At any point over the past decade, Eddy Mejia – incoming MBA student at Gies College of Business – could have chosen the easier path. He could have been doing something right now where he knew what each day had in store for him.
Instead he chose entrepreneurship.
Rather than knowing what’s ahead each day, Mejia now yearns to overcome any unexpected challenge thrown his way. Rather than working at a company where the mission and direction were already decided upon, Mejia chooses his own way forward.
But he also understands his own limitations. With that in mind, Mejia wanted to choose a new destination this summer, one that could provide guidance for his startup company: DisplayOne.
That’s why he’s now at Gies Business and under the supportive eye of the University of Illinois’ iVenture Accelerator. Thus far he has enjoyed the guidance offered from a team that includes Manu Edakara, Noah Isserman, and Valeri Werpetinski.
“They have been great, and, at the end of the day, all of us who are doing this need the mentorship they offer,” Mejia said. “What I tell everybody is that, as an entrepreneur, every so often you’re just going to run into a moment that feels like a bad breakup. Just a sudden twinge, ouch.
“That’s a mistake you make with a business you love. But then you move on and find a way to get better.”
Mejia came to iVenture in May with his company, and he’s found a lot in a short amount of time.
There are 45 total students this year from a broad range of colleges – including eight from Gies, 18 from the College of Engineering and seven from College of Liberal Arts & Sciences. During the summer, students commit to the program full-time; meaning they attend programming on Monday, Wednesday, Friday while “free days” on Tuesday and Thursday allow for discussions with customers or meetings. During the school year, students meet once per week, and a number of experts from the industry engage with the students during visits. The startups also receive early-stage financial support.
Mejia initiated his startup while doing undergraduate work at University of Illinois at Chicago. As a computer science student, he wanted to step outside his comfort zone and try his hand at a startup competition.
All he needed was an idea.
Suddenly, there in front of him on his Facebook page, was an old high school friend who collects sneakers. A cousin, he realized, did the same thing.
This is not unique to these two individuals.
“Sneakerheads” collect hundreds, maybe even thousands of shoes. Major shoe brands cater to this market with limited releases and constantly updated lines. When something new or rare comes out, that shoe becomes a prized possession.
“People ask me all the time why somebody would care so much about sneakers,” Mejia said. “But this isn’t just a sneaker. It’s not something they’re going to wear. It’s something different. It’s like art or a car collection.
“Each collector has their own story about why they do it.”
The other thing Mejia noticed about his friend and cousin was the way they displayed their shoe collection. One had his in a large china cabinet. The other used Ziploc bags and storage bins.
Why, he wondered, would they display something that meant so much this way when there could be something better?
“For the next month, I researched everything I could about sneaker collections,” Mejia said. “I ended up winning the UIC startup competition by eventually creating a pretty simple display box. When I then took it to a sneaker convention, people asked me how much I was selling it for. Others were trying to give me cash for it.
“That’s when I realized I was on to something.”
Since then he has grown the company through experiences with Bunker Labs – an organization that assists veterans entering entrepreneurship and innovation – and the Future Founders Residency Program.
Mejia now partners with Roksana Folwarkow, a senior marketing student at UIC, on DisplayOne at iVenture.
Together they built a product that found its market and made an impression. Mejia said he does the design work on the product, sources the materials, and builds it himself to lower cost. Folwarkow focuses on marketing the product.
What they have realized, under the tutelage of iVenture’s leaders, is that they can build the idea out a little further. Mejia wants DisplayOne to be agile enough to build whatever display an individual needs to showcase whatever interesting item they collect.
They are also sorting through possibilities for a charitable partnership to give back after each sale.
Whatever shape the company takes moving forward, it’s because Mejia has put himself in a position to try something new.
“I can still remember the repetitiveness of the Army,” he said. “Day after day we would go out at the same time and do physical training. I can’t tell you how many times I wondered why we were doing that. I wanted to know what it was like to love what I do.
“Now I feel that way every morning I wake up.”