The Entrepreneurial Mindset

At the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, students learn how to start a business — and how to look at the world in a whole new way.

Two women in business attire stand on a brightly colored stage, holding microphones in front of a presentation titled "Power Move."
At the CIEʼs annual Demo Day in 2021, Students Madison Lewandowski and Sarah Glaser present their startup PowerMove, an immersive exercise-based video game designed to keep children active. Photo by Joe Johnston
By Larry Peña

Haley Pavone’s feet hurt. 

 It was her sophomore year at Cal Poly, and she was having a fun night out on the town — but her stylish six-inch heels were holding her back. She took them off to dance more comfortably, and that’s when another woman stomped down and stabbed Pavone’s bare foot with a stiletto heel. 

 As Pavone recovered, an idea began to form in her mind. How could she have avoided the situation? What about a shoe that could convert from a stylish high heel to a comfortable flat in one quick snap? 

 “I came up with the idea in spring quarter, spent the summer thinking about it, and by the time fall quarter of my junior year rolled around, I knew I was ready to rock and roll,” Pavone says. “But I had no idea where to start.” 

 Today Pavone is the CEO of Pashion Footwear, an innovative shoe company trending to $5.5 million in net sales annually. She considers Pashion’s founding date to be Oct. 4, 2016 — the day she first walked into Cal Poly’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. 

Three students work on a laptop testing out a sensor strapped to one student's arm, in a workstation surrounded by note-covered whiteboards.

Zoetic Motion team members Ivet Avalos, Austin Ma and Zeeshan Khan work on their wearable injury-prevention technology in the HotHouse. The business now operates a comprehensive physical therapy support platform.

Starting Up

The idea for the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) began to take shape in 2008, when Lou Tornatzky, head of Cal Poly’s Industrial Technology Area, was tasked with hiring a faculty member to focus on entrepreneurship education. He tapped Jonathan York, an investor and entrepreneur who had run the Chamber of Commerce in Columbus, Ohio. 

Tornatzky and York began by launching entrepreneurship classes and a club for students, but realized they needed something else.  

“We were missing somewhere for that 10% of students who already think a little bit differently to go and learn how to be entrepreneurial,” York says. 

The pair pitched a center where students could actually develop business ideas, with university resources and support. One of the first CIE programs to come to fruition was the HotHouse Summer Accelerator, launched in 2011. It was the first university-centered program in the nation to not only support student entrepreneurs, but also to pay them a stipend to help launch a business. 

The summer program was such a success that the following year, York and Tornatzky successfully lobbied the university administration to secure a permanent space in downtown San Luis Obipso for the HotHouse, with funding to continue and expand upon the CIE’s growing suite of extracurricular programs. 

We were missing somewhere for that 10% of students who already think a little bit differently to go and learn how to be entrepreneurial. 

Since its launch more than a decade ago, the CIE has collaborated with 34 CIE Faculty Fellows to develop an entrepreneurship minor and more than 20 courses focused on entrepreneurship; engaged alumni mentors in thousands of hours working with student ventures; helped launch more than 120 companies; helped raise more than $250 million in capital; and contributed to the creation of more than 1,000 jobs in the San Luis Obispo community and beyond. 

And though it started in the Orfalea College of Business, the CIE’s programs are open to students across campus and are designed to help them acquire the tools, develop the skills and cultivate the mindset to create their own business ventures right out of college. 

“We support and empower people who are working on innovative and entrepreneurial ideas,” says Tom Katona, associate professor of innovation and entrepreneurship and interim co-executive director of the CIE. “We hope that whatever they do next, students involved with CIE think more creatively and innovatively, and that theyʼre able to bring a deep understanding of customers’ needs and how to develop solutions that make a positive impact on society.” 

Learn, Prepare, Launch

When recent computer science graduate Emily Gavrilenko took York’s elective business class on disruptive technologies, it opened her eyes to possibilities she’d never considered before. 

“We had guest speakers come in, like founders of startups who worked on augmented reality headsets, self-driving cars and energy grid infrastructure. All the information was just incredible, hearing from these industry leaders,” Gavrilenko said. “That was the coolest class ever.” 

The course, which was affiliated with the CIE and the entrepreneurship minor, made Gavrilenko realize that you didn’t need a business background to start and lead a company. Today, her mobile app, Ryde — launched with a team of friends and help from the CIE — helps connect thousands of college students looking for peer ridesharing opportunities for long-distance trips. 

“I realized that anyone can build a business,” she says. “If there are skills you don’t have, you can build a team — and the CIE helps you do that.” 

Gavrilenko’s experience falls into the “learn” category, one of three programming areas the CIE focuses on, which is designed to introduce new students to the basic concepts of entrepreneurial thinking. 

Katona estimates that the CIE touches thousands of Cal Poly students each year through courses taught or shaped by that group of faculty members, known as CIE Faculty Fellows. 

“We use our curricular programs to build skills that then get deployed in the CIE co-curricular programs,” says Lynn Metcalf, a professor of entrepreneurship who serves as director of the CIE Faculty Fellows. “And it works both ways — some students enter our cur co-curricular programs like the Hatchery with a business idea, and then get interested in building the skills they need in an entrepreneurship course.” 

I realized that anyone can build a business. If there are skills you don’t have, you can build a team — and the CIE helps you do that. 

Crucially, the CIE’s mission is based on the idea that the next great startup idea can come from any discipline or area of study. That’s why the Faculty Fellows — and the students who get involved with CIE — come from all across the university’s disciplines. 

“Teams in industry are interdisciplinary by nature, so we mimic the environment that students find in not only the startup world, but also the corporate world,” Metcalf says. “I think our students and our faculty find it exciting to be able to work across disciplines to accomplish something that would’ve been outside their scope on their own.” 

Besides taking innovation- and entrepreneurship-based courses, other methods in this category include Cal Poly Entrepreneurs, a student-run and CIE-affiliated club for people interested in exploring creative approaches and new ideas, and the Innovation Sandbox, a facility on campus where any student can work with peer mentors and prototyping and ideation tools to test out ideas. 

The second category in the CIE’s programming areas is “prepare.” In this area, the CIE helps students with an idea figure out if it’s viable, and then take the first steps toward turning that idea into a business plan. 

That includes more dedicated business-building events and resources like the annual Elevator Pitch Competition, where students have 90 seconds to pitch their business idea to an audience and panel of judges; Startup Launch Weekend, when students build a business with randomly assigned teammates in just two days; Innovation Quest, at which students compete for the attention of investors with more fleshed-out business proposals; and the Hatchery, an incubator where student entrepreneurs work with mentors to figure out what they’ll actually need to make their businesses work. 

Many of these programs come with funding — the Elevator Pitch Competition awards $1,000 to its winner, and Innovation Quest entrants can walk away with up to $15,000 in startup funding.

A young woman sits in a chair working on a laptop in front of a bank of sunlight-filled windows, while two other students talk in the background.

Pashion Footwear founder Haley Pavone, working in the CIE HotHouse with her team in 2017.

The final category, “launch,” is for those who are ready to start a real business. That includes the Summer Accelerator, where students and recent graduates can apply for $10,000 in seed funding and 13 weeks of guided workshops designed to get businesses ready for market; and the Incubator and Small Business Development Center, which provide support to startups and small businesses from the community. 

While some students may follow a linear track through all those various levels of involvement with CIE, many step on or off the path as needed, Katona says. He describes the process as a “leaky funnel,” with hundreds of students taking an entrepreneurship class each year at the wide end, and a small few exiting the Accelerator as a fully developed business with investors at the narrower end. 

Pavone, the Pashion shoe maven, followed the CIE track from start to finish: She took an entrepreneurship concentration in her business major, joined the Hatchery, won the Elevator Pitch Competition, built her first shoe prototype at the Innovation Sandbox, locked down her first substantial round of funding from Innovation Quest, and took Pashion through the Summer Accelerator. 

“I think I’m kind of the poster child for CIE programs in a lot of ways, because when we were starting Pashion, we did the whole gamut of programs,” Pavone said.   

Four students and a professor gather around a laptop.

Cal Poly journalism lecturer and CIE Faculty Fellow Kim Bisheff (right) works with students in her Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship course. Photo by Ruby Wallau

Beyond the Venture

But even for those who may never launch a successful company, the core of the CIE’s offerings — lessons in the entrepreneurial mindset — are crucial. 

In 2018, pre-med biology student and avid surfer Rose Badrigian noticed two problems with surfboard wax: the market dominance of petroleum-based products and the lack of women-owned businesses in the industry. She began developing an alternative product based on natural, sustainable, environmentally friendly beeswax, and took her idea — BooBees — to CIE’s Summer Accelerator. 

The program connected her with incredible mentors, including the CFOs of Clif Bar and Allgood Sunscreen. She and her teammates did guerilla research at beaches and surf shops up and down the West Coast, asking surfers to try the product and give feedback. She had the attention of investors ready to fund the product launch. 

“It was kind of a whirlwind,” says Badrigian. “Before I knew it, I was creating and running a company.” 

But when she got into medical school, she had to decide whether she’d rather become a doctor or continue working on her company. Though she decided to pursue medical school, the lessons she learned at CIE have stayed with her. 

“CIE gave me the entrepreneurial mindset, which is really just that if there’s a problem in your life and other people have that same problem, you can do something to fix it,” she says. “I’m already seeing so many things within medicine that I want to fix, and instead of thinking ‘hey, someone should fix that,’ I know that I can apply that mindset and help make a solution that benefits everyone.” 

Katona agrees that this mindset can benefit anyone in any career, noting that organizations these days can’t afford to sit still. 

“It’s a dynamic time out there,” Katona says. “Whether you’re in an existing organization or a startup, you’ve got to be thinking entrepreneurially. All organizations have to be innovating, or they just become stagnant and somebody overtakes them.” 

Part of the Ecosystem

At its core, the entrepreneurial skillset the CIE develops in its students is a continuation of the broader Cal Poly philosophy of Learn by Doing, which puts students in the drivers’ seats of their own education.  

“We’ve got great academic programs and great research programs on campus, and the CIE complements them and gives students, faculty and staff an outlet for interesting, innovative ideas that they’re working on,” Katona says. “You’re not just being trained on an academic discipline, but also to go out and execute those ideas. It helps people think about not just how to solve problems, but how to find the right problems to solve to really have a big impact in the world.”  

A young woman tests out a VR headset and set of controllers while three other students talk in the background in their workspace.

Founder Tessa Luzuriaga (front) tests out OdinXR, an educational VR resource for STEM students, with teammates Christian Bloemhof, Michaela Whitcomb-Weston, Ali Mohammad (L to R) at the CIEʼs 2021 Summer Accelerator.

Kim Bisheff, a Faculty Fellow and journalism professor, teaches a course called Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship, to give students the skills to discuss and develop creative solutions to emerging challenges in media and journalism industries. 

“The big light bulb moment for me was when I realized that this is not about just creating something on a whim,” she says. “There are steps, a process that can take us from problem to solution. You start with the people who are experiencing pain points, you discover what opportunities there are for innovation, and then you try things.” 

Haley Pavone couldn’t imagine a better environment for that idea to flourish than at a university where Learn by Doing is a way of life. 

“I think a lot of universities don’t have that kind of ethos, where a 20-year-old could just go out and invent a shoe without having ever done anything like that before,” she says. “We were very much part of an ecosystem in which we could figure it out as we went. And I think that that mindset really empowered us to bet on ourselves and see how far we could take this thing. I don’t know if we could have done that anywhere else.”