As a full-time student and CEO of two of her own start-up businesses, Rachel Ford, a sixth year BME, has achieved and excelled in her career, establishing herself as not just a student, but an entrepreneur as well. Ford came to Tech in 2010 with aspirations to major in Chemical Engineering, until switching to BME after two and a half years. A year ago, she founded two companies called Sucette — featuring pacifier that changes color to serve as a tool for parents to know when their child has a fever — and FIXD Automotive, which is an app that interprets a car’s check engine lights.
Technique: What was your collegiate career like?
Ford: I worked for DuPont up in Virginia, but I knew within the first month when I saw people working on the manufacturing floor that it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I did get to do Research and Development for new applications of their products. My boss and I worked on the same project and we saw it launch from idea to commercialization. Now I have a patent with him and it’s being sold, which is really cool to see. But my boss — I think it was last semester — said, “Rachel, if you’re not happy with what you’re doing in school, now is the time to change because you don’t want to wake up every morning and hate what you’re doing. You need to get out of bed excited about your career.” Somebody has to drop it on your front door for you to realize it, but that’s probably the best advice I ever got in my college career. I don’t know why it took so long to figure that out, and as a third year I thought I was going to lose so much credit. I actually wound up not losing that much — the BMED advisors are great, and I had always wanted to do something in the medical space; it’s more person oriented and creative. I love BMED 100 percent.
Technique: How did you get on the entrepreneurial path?
After a couple semesters of being BMED, this entrepreneur stuff started becoming a thing at Tech. I decided to take Start Up Lab — because what’s the worst that can happen? It changed my life. At first it was taught by Tech faculty from ECE and Venture Lab, and I started the whole journey through InVenture and Start Up Summer. Since then I have been working on businesses in parallel to academics. You have to be able to work business hours during the day and then have classes really early in the morning or afterward, so that’s kind of difficult, but Tech is becoming more supportive of ways to get around that by giving you credit for doing it.
In my last semester, I started TA-ing for Start Up Lab. As TA for that class, they really give students a lot of time. TAs are the first people the students talk to, so we had office hours that were always packed, which was exciting to see. After that job ended, Venture Lab approached me and asked if I would work for them this summer, which is what I’m doing now. I get to teach in Start Up Summer, and this is the second year it’s being offered.
Venture Lab in itself is a great crowd. These people are very different from your normal professors — they’re very creative, very funny, and love engaging the students. Now my job is trying to get students up here. Most people that are in engineering don’t want to cross Fifth Street Bridge, unless they’re eating. They’re not coming up here for management, you know?
Technique: What would you say are some of your greatest accomplishments?
Ford: Forming the teams that we did, realizing what our strengths and weaknesses were, and being able to hire people to cover that — because that’s the most critical part of building a business, is the team. If you have a great idea, but you don’t have a good team, the project won’t be executed well. Building up a team — that’s an accomplishment, because you have to have a solid team to progress anywhere.
And then the Thirty Under Thirty — it wasn’t so much that it was an award, but more of the fact that people were starting to see the shift in how students are not going through their education with the idea that you need to either go to graduate school or go into industry — it’s more of a “I have a really cool idea, and not only can I make my own job, but I can make jobs for other people.” And because of that, I get asked to go speak at things like the Senate Committee on Technology and Science, and the Board of Regents, and I get to advocate for what students want. So it’s not just awards, it’s the ability of being supplied a platform on which I can advocate for other students.
Technique: Who are your inspirations?
Ford: Immediately my mind goes to a couple people — my boss at DuPont was excellent, especially for that tidbit of advice. He’s an awesome man anyway, and shaped me into the scientist that I am today.
Keith McGregor, the director of Venture Lab, is one of those people that you want to be when you grow up. He’s done what makes him happy, he’s never done anything for the sake of other people, except his family, obviously, but he’s always done what he’s interested in. He worked at Apple, and then he did more work in industry, then a Start Up, and now he teaches in Venture Lab. He also just got his PhD in Artificial Intelligence here at Tech, and on the side he still does stuff that he loves that might not pertain to what he does everyday.
And then there’s Andrea Arena — she started a concierge service that works with large consulting firms, so if you’re consulting and you are out of town, somebody can get your groceries and dry cleaning. And she bootstrapped the entire thing. She lived in some sketchy apartment for a while and she used her dad’s computer because she didn’t have one. If you want a great example of a great female entrepreneur, she is it. She’s one of my mentors now, and I respect her so much.
Technique: Any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs and incoming freshman?
Ford: Take our GT1000 class! If you’re intrigued by the thought of entrepreneurship, you might as well get into the pipeline and see what it’s about. We by no means want everybody to be an entrepreneur, because we obviously need people to go into industry and grad school, but the class is more about teaching people to have entrepreneurial confidence and spirit, so if you wanted to, you could start your own business. But you can also take that and apply it in industry. If I wanted to go to DuPont, for example, and work on one of the product lines, these skills are still applicable.
Technique: How are you able to balance academics as a full-time student and manage two businesses?
Ford: Lots of coffee! I’m young. We’re all young. We don’t have families — most of us — we don’t have a lot of financial debt as of yet, and we don’t have too much responsibility other than doing our schoolwork. So it’s the ideal time in our life to do a start up, if you think about it. And believe me, I want to get my degree. We’re trained at Georgia Tech to just put our heads down and focus, study, and graduate. But I really see the value in taking the time to either start a company, learn about Start Ups, or do an internship or a co-op. The experiential learning is so much more worth it than what you’re going to get out of a textbook, so when I sat back and asked myself if I really wanted to delay my graduation, I was just like, “why not.” There’s no good reason for me not to. So yes, balancing it was difficult, of course. Would it be difficult with one company? Yeah. Two companies? Exponentially harder. But because I loved my teams, I loved what we were working on, and I loved the process of learning through all of that, it made it worth it. There was a while when I was sleeping four hours a night — that’s not realistic long term, but you prioritize and power through what you need to get done. I actually did better the semesters that I’ve been balancing the start ups in school, just because it makes you a lot more driven, and you’re like, I need to get this done so I can work on my business, thus your grades are good. Initially, of course, you’re going to be like, “I don’t know if I can do this, it’s going to be hard to balance,” but once you’re in it, you automatically just get done what needs to get done. So it shouldn’t be a deterrent.
Technique: What are your long-term goals?
Ford: This sounds really cheesy, but I do really want to be a mom and at some point, I would love to have a family. My friends call me the CEO soccer mom. I want to be the head of my own company, or work my way up toward that in a company that needs these customer discovery skills or product management. I would love to have my own company and reach all corners of the US and the globe. But for right now I just need to see the opportunities that are in front of me, but yes, in the long-term I would love to be the CEO soccer mom.