Ellen Schaaf '19 | Arts Entrepreneurship
Major | Theatre and Economics
Minor | Psychology and Business
Hometown | Overland Park, KS
Eight days ago, I started my journey with LehighSiliconValley thinking I had no business calling myself an entrepreneur. Eight days ago, our cohort was sitting in the Sequoia Room of the Hyatt Regency, exhausted from traveling, yet exhilarated to take advantage of everything the program had in store for us.
I can safely say after these past eight days that LehighSiliconValley has given me more than I ever imagined. It has completely changed my view of myself as a student, a community member, and yes, as an entrepreneur.
I’ve learned from people in all four tracks how to be a better collaborator and to tackle problems from different angles. I’ve learned that being an entrepreneur is not about starting your own business; it’s about problem-solving and having the grit to go through iteration after iteration of your original plans until you create success, and that success comes in many forms. I’ve learned that the Hyatt Regency truly has the best breakfast buffet ever. And, most importantly, I’ve learned that Lehigh’s community of students, alumni, and partners is one of the most supportive, innovative, awesome networks you can find.
I could write on and on about all of the amazing experiences I have had, the things I have done, and the inspiring people I have met through Lehigh Silicon Valley these past eight days, but to keep it brief, I’ll just share these eight major takeaways:
1. Find your seat on the rocket ship. Tim Eades and Craig Connors both gave us this advice—on different days of the core program—from Sheryl Sandberg about taking jobs at great companies with people doing amazing things and giving zero focus to what title we receive for doing so.
2. Great people make great products, which make great companies. People are at the heart of theatre, my main arts practice, and they are the foundation of all great ventures. Find and invest in great people, regardless of if you’re creating an app or creating a theatre piece, and success will follow.
3. Ditch Perfectionism. Embrace Failure. Easy to say, not that easy to do. But all of the speakers our cohort had the privilege of engaging with agreed that mistakes teach us valuable lessons. So long as we learn from them and move forward, progress will be made. Tell your story authentically and passionately, whatever it may be, including the good, the bad, and the ugly.
4. Life isn’t linear. Ann Lewnes and Maria Yap of Adobe, Mount Allen of San Francisco Jazz, and countless other entrepreneurs shared their stories with us authentically to show that life takes twists and turns, and you never know how it might circle back to your previous plans. You just have to trust that, in the face of uncertainty, perhaps your future will be greater than anything you could imagine.
5. “Luck is preparation meeting opportunity.” Susi Damilano of the San Francisco Playhouse shared this idea with the Arts Entrepreneurship track, and so many of the successful entrepreneurs we spoke to agreed. Timing and inherent talent play a part, but preparation and grit are what separate failed businesses from thriving ones.
6. Invest in yourself. While it feels counterintuitive, stepping back to take a deep breath, keep yourself healthy, and check to make sure you’re moving toward what you want are essential for delivering great work in every profession. Make sure you’re taking time to see the forest for the trees.
7. Urgent versus Important. Poornima DeBolle and other entrepreneurs emphasized the need to shift your focus onto what is urgent at the time to flexibly respond to problems and keep you and your team afloat. Whether in your personal or professional life, it’s essential to take care of urgent matters, delegate where you can, and continually reassess what really matters.
8. Find and support your tribe. It’s a buzzword, I know. But your community supports you through thick and thin, so surround yourself with people who not only support you but also push you to your personal and professional best. When hard times are coming make sure, as Susan Medak explains, to prepare your team well in advance so that expectations can meet reality as painlessly as possible. And when you and your tribe do push your way to success, always remember to give back. Yerba Buena and CalShakes continue to do this through civic engagement projects.
So, there you have it: eight huge takeaways from eight days of a truly life-changing experience in Silicon Valley. I could continue to ramble, but I’ll take Sandy Stelling’s and Ann Lewnes’ advice and keep it brief.
As I sit here reflecting on the past eight days, mentally preparing for my ridiculously early flight tomorrow, I realize that the sun has set on my LehighSiliconValley journey. However, it’s just beginning to rise on my future as an entrepreneurial arts professional. And for that, I am forever grateful.