Kent State’s LaunchNET Marks 10 Years of Helping Clients Pursue Their Dreams and Turn Their Visions Into Reality
Kent State University’s LaunchNET program is celebrating 10 years of helping members of the university community pursue their entrepreneurial ventures.
“We help Kent State students, faculty, staff and alumni who want to start a business or are just working on that seed of an idea,” said Zach Mikrut, director of LaunchNET.
LaunchNET has served more than 2,100 clients in its first decade, most of whom are Kent State students, he said.
Its success stories are from all across Northeast Ohio.
Victor Searcy Jr., or "Chef Vick," worked with LaunchNET as a Kent State student to develop a line of culinary sauces. He now operates Sauce the City Cleveland, a restaurant in University Heights, Ohio, which has received accolades for its hot chicken sandwich.
Oluwaṣemilore Akintelure, a Kent State graduate student studying business and aviation, is currently a LaunchNET client working on his idea for developing a drone taxi service. He has turned to LaunchNET for help getting his proposed business, FlyBy, off the ground literally and figuratively.
“I am currently working on an aerial mobility infrastructure solution that I hope will bring people closer together using some of the technologies and services provided to me at LaunchNET,” he said.
Nurturing Entrepreneurial Spirit
“A lot of times it has less to do with what you think of as entrepreneurship – the skills for starting a business – but more about the ideas, the mindset and finding your people. Entrepreneurs are idea people,” Messmore said.
Fostering the entrepreneurial spirit was the idea behind the creation of the department, which began 10 years ago as Blackstone LaunchPad, to help launch businesses, non-profit organizations and new inventions.
About six years ago, a partnership with the Burton D. Morgan Foundation resulted in a rebranding of LaunchPad into LaunchNET. Kent State became part of NEOLaunchNET, made up of five collegiate partners: Kent State, Case Western Reserve University, Baldwin Wallace University, John Carroll University and Lorain County Community College. The Burton D. Morgan Foundation, based in Hudson, Ohio, invests in organizations and institutions that foster entrepreneurship, create job growth and spur economic activity in Northeast Ohio.
Mikrut, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Kent State, has been with the department since its inception and became director of the organization two years ago.
In addition to advice on forming a business, he said LaunchNET is well known for its pitch competitions, where students compete at pitching their businesses ideas to prepare them for real-world experiences. Mikrut said they also encourage students to prepare an elevator pitch, so they are ready to offer a 90-second version of their business pitch if they ever end up in an elevator or other situation where they can briefly catch the ear of an executive.
Messmore said one of the department’s biggest assets is that its door is always open, and no idea is too far-fetched to consider.
“Everyone is welcome here,” she said. “We really are about debunking the idea of what a lot of us have in our head about `What is an entrepreneur?’ It’s not a white tech guy in a hoodie from the Silicon Valley,” she said.
Messmore recalled telling one client that her ideas were “awesome and amazing.”
“I said, `We can help you make these happen,’ and she was crying and saying, `So you don’t think I’m crazy? This is the first time anyone hasn’t just written me off.”
Helping Kent State community members pursue their dreams is challenging work, and LaunchNET staff try to be there to bolster their clients on the days when they want to give up.
“I really kind of think of myself as a business therapist,” Messmore said.
In 2019, Messmore created LaunchNET’s Black Women Bosses (BWB) program after hearing from young Black women clients and thinking about how their entrepreneurial support needs were different from other students, who may have greater financial support or entrepreneurial experience.
BWB seeks to train future Black women for leadership roles, foster entrepreneurship and give them the tools they need to launch a business and operate it successfully.
“So much of it is mindset, as a woman, feeling that I can be successful, I’m a business owner, I’m a boss and really being intentional about that,” she said.
In its first two years, BWB has put through two cohorts of eight students. It recently began to offer the program to clients at LaunchNET programs at other universities.
Empowering Young Women
“I didn’t know what I was doing. I had the idea and the vision, but the business side of things made me really nervous,” she said.
The Warren, Ohio, native, who now lives in Cleveland, earned a bachelor’s degree in fashion merchandising from Kent State in 2010 and was working in corporate retail when she had an idea for a nonprofit organization to empower young girls to succeed.
She became a LaunchNET client in 2012 and found a supportive environment where no one told her she could not make her vision a reality.
“They really believed in me from the get-go,” Robinson said. “I had someone walking alongside me.”
Robinson left retail and took a job at Kent State’s Women’s Center while earning her master’s degree in human development and family studies.
In October 2013, Robinson incorporated her nonprofit, Limitless Ambition, which provides enrichment programs for teen girls in middle schools and high schools across Northeast Ohio. Today, Limitless Ambition, based in Akron, Ohio, has reached more than 5,000 girls and has offered programming in 10 different schools throughout Northeast Ohio.
“When we first started, we held financial literacy drives, prom dress drives, school supply drives,” she said. “We offer teen girl support programs in middle schools and high schools and donate care packages to young girls in foster care.”
Robinson has since left Kent State and works as the director of community engagement and partnerships for the Summit Education Initiative, an Akron-based nonprofit organization with the mission of “increasing personal and regional prosperity through educational attainment.”
“We work to make educational opportunities available and attainable and equitable across the life span,” she said.
As a first-generation college student, Robinson said the help she received at LaunchNET helped her to overcome many boundaries and obstacles to success. Whether it was participating in pitch competitions or working on branding, LaunchNET services, she said, “helped me to really find my voice in a room full of people and build up my confidence.”
“I’m definitely a master networker, and I thrive on building relationships. I don’t know where I would have gotten those skills without LaunchNET,” Robinson said.
The Sky’s the Limit
“Why not optimize the infrastructure we already have,” Akintelure said, noting that because drones run on electric batteries, they are a very low-noise form of transportation.
This is not the first time Akintelure has turned to LaunchNET for help. He previously reached out for help with a music video production that began when he was writing a song for his mother’s birthday. The effort led to him learning enough about music and music video production for him to offer his services to others trying to learn the field.
Aviation, however, is his chosen career field.
Akintelure came to Kent State in 2018 to study aeronautical systems engineering. He was accepted into three different U.S. universities to study in the aviation field but said after researching all three, he determined Kent State’s program was the best.
He first learned about LaunchNET as an undergraduate when Messmore was giving a presentation on the program at the Kent Student Center as part of an Ohio manufacturing event. “I remember thinking, I should check them out,” he said.
“I feel like LaunchNET has provided me with a community of dreamers. I feel free to dream,” he said. “This is one of the reasons I love LaunchNET. I am not worried about if I can do it, I am just concerned about how I can launch this.”
10th Anniversary Celebration
Akintelure’s project also is the recipient of one of 24 microgrants awarded to student entrepreneurs in spring 2022. The grants, ranging in amount from $99 to $500, were made possible with a grant from the Burton D. Morgan Foundation and are intended to help clients meet an immediate financial need, Mikrut said.
LaunchNET recently moved its offices from their longtime home in the University Library on the Kent Campus into space on the second floor of the Design Innovation Hub. Among the department’s successes during the 2022 Spring Semester, Mikrut said, was the launch of the Marty Erbaugh i3 Lab accelerator program in the DI Hub, where students can have an actual workspace to use to build their businesses.
Mikrut said he also is excited about LaunchNET collaborating with Kent State at Trumbull to offer its entrepreneurial services to Kent State’s 2 + 2 prison education program at the Trumbull Correctional Institution in Warren, Ohio.
As they look toward the next 10 years, Mikrut and Messmore say they want to see their current programs grow and expand and hope to always be ready to adapt to changing times and changing students.
“Going forward, we will continue to focus on the needs, gaps, questions and problems that our KSU entrepreneur community is facing and will support with responsive programming,” Mikrut said.
“I think that’s our strong suit,” Messmore added.
LaunchNET will celebrate its 10th anniversary from 4 to 6 p.m. Oct. 20 at the Design Innovation Hub. The event will include the unveiling of the Burton D. Morgan Foundation Entrepreneurship Suite.
The evening will feature a showcase of student entrepreneurs, a gallery exhibit displaying LaunchNET’s impact over the past decade and a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new office suite.