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Faux Trophies

Let me tell you about the time I got professionally hustled.

Let me tell you about the time I got professionally hustled.

It’s fall 2017 — my first semester at Harvard. Having never touched the world of tech entrepreneurship, and seeing the startup scene at the Harvard Innovation Labs, the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and MassChallenge, I was itching to try my hand at running a venture.

Enter a new inter-Ivy League honors society — let’s call it AVC for “Actually a Venture Capitalist” — running a huge New England pitch competition where the top three teams win $10,000 each. I had never seen more than a few hundred dollars at a time — to be able to spend $10,000 working on a project of my own choosing seemed too good to be true. I rounded up two equally naive friends of mine and we got to work.

We spent nearly three months tirelessly preparing the engineering and business models for this competition. With a combined total of three weeks of technical expertise under our belts (i.e., one week of an introductory computer science class), we sought the help of engineers at the Active Learning Labs and created a mechanical prototype. And with not even a single day in a macro or microeconomics lecture), we cold-called dozens of business development gurus on LinkedIn for advice. We quit comps and stunted new relationships to put time into seeing our venture succeed. After many sacrifices and weeks of work later, we had our product.

We called it Kumo Drones. Kumo, which means “spider” in Japanese, aimed to create a highly flexible peer-to-peer drone delivery network in densely clustered college towns for academic researchers to exchange samples and specimens across campuses. We envisioned a future where increased collaboration in research generated faster and more impactful discoveries to help advance humanity.

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We submitted our slide deck and sent over all our engineering documents. Kumo Drones was ready for its first win.

The huge competition was not as huge as we had expected it to be. Competing for the top three spots, only three teams showed up: A team of Ph.D. students four years into creating their product, another team of business school students engineering a new cryptocurrency coin, and us, three baby-faced amateurs fresh out of high school.

Surprise, surprise: We placed top three. We sat on a coffee table with our slide deck pulled up on my laptop and pitched our venture. After some half-hearted nods and grunts, we got a pat on the back and a photo with all three teams huddled around one certificate that I could have gotten from a Dave and Buster’s birthday party. That was it. A few days later, AVC’s emails bounced, its website went offline, and it had all of our intellectual property.

I was mad. After putting our blood, sweat, and dropped problem sets on the line, we came home with nothing. Saying yes to this venture in effect made me so say no to hundreds of other opportunities. I felt like I wasted my freshman fall.

So I told the story in a different way. I told myself that I placed top three in my first ever pitch competition against teams of MBAs and Ph.D.’s — technically true, but truthful omission in reality. I kept this version of the story to convince myself that I was a natural in the entrepreneurial world. Deep down, though, I knew this was a lie.

It took me a while to finally swallow my pride. Today, I’m okay with saying my first “win” in entrepreneurship was not as impressive as I’d like it to be. I’m okay with having been that wide-eyed freshman, optimistic and unassuming of others. And I’m okay with asserting that while I’ve learned a lot in this journey, I’ve only scratched the surface.

The stories we tell ourselves dictate our truths. The power of controlling the narrative is a power I still struggle to deal with today. Before, I called myself an early success ready for more wins. But that story doesn’t take into account the setbacks and struggles that come along the way. So I’ve revised it: I’m just a guy who’s been lucky enough to mess up so many times that the right path becomes slightly clearer by the day.

Two years later, I’m thankful to have been hustled my freshman fall. Though we didn’t make it out with $10,000 or even a certificate of participation, I take from that experience something greater. At the end of my time at Harvard, I don’t want to leave with just a list of accomplishments — prizes awarded, funds raised, titles earned. I want to leave with a killer toolbox. I left the competition with a faux trophy. Two years later, I have better tools, and the lessons I learned that semester endure in everything I create.

Consider this an open letter to AVC, from the Kumo Drones team: Thank you for leading us down an unanticipated path. We’re better because of it.

Mohib A. Jafri ’21 is an Electrical Engineering concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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