[Photo courtesy of Pierre Rizzo Photography]
When Caroline Pugh was in 10th grade, she decided that she was going to figure out an inexpensive way of transforming algae into biodiesel. She researched green energy and existing algae oil extraction methods, interviewed biodiesel experts from around the world, and started prototyping and beta testing different possible methods with dogged determination. Her goal was to transform the green energy sector with a new, cutting-edge technology. At that, the project was a total failure. But, to Caroline, it was an overwhelming success.
Through working on the project, she learned the conceptual process for creating a product, and she developed research and time management skills. Five years later, when she started pitching her first startup to potential investors, she was confident, cool under pressure, and, she says, “unafraid to talk to everyone and anyone about my ideas.” Entrepreneurialism, she had learned, is a muscle that must be worked to become strong and that can be built up to become better.
Caroline had joined the Entrepreneurship Club at The Pamplin College of Business at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University almost as soon as she arrived on campus. By the fall of her sophomore year, she was elected Club President. By the spring, she had founded her first startup: VirtualU. The 3D scanning technology company went on to raise two rounds of funding, grew to a team of twelve, and served clients all along the East Coast. Building a company is almost guaranteed to be a roller coaster ride and that’s especially true when you’re still in college. Caroline wouldn’t take back her experiences, but she is quick to emphasize that “if you can’t get yourself back on your feet after a setback, or if you don’t have the tenacity to keep going even if it feels like all of the odds are against you, it can be hard to stay motivated.” Her secret was a healthy balance of optimism and realism. You have to be positive in the face of adversity, but you also need to know when to ask for help and when to make a pivot.
Today, Caroline’s entrepreneurial spirit is as key to her success in her new role as Chief of Staff at NavHealth, a growing healthcare analytics startup, as it ever was when she was at the helm of VirtualU. Afterall, an entrepreneur, she says, is “someone who has the propensity to take on risk in order to bring about change and pursue something they are passionate about,” none of which requires the title of ‘founder’.
Whether working from inside of an existing company or building one of your own, Caroline encourages entrepreneurs to look deep within themselves for inspiration. “I think that for most entrepreneurs, they get a lot of their inspiration from a distinct moment in their lives where they experienced pain or saw a crucial need for change. Someone may naturally be creative, artistic, or intelligent, but passion and an entrepreneurial mindset are things that are developed over time through life experiences and hard work.”
Anyone, she says, can develop an entrepreneurial spirit by thinking outside of the box and “challenging the status quo.” For those who struggle with self-doubt, Caroline has a few words of advice, “Showing initiative and charting your own course is being entrepreneurial and will lead to other people rallying around you.” Show your passion, show your enthusiasm, challenge yourself to be the best you can be, and others will join you in your mission.