On countless evenings since Shark Tank premiered in 2009, I envisioned walking down the shadowy hallway for a chance to prove my worth through a pitch. My first imaginary business emerged in elementary school. Obsessed with hotels, I created the Golden Palace, a luxurious resort. I scribbled reservation forms and sketched floor plans. “Thanks for calling the Golden Palace!” I’d exclaim to my family, reciting a three-minute spiel about my pretend property’s amenities.
When the doors of the Golden Palace shuttered as I turned 10, I launched Bags of Books, a very real service project with a mission to level the educational playing field for underserved children. As Bags of Books grew throughout middle school, my love for the pitch flourished. I discovered crowdfunding, sneaking glances at my phone under the dinner table to scroll through Indiegogo and Kickstarter.
The summer before beginning high school, I received an invitation to pitch Bags of Books to students in Wharton’s MGMT 100 program as well as business and nonprofit leaders. Armed with only a script, I arrived at Penn and scanned the unfamiliar surroundings of professor Anne Greenhalgh’s classroom. To calm my nerves, I imagined Shark Tank’s Kevin “Mr. Wonderful” O’Leary watching, then delivered my presentation. Two student teams selected Bags of Books as their “client” for the semester, and five years of collaborating with hundreds of Wharton students helped propel Bags of Books into an impactful venture donating more than 160,000 books to 30,000 kids.
After pitching Bags of Books, I craved hearing business proposals even more than delivering them. This infatuation transformed into what I called “My Second Brain,” a meticulous spreadsheet I curated. I was determined to remember the name of every cool startup I found online — what if someday, one became a unicorn? Years later, “My Second Brain” remains pinned to my laptop’s bookmarks. I still sigh when I highlight a cell in red, indicating a failed startup.
Despite my early dreams to become an entrepreneur, I realized that my passion for crafting the startup spreadsheet and evaluating pitches was pointing me in a different but familiar direction — I yearned to join the sharks and pursue venture capital investing. In 2019, I returned to Penn — this time as a first-year student determined to dive into the campus entrepreneurial ecosystem. I joined the Weiss Tech House Innovation Fund; operating as a student-run mini venture capital fund, we awarded up to $2,000 in non-dilutive grants to startups founded by Penn students across all programs, including undergraduates, MBAs, PhDs, and medical students.
On weekdays, I chatted with student founders at Starbucks about their budding ideas. On weekends, I listened to fully formed pitches and reviewed decks. I held Fulton’s cork-based shoe insole prototype, visualized unbiased shoplifting detection software with Percepta, and learned how to preserve omakase-quality fish with Shinkei Systems. I connected with entrepreneurs in the fund’s portfolio, dancing at a hip-hop class taught by Thrive Hair Bar’s founder and attending local pop-up sustainability events for The Rounds.
My fascination with pitches for the Weiss Tech House Innovation Fund evolved into a gap semester as an intern at a venture fund, ICONIQ Growth. Pausing my coursework to learn alongside investors I deeply admire empowered me to double down on my venture goals at Penn. I loved every minute of my “real world” stint, so much so that I extended my internship through the summer.
Back on campus, I involved myself more deeply in Penn’s entrepreneurial ecosystem as the newly appointed Weiss Tech House Innovation Fund co-director. Having invested in the past two years of President’s Innovation Prize winners — Nikil Ragav ENG20 W20 of inventXYZ and Anthony Scarpone-Lambert NU21 of Lumify Care — I arrived especially excited to scout out the next prize-winning business. As an avid foodie, I salivated as I awaited the launch of Penn’s pilot Food Innovation Lab program, the first cohort of incubated culinary startups.
At the start of my junior year last fall, Tangen Hall finally opened as the home of Venture Lab, Penn’s entrepreneurship center. I instantly became a regular. At Tangen, I attend startup pitch competitions, meet with alumni “Entrepreneurs-in-Residence,” 3-D print in Product Design class hosted in a makerspace, and socialize with friends from Sigma Eta Pi, the entrepreneurship fraternity I co-founded — the first of its kind at Penn. Balancing inventive technology with a workshop vibe, Tangen invites student entrepreneurs into an open floor plan conducive to collaboration.
It was time for my highest-stake pitch to date. After hustling for months on a joint initiative across the Wharton and Engineering Dean’s Advisory Boards, my team and I approached Vice Dean of Entrepreneurship Lori Rosenkopf about creating a new Venture Lab organization for undergraduate students. She instantly supported our proposal, and the inaugural class of the Venture Lab Student Advisory Board was born.
Last semester, I trekked over to Tangen on Tuesday evenings to lead our first-ever meetings. Each time, the members trickled in one by one, exchanging smiles and nervous laughter around a conference table suited for a Fortune 500 board of directors. We brainstormed to draft our organization’s charter. I lightly moderated the conversation; the circle of strangers was quickly becoming one of friends and collaborators.
My senior year is already off to an exciting start. After immersing myself in the summer analyst program at Bessemer Venture Partners, I’ll be joining the firm as a full-time investor next July, fulfilling my dream to turn “My Second Brain” into a career. On campus, as the new student director of Venture Lab, I’m eager to turn our mission and vision into reality. Our board aims to give all entrepreneurs at Penn a voice at Venture Lab’s table, pay it forward by connecting younger peers to opportunities, and transform Tangen into a go-to student hangout. Ideally, my efforts will extend far beyond graduation. Perhaps one day I’ll join Venture Lab’s Alumni Advisory Board and bring my passion for Penn entrepreneurship — and my personal journey — full circle.
Alexa Grabelle W23 is from Voorhees, New Jersey, concentrating in management with a creative writing minor. She loves the Philadelphia food scene, startups, and dancing.
Published as “Ideas, Everywhere” in the Fall/Winter 2022 issue of Wharton Magazine.