As a Notre Dame student, Jasmine Shells ’13 had to learn to start saying “no” to protect her time. She wanted to do everything at Notre Dame and there were plenty of activities to choose from.
Shells was on the leadership council of Shades of Ebony, a member of the Black Student Association, a member of the Voices of Faith gospel choir, part of the Latin dance group for Latin Expressions, and she helped found Notre Dame’s chapter of the National Association of Black Accountants. She also participated in Baraka Bouts, the women’s boxing tournament and club.
In addition to her long resume of activities, Shells found community in Cavanaugh Hall on campus, where she eventually became a resident advisor (RA).
You could almost trace a line directly from her enthusiastic involvement in college to her current career.
Nearly 10 years out of Notre Dame, Shells is the founder of her own company.
Five to Nine is a software platform that helps companies streamline the process of planning, organizing, and executing employee engagement programs, along with tracking their return on investment (ROI).
Employee engagement activities cover a wide swath of territory in many organizations.
They range from employee resource groups, like a Latinx professional networking group, to reducing turnover and manager development.
Shells began her post-college career at Ernst & Young (EY) in Chicago. During her tenure there, she joined the Black Professionals Network and got involved with organizing the EY Entrepreneur of the Year award.
“And that’s where I got the idea for my business,” says Shells.”I realized that my company, like others, was putting millions of dollars into their volunteering programs, their onboarding programs, and their diversity programs. But there was no infrastructure to manage it.”
There was also no associated data from such programs, which meant the company wasn’t necessarily tracking their effects on retention and engagement.
When she looked into how many staff hours the programs required, she found that employees who ran various programs were putting in anywhere from 10-40 hours outside of their full-time jobs just to plan and execute them.
“So my whole goal with starting to think about the issue has been to ask, ‘How can we use technology to make this process better?’” says Shells.
Before starting Five to Nine, Shells made a job switch. She began working with Future Founders, an organization that supports and helps launch the businesses of young entrepreneurs.
Shells had been volunteering with the organization for years and found the work incredibly meaningful, especially as she started her own business.
Her first company, also called Five to Nine, was an events-based business. She and her partners organized events geared toward millennials interested in exploring Chicago and making connections with other professionals. The business partnered with companies throughout the city and planned events for their employees.
As she worked more closely with companies and their employee resource groups, Shells had a lightbulb moment. “I thought, what if we could create a platform to manage clients’ events, rather than me planning the events and taking on all the work?” she says.
The new Five to Nine was born. And in addition to helping groups plan and track their events, the platform also provides feedback. “We track all this data with regard to participation, various demographic data, and feedback data,” explains Shells. “That helps companies understand how the programs are resonating, how they could be improved, and how they actually lead to retention.”
The company has been incredibly successful, having raised about $6 million in seed money to date.
Now, Shells is running her business full-time. She says she loves that, as an entrepreneur, no day is the same. “I love to create, I love to build, and I love to figure out challenges. And I think it’s really great to be able to use some of these skills and to really develop a lot of my skills. Because, you know, as CEO, you’re the ‘chief everything officer.’”
Asked to offer advice for young entrepreneurs, Shells says that a lot of people ask if entrepreneurs are born or made and she doesn’t necessarily have the answer. “But what I would say is that, if you are willing to put yourself out there, try things, take on leadership opportunities, and build something from scratch,” she says, then entrepreneurship may be for you.