Entrepreneurial UPOP alum credits UPOP and mentor for setting her on “non-linear” career path
As is true for many MIT sophomores, Victoria Gregory ’17 found that UPOP’s rich array of employer and mentor networking opportunities helped to set her on her career journey — though in entirely unexpected ways.
A mechanical engineering major, Victoria hadn’t even contemplated finance as an option until the night before UPOP’s Networking Luncheon, the “mini-career fair” UPOP holds for students at the end of each of the two January weeklong Team Training Workshops. Well over 100 employers attend each one, representing a wide array of industries of interest to all majors.
“I chose a large number of companies to talk to, and out of that luncheon came a surprisingly large number of interviews. I was especially excited about one of them, J.P. Morgan,” she said.
“I really wanted to try finance and business, and it was great that—even as an engineer—I was able to connect to somebody at J.P. Morgan through UPOP, otherwise I would have had no idea how to approach that industry.”
That connection led to an exciting summer internship in New York City (“a dream come true!”) at that very company, which in turn led to an externship the following January, at a financial consulting company, also in New York City.
The upshot? A profound realization that her passion was definitely not for finance, but rather for hands-on engineering.
“I realize my journey is a little non-linear! I liked finance, but I also really like building things with my hands. Creating tangible things, trying to find something people want, is really rewarding for me.”
And so she launched into a startup with another MIT student, Gabe Alba ’17, and, with help from Victoria’s UPOP mentor, MIT’s Sandbox Innovation Fund Program, and a lot of hard work (MIT students don’t need sleep, apparently), their “Coffee Cookie” has now been featured in the stocking-stuffers lists for Readers’ Digest and Business Travel Life, Make Magazine’s “Edible Innovations,” and made it to the top ten of Forbes’ “These are the best last-minute stocking stuffer gifts” guide.
A “Coffee Cookie” is a lightweight rechargeable drink warmer that fits snugly into the bottom of disposable coffee cups, and will quickly heat up that inevitably cold last third of coffee to a drinkable 55 degrees Celsius. The latest version hits the important price point of just under $10.
Victoria says that their goal, however, was not coming up with a device to rescue mankind from the horrors of cold coffee, but rather to create a “test run for making consumer products fast and bringing them to market fast. We are really interested in the supply-chain aspect of this project. People have an idea, and they have a product and they want to get it out there, but normally it takes a really long time unless you are a big corporation producing large quantities. We are hoping in the future to either develop more ideas of our own, and keep launching products quickly in small quantities, and/or potentially working with MIT students, or other people in the USA, and being able to bring people’s ideas to life. Our long-term goal is to use this as a test run for future products.”
The journey from an idea in 2.009, MIT’s notoriously demanding “Product Engineering Processes” course, to being featured in Forbes was not without its complications, and Victoria found a constant guide and encourager in her UPOP 2015 workshop mentor, Jim Lambert ’76.
“Jim was always a really kind mentor, very helpful, and when he read about Coffee Cookie in a 2017 MIT News article, he reached out and said, ‘If you ever need any help, just let me know.’ Well, at the time we were trying to fix a couple of things, and we needed to keep using SOLIDWORKS after we graduated …”
So Lambert, CFO at Dassault Systèmes Simulia Corp., introduced Victoria and Gabe to the CEO of Dassault Systèmes SOLIDWORKS Corp., Gian Paolo Bassi, and one thing led to another, including a year’s license to the sophisticated CAD software, a write-up in the SOLIDWORKS blog, which was re-published in LinkedIn and Facebook, and this all helped catapult the successful product launch of Coffee Cookie.
“Jim helped in other ways as well—little suggestions, ‘Perhaps you could do this,’ but always very respectful. Not ‘I’m going to tell you how to do this,’ but ‘Here’s an idea.’ I don’t understand how someone can just be so helpful. That’s really cool about Jim, and it makes him a fantastic mentor.”
Something Lambert said during her workshop of January 2015 really stuck with her. “He started in engineering and moved to marketing, and he told us that marketing a product is just as important, if not more important, than making a product.” A tenet Victoria and Gabe take to heart, judging by the press coverage the Coffee Cookie has received while being promoted mostly through social networks, e.g. Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook.
Victoria credits UPOP with helping her to find out what she really loved doing by giving her the opportunity to explore different options, at the early stages of her career, before “locking in” to any one industry, even one she initially thought would be a good fit.
“The great thing about UPOP is that I was actually able to try finance. I had no network in that area, and I would have had to cold-call people. It was really nice that at UPOP you were literally connected with the person who would potentially give you an interview. The person I met from J.P. Morgan at my table actually interviewed me, and then ended up working with me.
“I would definitely recommend doing UPOP. Students should just have an open mind about it, because there are some things that you don’t even know you don’t know! You get an outside industry perspective, and also you’re building a network when you don’t really have one, as a student.”
UPOP, she said, added structure and accountability to a job-search process she’d had no experience with. “It was new territory, but UPOP shows you how, and it will lead to good networking and relationships.”
Which completes a circle that began when Victoria joined UPOP, stating on her application form, “I want to expand my network and have a meaningful internship for the summer.” Both boxes checked!