Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, October 1, 2018
Gabriel (Gabi) Van Konynenburg, 23, won the $3,000 first prize at the initial Just in Time for Foster Youth “shark tank” pitch fest Sept. 15. Thirteen initial competitors were whittled down to three, who presented to a panel of distinguished (they always are) judges for the finals.
There are probably 21,567 startup pitch fests per year, but this one was different because the contestants for this one were all members of a very select group — young people who grew up in foster care, without their birth parents, living in a variety of homes with all kinds of people, many of them challenged by drugs, alcohol and depression. In other words, the contestants in this little pitch fest had to overcome significant obstacles in getting to this point. It is fair to say that all 13 won, simply by being willing to think about entrepreneurship and prepare their pitch.
I study the subject of entrepreneurship (broadly defined), and I have concluded that you cannot teach someone to be an entrepreneur, but you can teach someone to think in an entrepreneurial way, if they have the basic DNA of the entrepreneur. This is defined as the intense need to claim a fierce ownership of your own life.
Gabi’s story is unique, but it is also common and repeated in a variety of ways, and always with the single underlying theme of triumph over adversity. She was born in Modesto. Her father was a heavy drinker, and he died of cirrhosis when she was 5. Her mother then entered into multiple unstable relationships with men who were abusive, and finally Gabi ended up, as she says, “a ward of the court,” and went to live with her grandmother. Her birth mother became homeless, and the idea of a calm, supportive, caring environment in which to grow up (that thing that we all seek and treasure and need) was about as real as an alien spaceship.
After high school, Gabi had some odd jobs and finally followed her sister to San Diego in 2015. She started at City College and will transfer to SDSU next semester. Her mother is now a confirmed alcoholic, with multiple DUIs, and her uncle is diagnosed as schizophrenic. Gabi says that growing up, she felt “invisible” and alone in her world. She struggled with depression. “It seemed nobody cared.”
The reason I have told this story is that it shows that the qualities of entrepreneurship are not limited to privilege or an Ivy League education. What it takes to be an entrepreneur is what Sean Silverthorne, an editor at Harvard Business School, calls “guts, gall and good luck.”
The Just In Time executive director is Don Wells, who explained that the program is designed to encourage independent living and give young people the tools — financial, psychological and emotional — to allow them to lead independent and confident lives. Wells says that what these young people need most are connections. Just in Time does just that by providing volunteers and mentors and community support. In 2017, the program served 675 foster youth.
So, what was Gabi’s winning idea? She loves Frisbee golf, aka disc golf. Her problem was how to find and assemble others so they could get together and play. Her startup is called Odd League, and her product is an iPhone app that allows people with this interest to get together, create leagues and organize a game. It is called Odd League, because the app will also be used for other niche sports like archery, badminton, fencing etc. (The odd man/woman out syndrome.) By the way, 500,000 people in the United States play disc golf regularly.
If any of my faithful readers are involved in disc golf in some way and want to chat with Gabi about her idea, please send me an email, and I will connect you. As a final note of small pride, I would note that Bob Freund, a Just in Time board member, and yours truly were her coaches for the competition. As usual, we learned more from her than she learned from us.
Rule No. 579
“Know it and throw it.”
— Disc Golfer’s Code