Ukamaka Ezimora is a College Freshman located in Sacramento, California, and is a member of one of the winning teams of the EntrepreneuHER2020 makeathon, the world's largest all-female makeathon. Below, Ezimora shares her experience at EntrepreneuHER2020 and award-winning initiative, MediLast.
I always used to think I'm too young, I'm too busy, or I don't have enough to accomplish the big goals I have, but as I learned from EntrepreneuHER2020, there is never a more perfect time to pursue an opportunity than now.
Why did you want to participate in EntrepreneuHER2020?
I am a mechanical engineering major, so I have a passion for creating things with STEM. I love to create new innovative solutions to problems. In high school, I familiarized myself with rapid prototyping in my Principles of Engineering and Robotics classes, where we would challenge ourselves to create physical products such as robotic arms and pinball machines without any help from our teacher. I like to challenge myself, which is why I registered for the competition, but with the online transition, I was wondering how I could "make" without my usual 3D printers and workshop machines. As a black woman in STEM who often worked in male-dominated groups in my engineering classes, it was empowering to have the opportunity to work with an all-female, diverse team since we are often underrepresented in the field.
What was the EntrepreneuHER2020 Makeathon experience like for you? What was your favorite part of the makeathon?
This was my first official makeathon, but the experience exceeded my expectations. I learned new skills, such as how to establish my presence on LinkedIn, to how to found my own business. From their workshops and dynamic presentations, I was inspired by the prevalence of young entrepreneurship, and as someone who had just recently turned 18, they gave me a whole new perspective on what "adulting" looks like.
My favorite part of the makeathon was the icebreaker activity, which warmed me up to the competition. First, we met fellow young changemakers all over the world in the icebreaker activity in places like London and Georgia. At that time, I was feeling very isolated because of quarantine, and that icebreaker activity, both figuratively and quite literally, opened up a new world for me. Though I was a bit awkward and shy to show my face because I thought my camera angle was unflattering, it was nice to talk with women who also had a passion for STEM and making a change in the world.
What was your team's idea for the competition? What motivated your team to work on it?
My team's idea was MediLast, a business that collects and upcycles Personal protective equipment (PPE) into medical apparel. My team was motivated to work on it because it's something we could all relate to and an issue that we believed was relevant to tackle in today's times. As students who've all either taken AP Environmental Science or have self-educated themselves on the lack of sustainability in the world, we saw the juxtaposition of the single-use PPE pandemic and the current climate crisis as something that needed to be fixed, immediately. I personally was inspired to pursue this idea because I live in a family of ¾ medical workers, so I've seen how easily items such as respirators, masks, and latex gloves can pile up in the trash and wondered if there was a way to turn that trash into treasure. We crafted our solution by building on our knowledge of upcycling practices and flexing the entrepreneurial sides of our brain to eliminate any business concerns.
Do you see yourself pursuing your pitch idea after the competition? Why?
I do not see myself pursuing my pitch idea after the competition, but I have considered asking my teammates if we could submit our pitch idea to innovation competitions. I think our idea is more difficult to visualize pursuing in the long term because of the medical aspect. I think organizing a business around hazardous waste seems a bit like too much of a liability to take on at my stage in life. I can't imagine being in class one day and hearing news that my business just received a lawsuit because of a mishap in the upcycling process.
However, I have become inspired to start an upcycling business because of this competition. This fall, I have joined UC Merced's Venture Lab and am in the making of creating my own sustainable business with new technology that I'd develop through their startup incubator. I've also begun to sign up for hackathons. Since everything is virtual, I often end up not competing because it's difficult to find a solid team, but it's fun, even if I can't compete, to attend their workshops and try to learn something new.
If you could redo your pitch again, what would you do differently?
Though I'm the type of person who often looks back on past memories and badgers myself about what I could have done better, with this competition, I have no regrets. There is nothing I would change because I believe we all tried our hardest, and I don't want to discount any of our efforts. The teammate who wrote our pitch is a teen author, Sarah Frank, and I believe she did an amazing job orchestrating the video scheme creating the script to present our idea. She did a great job making sure to include all of us in the video and ensure our business idea was presented clearly and creatively. Thus, I am satisfied with what we were able to achieve in that short amount of time.
How was it like working with your team virtually? What were some challenges? What were some highlights? Have you stayed in touch with them?
Working with my team virtually was honestly a chaotic experience. There were many challenges that came along the way. During that time all I had was a cheap loaner laptop from school and a T-mobile wifi hotspot, so it took a while for me to send important files to my team. Though my team made sure to be well organized and always check in with each other, the fact that I couldn't send the video files or photos that we needed, was a big setback and added more unnecessary stress. Another challenge was deciding on an idea. It took a while for my team and I to decide on an idea because firstly, we had so many, and secondly, we were all analytical people. Thus, we spent a lot of time picking apart things in each idea that we liked and didn't like, but it was better to do that than pursue something that wouldn't make us, in entrepreneurial terms, "competitive in the market." Some highlights were the moments where we could laugh at things like the absurdity of our frantic behavior or having family pop in during our Zoom calls. The shared anticipation leading up to the award ceremony and the joyous aftermath of winning the superlative award really brought us closer together and solidified the fact that we were a great team. In our "ChangemakeHERs" Instagram group chat, we all exchanged contacts by adding each other on LinkedIn and followed each other on Instagram to keep in touch.
What would be your advice to future participants if we were to hold the EntrepreneuHER2020 makeathon again?
Although it may seem cliche, I would really emphasize that honesty is the best policy, and communication is key. When deciding on an idea, you really need to be honest with your teammates on whether you think an idea won't be successful and give constructive criticism as to why that is so. I understand why some people refrain from being totally honest with their thoughts as from personal experience; I know it can sometimes lead to minor conflicts or hurt feelings if you don't deliver it right. However, if you're not honest with your team, you won't get anywhere. There is no "I" in team, so if only one voice is being heard, you're not co-llaborating. You're one-llaborating. The best thing about working in a team is the diverse perspective that each member holds, so celebrate in it. Staying updated on our progress was also a challenge. Unlike if we were to have done this in person, we couldn't just tap one of our teammates and ask them, "where are you at?" We had to call and text, which, as you can imagine, wasn't always the most effective.
What effect did your keynote speakers and workshop presenters have on your experience during the EntrepreneuHER2020 makeathon? What were your biggest takeaways from our speakers? What resonated with you the most?
The female founders panel really inspired me to go after whatever idea I've thought of and stop feeling held back. What resonated with me the most was the testimony that one of the young panelists gave. She mentioned that when starting her business, her parents discouraged her from taking that on because they thought it was too risky and that she would most likely not be successful. That really resonated with me because my parents are immigrants too and hold the same idea where if they haven't seen many people be successful in doing something, they discourage me from doing it. For example, when choosing engineering, my parents constantly questioned my decision and pushed me to go into the medical field like my siblings. With the lack of representation of black women in engineering, they thought that I was less likely to be successful and should pursue something more stable.
How has EntrepreneuHER2020 impacted you? Your career path, goals, or passions?
EntrepreneuHER2020 has impacted me by opening up my eyes to the world of entrepreneurship, inspiring me to take the reigns of my life, and pursue more. The speakers and panelists inspired me to set higher goals for myself and always take advantage of the opportunities at hand. It has made me more passionate about creating innovative technology and has helped solidify that as a venture that I want to pursue throughout my college years and, most likely, my whole career. In regards to my goals of being an entrepreneur, I always used to think I'm too young, I'm too busy, or I don't have enough to accomplish the big goals I have, but as I learned from the speakers, there is never a more perfect time to pursue an opportunity than now.