While the entrepreneurs on Shark Tank enter hostile waters, rising senior Rory Finn found Notre Dame to be a place of encouragement, collaboration, and growth for her startup.
Finn’s entrepreneurial journey started with a problem she noticed around campus.
At the beginning of fall semester 2020, indoor dining was closed due to the pandemic. Students had to carry out their food from the dining hall and often ate outside with their friends on the grassy quads.
“I noticed so many students...wouldn't have a blanket or a towel with them, or they would just be using [a] towel from their rooms that I think wasn't super photogenic and not as functional as what it could be,” says Finn.
Finn got to thinking and dreamed up a stylish—and Instagrammable—waterproof picnic blanket, which she began to see as a fit for young professionals looking to upgrade their outdoor picnic aesthetic.
She named the product SANDO, which stands for “Such a Nice Day Out,” one of her own go-to expressions on a gorgeous day.
To take SANDO from idea to reality, Finn turned to Notre Dame's IDEA Center. IDEA stands for Innovation, De-risking, and Enterprise Acceleration. It is a space for the entrepreneurial pursuits of Notre Dame students, faculty, and staff, with the goal of bringing great ideas to market.
Finn discovered that the IDEA Center offered a Student Entrepreneur Pre-Accelerator program each semester, designed to help students grow their businesses through weekly meetings and targeted resources.
After she was accepted for the spring 2021 cohort, Finn had access to a startup coach offering personalized guidance and educational programming which guided her through each step of starting a new business.
“Each week, they would have a speaker come talk to you about finding your market, finding your market size, figuring out if your product is a good product, doing testing of the product—so many layers of starting a business that I just didn't even know about,” says Finn.
In addition to the resources at the IDEA Center, Finn's classes were equipping her to start her own business.
As a digital marketing minor, Finn had taken courses such as Managing Online and Mobile Customer Engagement with professor Robert Konow and Social Media Marketing with professor Christian Hughes, giving her the background necessary to begin marketing her own product.
Finn is also a psychology and Chinese major in the College of Arts and Letters and has been able to apply these other interests in ways she didn’t expect.
“I've definitely applied a lot of concepts I've learned in psychology on the marketing side of things,” says Finn.
Seeing how her Chinese major fits into her business has been one of the most exciting parts for her. Finn’s first round of blankets comes from suppliers in China, and she’s better able to communicate thanks to her language skills, even sending emails in Chinese.
“Every part of my academic concentration—psychology, Chinese, and digital marketing—[they] have all really helped me in starting my business,” says Finn.
Although her academic background is not in business, Finn felt supported by many individuals with business expertise. Recently-graduated MBA student Erik Siegler, her startup coach, offered valuable feedback throughout the Pre-Accelerator program. Finn notes that the program director, John Henry, and student program directors, Spencer Koehl and Gabi Marques, were also extremely supportive throughout the entire process.
Finn learned that this support can be found even beyond campus, discovering the meaning of “the Notre Dame network” after speaking with alumni who offered their guidance, expertise, and connections.
Thanks to Finn’s dedication, resources from the IDEA Center, and connections with Notre Dame alumni, new things are on the horizon for SANDO.
The company's first collaboration—coming soon—is with “This Saves Lives,” a social venture company founded by Kristen Bell, Ryan Devlin, Todd Grinnell, and Ravi Patel.
This fall Finn also plans to enter the McCloskey New Venture Competition, which represents a chance to win more funding and resources for her startup.
Finn encourages other students to take advantage of the IDEA Center resources and submit their ideas to the Pre-Accelerator, even if they don’t have confidence in their product yet.
“I've made so many friends [and] learned so much about the business world, startups, and how to be someone that people want to do business with,” says Finn. “I cannot recommend the program enough.”