FBLA Connect Interview – Niel Patel

Niel Patel is a 19-year-old currently residing in Minnesota and working passionately on his team startup, Runerra. He served as the 2016-2017 FBLA National President where he focused on the message “We are the Future,” and now lives this message through his entrepreneurial work with Runerra by increasing delivery efficiency nationwide. He is currently on a leave from the University of Minnesota to work on his startup and other projects. Niel Patel spoke with current FBLA National President Eu Ro Wang to give advice on startup entrepreneurship and FBLA leadership to the FBLA members hoping to follow a similar path to success.

Tell me about what you have been up to after high school.

After finishing up the end of my FBLA career and high school, I was going to the University of Minnesota for college. My parents convinced me to stay home the last summer, and I used that time to do some digging into my interests and get a jumpstart on my college preparedness. I knew Minnesota was very much into healthcare and I wanted a job, so I figured I would become a pharmacy technician for Red Cross! Since I was going to the Carlson School of Management, I wanted to start building my business portfolio as well. Earlier that year, I connected with a State Farm agency for an FBLA sponsorship and the regional director came back to me and offered me an internship with them for the summer! Through that, I was recommended to sell insurance with a basic license and soon become the youngest insurance agent in Missouri, which was cool.

After your exciting summer, what have you been pursuing in college?

One of the biggest questions I received after I arrived at the University of Minnesota was “Why did you move to Minnesota after living your whole life in Missouri?” There were a couple reasons:

1.     It sounds crazy, but I love the weather!

2.     More importantly, I love the people, and wanted to be in an environment where I was encouraged to be myself. I received offers from other colleges, but Minnesota was the right place for me.

But after  that, I received my property and casualty insurance license, a company called Northwestern Mutual reached out and asked me if I was interested in selling health and life insurance with them, and it was an amazing opportunity helping families find financial stability.

Since I was working on surrounding myself with the right people, many of them were entrepreneurs. We did some digging into the delivery industry and found that on average, delivery is $12 with the restaurant and consumer paying some in an inefficient system. To solve this inefficiency, we wanted to create delivery density and have more people order from an establishment at once. By asking others if they want something from somewhere you are already ordering, the cost of one delivery is driven down. This is how the startup Runerra was born, and I made a huge commitment to take a leave form school and leave Northwestern despite loving my job. I have learned a ton from the experience, and that brings me to today!

© Runerra

© Runerra

This interview is for FBLA members to get to know your story and also for FBLA members who are interested in starting their own business for guidance. What is your favorite part about working in a startup?

My favorite part would definitely have to be the learning. In other occupations you are doing repeated tasks but in a startup you are building something from scratch and place your mind in a strategic perspective to understand the marketing and development of your project. There are so many bits and pieces that come together to form one company and put one idea into the world. There have been entrepreneurs that do it all themselves, but in my case working with the team dynamic, each person is responsible and accountable for a specific department where their expertise lies to make the goal. You wake up every day and know that you are trying to do the right thing to make the world a better place through your product, and it feels good! You fail many times, but there is a beauty to that failure and you can learn so much.

What should people know before getting into entrepreneurship and what should people do to prepare if they want to be an entrepreneur or create a startup like you did?

Everyone should keep in mind that it’s hard. Just hard, and you should know you are going to fail not once, but multiple times. You should be prepared for that! Having the correct mindset and learning from failures helps you build a character as you go through that, and you will ultimately do what is right rather than what is easy. There is no elevator to success in a startup, and you will have to take the stairs one step at a time!

Are there any specific steps people should take if they want to start their own business?

Of course! Besides the character building I mentioned before, something specific people want to do is get familiar with business structures and the in-and-outs of business. This includes simple concepts like how to corporate something, get your EIN number, build websites and building out different unit economic models. A lot of this comes from networking and reaching out to people who already have the knowledge in these areas. I did not know much of it when I started, but there were many small things that I had to pick up as I went. Other necessary knowledge that comes to mind is pitching and public speaking, which FBLA encourages through competitive events and is super essential to translating your ideas and earning fundraising and accessing your market. Additionally, creativity is always essential to startups without huge budgets!

You mentioned a little bit about failures. If you are comfortable sharing, what are some of the struggles that you have personally faced and how have you overcome them?

Sure. For Runerra specifically, we had a big launch in October and tried to get a bunch of sign-ups that ended up in about 200 users at the end of the day. In a campus of about 50,000 students, we hoped to reach 10-12% of the market and went through a long period where the things we were trying were not giving us more users. That 3-week period was hard to get through, but by putting our heads together and pushing through it, we offered deals to users through the platform and by just the end of the year we had over 1,000 users!

As someone who has served as the National President, do you have any advice for the common FBLA student looking to get involved on a higher level, such as taking on more roles and leadership?

Although it may sound vague, I think the most important thing to do is explore. If there is something you are interested in, take the time, open your laptop, research it, and explore. There will always be things you don’t know, and I am still trying to develop the motivation to constantly be learning. Constant learning is key! For instance, I was interested in stocks for a long time. I contacted a friend who made a business in the field and invited him over. For 4 hours we sat down and he showed me exactly what he did, which was mind-blowing. If there is something you are interested in, just do it while you have the time!

You mentioned podcasts earlier. What kind of podcasts do you listen to?

Podcasts are great! For someone interested in entrepreneurship, Indie Hackers is amazing! They talk with companies that bootstrapped their businesses and did not have a lot of money to begin with, and I find it really interesting. Another good one is The Knowledge Project. If you are interested in keeping up with politics, NPR puts out a 45-minute podcast every Thursday to keep you in the loop politically. It’s not a podcast, but I read The Morning Brew (economics and investing subscription) every morning to get a brief business rundown of everything that is going on each day. Overall, Indie Hackers is probably my favorite, though.

Looking back from the perspective of a National President, what can members do to get more involved in FBLA if they are aspiring to take on more responsibility at the chapter, state and national level?

One of the things I did was talk to the individuals that have already done it. Amber Raub was the Missouri State FBLA President and was in my chapter, so I asked about her about her campaign and for connections to the state advisor to network. This gives you a head start through shared knowledge. Another thing is having a purpose behind your actions, such as when campaigning. I chose “We are the Future” because I believed in that motive and wanted to spread that message through my service as an officer.

Do you have any final tips or advice for FBLA members or anything you want to add?

Someone told me this just this week: Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and call! Whether it is me, current national officers or not an officer at all, pick up the phone and call people. Nowadays, social media, texting and the internet are great, but there is something about having an enriching conversation with a person that is amazing. Whether you are looking for a leadership role or to start your own company, pick up the phone to share ideas and explore because working together is powerful! As always, if you have any questions feel free to reach out to me!

Thank you so much for your time, Niel!

Awesome! I love taking the time to talk to you all, thank you!

FBLA Connect Interview – Nikolas Lazar

Nikolas Lazar is a freshman at Emory University, studying finance and international studies. He graduated from Newton South High School in Newton, MA, and he served as the 2016-17 FBLA National Treasurer. During his time in FBLA, he placed three times (Entrepreneurship in 2014, Global Business in 2015, Banking and Financial Systems in 2016) at the National Leadership Conference, served as chapter president, and served three terms as a state officer. Nikolas agreed to sit down with FBLA National President Eu Ro Wang to share his experience with case competitions in college and his tips for FBLA members looking to get more involved.

So, tell me about your experiences with case study competitions in college, and how are these influenced by your experiences in FBLA?

Through FBLA, Nationals provided a really unique opportunity to get an idea of what case studies are all about, both in terms of content and techniques I learned. These have carried over to the beginning levels of doing cases in college. Also, the raw preparation in terms of working with team members, often on very little hours of sleep and in high pressure situations, really helped me prepare for college-level case study competitions. In college, we all really want to win, and create a lot of interest in team dynamics, so having opportunity to experience that in FBLA and hone those skills then has really helped me a lot in preparing for competitions at the collegiate level.

Tell us about what kind of case study competitions you do in college.

Yeah! What’s really neat about university is that there’s a really wide variety of competitions. Really any interest you have, there is usually a competition for it. Personally, back in the fall, I competed in a competition where we were researching Wal-Mart and trying to figure out how to fend off Amazon’s e-commerce presence. This weekend, I’m working on a sustainability competition where we are pitching a proposal that will help Atlanta reach 100% clean energy by 2050. These are two very different topics which may not have seemed interesting going into but have been really great experiences to learn more about.

What got you into these case study competitions?

One thing I loved in high school was having the opportunity to compete and travel with the folks I had met in FBLA, such as going to Nationals. Having these opportunities really compels you to keep on doing them more and more. Now, doing it at university and having that same camaraderie and solving puzzles for each case has kept me doing it.

What have you learned from these case study competitions in college?

We learn everything! For the Wal-Mart case study, I learned everything from random facts about Wal-Mart to tangible skills that will apply in other fields. Everything from how to work PowerPoint and Excel to how to develop frameworks for organizing your ideas. All of those skills, both hard research skills and soft skills, are useful in further studies.

What skills in college do you notice you use often, which FBLA helped develop?

Especially when you know you can serve and compete at Nationals, it develops a really strong work ethic, both individually and in a team environment. I keep my teammates accountable and keep my classmates accountable, and I think developing that work ethic has really helped a lot in college. Building off that, through FBLA you have a lot of opportunities as a state or national officer to really implement change. When you start over in college, you don’t have the same positions of power, but that desire to create change is still there, and you still find opportunities to do so.

What is something that people should know if they are interested in doing these case study competitions in college?

The most important is to find a group of people that are great teammates, and kind of ride with them the whole way. Even if you don’t win one competition, either in FBLA or in college, stick with that team and know them well instead of jumping from person to person trying to win.

For FBLA students that are entering the college admissions process, what do you believe is the most important message to keep in mind?

I think the biggest area where a lot of students struggle is communicating their message and what they have done in FBLA. Something that I have heard from college admissions officers in my own process, is this: there are nearly a quarter-million FBLA members, so while it is great you are in FBLA, you need to distinguish yourself. It might be great that you achieved the Community Service Awards or the BAA’s (Business Achievement Awards), but really what makes you stand out is to say “as chapter president, I implemented this [specific] program”. They want to see that you took your position and you did something with it, and didn’t just serve in that role for a year. Communicating those experiences, when you learn something from creating new programs and developing them as a team, that’s what college admissions officers really want to hear.

You’re studying finance and international studies in college. In FBLA, did you compete in finance-focused competitions? If so, how did these competitions in your career focus contribute to your college preparedness?

I did. I started competing in Global Business in my first two years, then dove into finance my junior year competing in banking financial systems. I am really glad I did three events from different categories because when you start to do events of similar type you learn a lot of the same information and same skills. This is great, but you’re not really diversifying. Now, when I have class about either comparative politics or political violence, I am able to go in each of these classes and apply my learning from FBLA because I got to learn about so many different topics.

What’s a piece of advice you want to offer to students who are struggling to find the perfect college for them?

I would definitely urge students to focus on finding a school that fits them. Once they narrow it down to 3 or 4 schools, I would encourage them to look up what the employment accounts for those schools are. That tells you a lot about the student body, and if you are making such a big investment (for college) it is important to look at what the return you will get on it is. You can Google ‘Emory employment statistics’ or ‘career outcomes’ and find out where people in your major go to work and can tell you if that is a school that is really focused on people into banking, nonprofits, or your major. You can tailor what you want to get out of your education by looking at that in your college decisions.

Do you have any advice for the common FBLA student looking to get involved on a higher level, from your experience as the former national treasurer?

Yeah, something I looked for in applicants for my national council was not really “were they a state officer?,”“were they a local officer?,” “were they president?” Instead, what was really interesting to me was: “in their applications, were they able to stress that they had used their time in FBLA to do something [impactful]?” I had a few members on my council who weren’t state officers and weren’t national officers, but in their chapter they created a program and were really passionate about the program they created. That, to me, as an interviewer, really stood out and that is what got them into my council over people with much higher positions than them.

What was your overall best memory in FBLA?

It’s hard to pinpoint one specific memory. It’s all of the memories you make over those four years, but since I had such a close-knit chapter, competing with them for four years was such an honor and that’s something I miss in university.

Can you describe your term as national treasurer in 3 words?

Sleepless, but quick!

What is the number one lesson you learned through your work on the national level?

When you have had these opportunities to serve in a position, it is really important to make the most of that year. Your national or state officer year goes by so quickly, and the biggest regret most national and state officer alumni have is that they didn’t do enough with the position they had for a year. There are so many officers that come back with regret. I came in running my campaign and passionate about these things, and you want to get as much done as you can in that year and create tangible programs. The officer teams after you don’t care as much if you increased membership or BAA participation, but will care and will benefit if you create programs and structures to help them succeed.

This is the last question. What do you believe pushed you to be elected national treasurer, and what made you successful once you were there?

The biggest thing that pushed me to get there was the great support system, like our state advisors Mr. Paul and Mr. Reynolds, every step of the way from being sophomore state officer and pushing me to take the next step in my FBLA career. Having a great support system is really crucial to getting elected, especially from such a small state as an officer. Once I was there, the same support system was again crucial. Having a great national officer advisor, Mrs. Smothers, was really crucial and having the encouragement from Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Paul when I had an idea at the state level brought me encouragement to execute my ideas at the national level.

Thank you so much for your time, Nikolas. Much appreciated!