Founded in 2019, Startups & Scholars (S&S) provides personalized matchmaking, connecting local student freelancers with local startups and entrepreneurs. MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price spoke with Co-Founders Jules Kelly and Michael Heiser to learn more about how the company came to be and how it’s helping impact Connecticut’s workforce pipeline.
NAN PRICE: Have you both always been entrepreneurial?
MICHAEL HEISER: My mom ran her own business when I was growing up, which always made me interested in entrepreneurship, but I never really thought that I could do it.
My first real introduction to an entrepreneurial/startup community was when I was studying at Hudson Valley Community College. I worked with an accelerator program out of Saratoga, NY. It was a remote internship opportunity, but I was attending all sorts of networking events. Surrounding myself with entrepreneurs and like-minded people, I started to realize that these pockets existed and I became inspired.
JULES KELLY: I didn’t know what an entrepreneur was when I was a kid, but I do remember having tons of notebooks I’d fill with tons of ideas for new inventions. As I got older, I learned this is called entrepreneurship and people create startups. I began understanding what that actually meant and how to get there yourself.
I was able to learn more when I was studying Operations & Information Management at the Isenberg School of Business at UMass Amherst. I had some great opportunities to take specific entrepreneurial courses that counted toward my major.
NAN: How did you both become involved with Startups & Scholars?
MIKE: While I was still in school, I responded to a job posting about some freelance remote marketing research jobs. That’s how I initially met Rob Zielonka, Founder and Chairman of Startups & Scholars.
At the time, this business had no title and no real direction. Rob needed help with some market research for his startup called Growler Power and he had some clients that needed help with market research. That was the initial project of Startups & Scholars. Jules and I came in before it was even called S&S as scholars who were helping out these startups and small businesses.
JULES: Similar to Mike, I received an email from Rob asking if I was interested in doing some remote work. I started by helping a nonprofit build a website and a couple other smaller assignments.
Rob had been working with a handful of other students, but he liked the work Mike and I were doing and approached us with an idea.
MIKE: Jules and I got in at the ground floor on the student side and then we were able to develop our own systems and functionalities and turn S&S into what it is today.
That’s one of the prime benefits of working in a startup, you can come in when it’s just an idea, before it’s really a business, before it has any sort of direction. And then you can have some real power in building it into something that feels meaningful to you.
NAN: Tell us a little bit about the evolution of coming into this company with no name. How have you both helped to shape it into what it is now?
MIKE: Jules and I are now both Co-Founders. In November, we had an equity meeting and made it official. Rob upgraded our titles because he recognized the amount of effort Jules and I put in building the structure of the company. Rob had the initial idea, he got a power team together, but without what Jules and I have been able to do, I don’t think it would look like what it is today.
NAN: How are you making connections with the startups and the scholars?
MIKE: Early on we connected with INROADS, a nonprofit that creates career pathways for diverse high school and college students.
Rob is a Hartford native. Because of his involvement with the local startup community we’ve made connections with reSET, Launch Hartford, and the Connecticut Small Business Development Center (CTSBDC), which has been an invaluable resource to connecting us with some of our best clients.
We’ve also become members of the Hartford Chamber of Commerce because making connections in the Hartford area has been critical to our success. We see the value of expanding our network and being a part of something that seems to be growing in the Hartford area.
On the student side, we’ve been working with a bunch of different students with a majority of them coming out of the University of Connecticut.
JULES: We give students internships and the opportunity to work with startups. But the other side of it is the startups, small business owners, and entrepreneurs, many simply don’t have a huge budget, so we’re creating a growth opportunity for them, too.
NAN: What advice would you give to others thinking of entering the startup world or launching an idea?
JULES: Shoot for the stars. I was in the middle of college when I got approached with this idea that was bigger than anything I’ve ever seen. Looking back, I would’ve never imagined where we are today. So, I would say, just go for it. Don’t doubt yourself.
MIKE: I would phrase this in a strange way, but the number one issue you’re ever going to have is not doing it.
My other advice is to build a team that supports your vision the same way you imagine it. If you’re in a vacuum, it becomes very difficult to self-support and execute on your dreams. But when you have people who can support you and lift you up and see your vision into fruition, that’s where the magic is.