Since receiving a BS in electrical engineering from George Mason University in 1996, Jason Force has enjoyed a successful engineering career in the defense and aerospace industries. But while he liked his work, it wasn’t what he envisioned doing for the rest of his life.
Force, who’s now working on a master’s in electrical engineering, had an ingenious idea for a company and was ready to pursue it. He had invented EcoMow , a robotic lawn mower that uses grass clippings for fuel. But since business process hadn’t been part of his formal training, he had no idea how, or where, to begin.
When Force saw a flyer on campus advertising Startup Mason —an informal campus group for budding entrepreneurs—he went to a meeting. Immediately, he found the information, resources, and support he was looking for.
“Startup Mason helped in so many ways,” he says. “Pitch practice, business networking, advising. The biggest offering is correction of wrong business thinking.”
Now, months later, Force has a partial prototype of his mower, a cofounder, and a clear direction of what his next steps will be.
How It Began
Two years ago, David J. Miller , PhD Public Policy ’13, director of entrepreneurship at the Mason Center for Social Entrepreneurship  (MCSE), found that he was spending a fair amount of time outside the classroom with students eager for more information and interaction. These individuals, who had “basically outgrown course work,” were approaching him to ask about pursuing extracurricular avenues for starting their own businesses.
Miller began to quietly meet with these students in the Johnson Center. He also started to check out what was happening at a place called the Foundry, an intense accelerator program at the University of Utah initiated to help student entrepreneurs.
“It was hardcore,” Miller says of Foundry Utah, “for MBA students who had to meet every Friday at 7 in the morning and fill out reports every week. I explained this to a group two years ago here in Research Hall, and I realized pretty quickly we weren’t ready for that.”
Instead, he decided, Mason needed something lower-key, more inclusive and welcoming—and fun. When former MCSE director Greg Werkheiser offered Miller’s gang of innovators a dedicated space in the center, Startup Mason became an official peer-to-peer support group. It now offers feedback sessions, mentor meetings, and an entrepreneurship and innovation curriculum for Mason students, faculty, alumni, and community members. As many as 50 people currently meet twice a month, some only to watch and listen, others to seriously soak up information and get poised to launch.
“I always tell students there’s a spectrum of what they can do with entrepreneurship,” Miller says. “They can explore and learn—come to a meeting, take a class, hear a speaker. They can experiment, where it’s more hands-on with a pitch or business contest, maybe an internship. And then they can start up.”
Startup Mason is a vibrant and dynamic group, with a highly active Facebook and Twitter presence and a number of events throughout the year. These include business launch celebrations; Pitch Mason , which allows budding business owners to present their ideas to a panel of judges before an audience; Hack Mason , where individuals identify and solve problems in a limited time using everything from cardboard to drones; and Venture Camp , an entrepreneurship speaker series hosted on Mason’s Arlington Campus.
Startup Mason instructs emerging entrepreneurs to embrace the “lean startup” method of bringing a concept to fruition, meaning they figure out what problem needs to be solved, discover what they need to learn to solve it, and then decide what sort of company to build around it. So far, it’s a technique that’s worked for a number of people.
“In the past 14 months,” Miller says, “we’ve had five or six startups at varying degrees of success.”
One of these businesses belongs to Chris Savage, BS Electrical Engineering ’11. “Before going to the Startup Mason meetings, I didn’t have a strong grasp of the principles of lean startup,” says Savage, who infused honey into single-serve K-cups of tea to create his company, True Honey Teas . “Talking with David and related members of Startup Mason has really led me to refine my business practices and to question and reevaluate some of my company’s decisions—in a good way.”
“From day one, David has been pushing me to ‘get out of the building’ and ask the hard question of ‘what does the customer want?’” says Heba Saleh, BA English ’07 and MA English ’09, who founded EatLuv , an organic food delivery company. “The Startup Mason meetings have been great in giving that sense of community, especially since entrepreneurship can be very isolating for those entirely focused on their startups.”
Sammy Kassim, BS Management ’11, and Asad R. Ali, who studied in the School of Management and the Department of Economics, are cofounders of Globox Rentals , a DVD kiosk company that distributes international films. The Globox team also includes Ricky Singh, BS Information Systems and Operations Management ’11, and Brittany Hill, BA Art and Visual Technology ’12.
Ali and Kassim were two of the early Startup Mason members. In tribute to their beginnings, they installed one of their first 10 kiosks in the Johnson Center. “[Startup Mason] was really a great avenue that we saw as far as potential for the university,” Ali says. “We have our hands full with starting our own business, but God willing, our goal is to give back to the same program that we came out of.”
For those advancing to the next level, Miller now directs the Mason Innovation Lab , which opened this March in the School of Management. The lab will provide 24-hour working space, an innovation curriculum, connections with faculty and professional mentors, field trips, and small stipends to help fund projects of the most dedicated entrepreneurs. Applications were accepted this spring, and the first group of promising moguls began using the space this summer.
“The purpose of the lab is that we have all these great things going on with classes and clubs like Startup Mason, but where do they go next?” Miller asks. “We’re trying to create that roadmap. We need it here first for them to connect to the outside.”
Startup Mason holds open office hours on Mondays from noon to 2 p.m. and Wednesdays from 3 to 5:30 p.m. in the Nguyen Engineering Building, Room 4104. It also holds meetings every other Thursday in Enterprise, Room 278.
Rashad Mulla, BA ’11, contributed to this story.