mom. In 2015, she had two young children, felt like she was constantly washing bottles, and was frustrated with her hair.

“It was survival mode, and I was just sick of my hair tie getting wet while washing bottles,” she says. “My rubber band just wasn’t holding my hair back, and I figured there had to be a better way.”

She describes creating TELETIES, durable hair ties that also function as stackable bracelets, as a necessity. She wanted something that would hold her hair in place while also being stylish. “So I solved my own problem,” she says. And she’s grateful to her professors for setting her up for success.

“They definitely taught me how to think, and to this day, I credit them for making me think outside the box,” she says. “They were always there helping me be successful, which is a key part in any business. Now the first thing I do is make sure that all of my team members have the right tools to succeed.”

Clearly, it’s worked. What started as a company operating out of Muscato’s garage now sells millions of products to customers nationwide and is ranked No. 397 on the 2021 Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing private companies in the U.S.

Today, TELETIES operates out of a 13,000-square-foot warehouse in Maitland, Florida, and has partnerships with major brands like Lilly Pulitzer, Target, and Coca-Cola. With every purchase, the company also donates to FORCE, a nonprofit that provides resources for people and families impacted by hereditary cancers.

A group of social entrepreneurship students work on BatterEASE, an upcycled alternative power source.
For the upcycled battery they created that harnesses renewable energy, a group of social entrepreneurship students won the regional finals of the Hult Prize, the world’s most prestigious collegiate competition for social innovation startups.Photo by Scott Cook.

Guiding Purpose

McAlindon is driven by helping people find their ikigai (pronounced ee-key-guy). The Japanese concept combines the word “iki,” which means life, with “gai,” or worth.

“It’s the lifelong search for one’s purpose,” says McAlindon, who serves as faculty advisor for Rollins’ Entrepreneurial Scholar of Distinction program.

“And there is absolutely nothing more rewarding than watching someone figure out their ikigai right before your eyes. We saw it with the team behind Stax from taking an idea and wondering if it was going to work to seeing the positive impact they now have on our community.”

As a serial entrepreneur, teacher, and co-founder of venVelo, McAlindon has been part of this process for more people than most. In addition to Stax, he has watched Sergie Albino ’10MBA start and build ecoSPEARS, an environmental technology company that is leveraging NASA technology to extract and eliminate highly carcinogenic chemicals known as PCBs from our waterways.

“They’re saving the world,” says McAlindon. “Serg graduated from Crummer, has been part of the Rally Social Enterprise Accelerator [Rally SEA, an international hub for social entrepreneurs], and our Venture Plan Competition, and now he teaches, mentors, and judges. He’s had an amazing journey.”

ecoSPEARS is helping make our planet safer and more sustainable, and Albino credits mentors like McAlindon and Terrance Berland—CEO of Violent Defense, managing partner at Kirenaga, and technology council member for Forbes—for helping him turn it from an idea into a viable business. They helped shape Albino into the serial entrepreneur and angel investor he is today. But Albino, who was named one of Orlando Business Journal’s 2021 CEOs of the Year, will tell you his own ikigai is bigger than his businesses.

“I believe God put me on this earth to give back,” he says. “Being able to navigate the different stages of a business requires a lot of mentorship, especially if you’re a first-time CEO.”

Recent beneficiaries of that guidance include students in McAlindon’s New Venture Creation course, which preps MBA students on everything from ideation and market validation to how to build and manage a startup team. At the end of every term, students in the course pitch their businesses to a panel of judges, including Albino, who then evaluates them based on the venture’s viability.

This term’s standout was medical technology company Needles Be Gone, founded by Greg McKie ’22MBA, which eviscerates syringes, scalpel blades, and guide wires used during surgical procedures. Albino asked McAlindon to put the students in contact with him to develop the ideas further and connected McKie with two former NASA colleagues who recently cashed out of their medical technology startup and are looking for their next project.

Paying it forward has propelled Muscato and Lang in much the same way as Albino. Muscato’s business partner Trent Forquer ’12MBA is her CFO and COO, and Mackenzie Carter ’21, her first intern, is now a full-time team member. Most recently, she lent her savvy and insights to Rollins’ Rethinking Fashion Show, which is geared to educate and inspire the community on how to align the fashion and beauty industries with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Lang cites her relationships with professors and extensive involvement on campus while a student as reasons she continues to give back today, whether by mentoring budding entrepreneurs or joining causes she’s passionate about, such as mentoring at-risk youth in Orange County Public Schools.

“My professors at Rollins were instrumental in shaping my leadership style,” says Lang. “The concept of mentoring is now everything to me because I’ve benefited so much from it.”

Aida Rico-Arango in her BYOC Refillery truck.
Environmental studies major Aida Rico-Arango ’22 started BYOC Refillery to make it easier for people to reduce the amount of plastic they’re using.Photo by Scott Cook.

Learning By Doing

Rollins provides an array of applied learning opportunities designed for students to engage with meaningful experiences—both in and outside the classroom—and grow as entrepreneurs.

Take Aida Rico-Arango ’22, for example. The environmental studies major grew up in Costa Rica and came to Rollins knowing she wanted to make a difference. Dedicated to sustainability efforts, she has been plastic-free for 15 years but realized not everyone has the access or ability.

The summer between her junior and senior years, she started BYOC (Bring Your Own Container) Refillery, the first fully mobile refillery in Florida that makes it easier for people to reduce the amount of plastics that end up in landfills and our waterways.

The concept is simple: Bring a container—or they’ll provide you with one—and they’ll refill it with green household and personal products from shampoo to laundry detergent.

Before starting her company, Rico-Arango took classes as part of her major on the environmental crisis and native Florida. She participated in a field study to Portland, Oregon, one of the nation’s most sustainable cities, and visited Everglades National Park as part of an Immersion experience aimed at conservation.

“Every class I have taken here, every experience I’ve had, every professor is just another validation for me to keep moving forward and make BYOC Refillery even bigger,” she says.

This past academic year, Rico-Arango took advantage of the Impact Incubator, which provides hands-on workshops geared at turning ideas into viable business plans and pairs student teams with a professional mentor who helps prepare them for the Ideas for Good pitch competition. Both are part of Rollins’ Social Impact Hub, which provides tools, resources, and a physical space on campus to help students address local and global social issues.

“We help students discover what paths they want to take and then get them to the right spot,” says Melissa Nelson, staff director of the Social Impact Hub. “We use our network to help find students an internship or to get them in front of a professor or community member who has more insight into the next step.”

The Incubator connected Rico-Arango with Ben Hoyer, president and chief operating officer at Rally SEA, and partnered her with mentor Oscar Vargas ’07, executive director of ecoPreserve. Hoyer helped her identify a metric to demonstrate her company’s success, which showed that they had helped save nearly 4,000 plastic containers from the landfill in only three months, while Vargas helped her prepare for the pitch competition. BYOC won first place, earning a total of $1,750 to help grow her business, as well as travel and registration fees to represent Rollins at the Fowler Global Social Innovation Challenge in San Diego.

“Oscar made it very clear that your customer has to participate in what you’re doing and they have to be the hero of the story,” says Rico-Arango. “They have to feel like they’re doing something that matters, and that is true.”

William Glass ’14 and Andrew Holliday ’13, founders of the Ostrich financial literacy app.
William Glass ’14 (left) and Andrew Holliday ’13 co-founded Ostrich, financial literacy app that leverages community and gamification to help users reach their personal finance goals.Photo by Scott Cook.

Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts

International relations major William Glass ’14 and international business major Andrew Holliday ’13 are the most recent Rollins grads to win the Venture Plan Competition that helped propel Stax and Lang’s career seven years ago. The duo co-founded Ostrich, a financial literacy app that leverages community and gamification to help users reach their personal finance goals.

The idea for the app came to Glass from watching his parents divorce as a result of strain from financial hardship. He wanted a way to help teach people about the benefits of financial literacy—as well as the real consequences of not having a solid foundation in it, such as divorce. He credits Rollins for sparking the desire to start a company driven by purpose.

“We really wanted to focus on the mission behind what we’re doing and not just building another finance app,” says Glass. “That’s definitely something that was instilled in us at Rollins, and the Venture Plan Competition has helped us simplify our mission and message into something that we can communicate quickly and easily. The $50,000 prize is fantastic, but really what’s going to continue to move our business forward is gaining the connections and support in the community that we formed during the process.”

In the 1990s, author and serial entrepreneur John Elkington coined the concept of the triple bottom line: people, planet, and profit. At Rollins, the entrepreneurial ecosystem is designed to foster all three, but whether through teaching design thinking or nurturing connections, that is achieved by always placing people first—and then helping them transform into unicorns.

Rollins’ Social Impact Hub
Photo by Scott Cook.

The Rollins Advantage

From innovative programming to ongoing support, explore a few of the ways Rollins helps students and alumni launch their dreams.

Center for Advanced Entrepreneurship
From hosting Orlando’s largest business plan competition to providing the Entrepreneurial Growth Series, the Center for Advanced Entrepreneurship provides a variety of workshops, programs, and events to promote successful entrepreneurship.

Social Impact Hub
Students, faculty, staff, and community members gather in Kathleen W. Rollins Hall to develop creative and sustainable solutions to the world’s most pressing issues—from active changemaking in the Design Lab to launching social enterprise ideas through the Impact Incubator and Ideas for Good.

Rally SEA
Located in downtown Orlando, this international hub for social entrepreneurs and Crummer partner cultivates and convenes social entrepreneurs, investors, corporate advocates, and institutions of higher education through a variety of programming.

The Global Links Initiative
Since 2011, The Global Links Initiative has sponsored four scholars from Iraq, India, and Brazil who are developing female entrepreneurs in their native countries. Since its inception, Global Links has mentored over 150 female entrepreneurs and advanced entrepreneurial skills for more than 5,000 students at home and abroad.

Downtown Orlando skyline

Surge City

Orlando was ranked among the top 5 cities in the U.S. to start a business for a reason. From incubators to investors, Orlando offers a robust ecosystem for entrepreneurs to launch and nurture successful businesses.

National Entrepreneur Center
Tucked inside Orlando Fashion Square Mall is a veritable city of resources for entrepreneurs and nonprofits, as well as new and existing businesses. It houses not only one-on-one coaching opportunities, seminars, and working spaces, but a powerful community of investors, business support organizations, and mentors to help businesses develop and grow.

Tech startups can find everything they need to succeed at this downtown-based accelerator that combines educational programming, industry-specific mentoring, and funding opportunities. Their goal is to help build successful tech companies that start and stay in Central Florida.

Anchored by Crummer, venVelo—which recently launched its second fund—aims to help build the startup community in Orlando by funding and providing mentorship to early stage startups. The board is comprised of entrepreneurs with previous exits of over $200 million who connect entrepreneurs with the business resources they need to succeed.

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