Success Story

Startup Week engages more than 2,000 University community members

85 virtual events inspire students, provide resources across eight colleges and 13 campuses

Penn State Startup Week powered by PNC inspired and empowered more than 2,000 University community members, covering a breadth of entrepreneurial topics and offering a diverse array of expert speakers through 85 virtual events. From live musical performances to discussions about breaking down  systemic barriers female founders face to advice on accessing capital for your startup, the week had something for everyone.

“At Penn State, we believe that student entrepreneurial activities – learning about customer discovery, lean startup, the business model canvas and problem-solving methods – prepare students to start companies and to be intrapreneurs if they pursue a career with a corporation or institution,” President Eric Barron said during the virtual recognition reception for winners of student pitch competitions. “It also helps them become great community innovators.”

Startup Week featured 122 entrepreneurs, speakers, moderators, and judges, 33 of which are Penn State alumni. Eight colleges and 13 Penn State campuses hosted an event. Student organizations, including Happy Valley Capital and Innoblue, among others, also hosted events throughout the week. Seven events were presented entirely in Spanish.

Kicking off Startup Week on March 21, Creative Hustlin’, moderated by Shalom Dubas (‘17, artist and creative entrepreneur), featured a blend of expert speakers, live performances and community innovators who spoke to how to align creative passions with business goals.

Following on March 22, “The Future is Female” expert panel featured successful founders and Penn State alumnae, including Jess Weiner (‘95, CEO of Talk To Jess), Melissa Schipke Marzano (‘09, founder of Tassl), Kathryn Dougherty (‘09, founder of Spritz Beverages Co.), and Beverley East (president and founder of Strokes & Slants), who shared their personal entrepreneurial triumphs and experiences with clearing hurdles as female founders.

“The number one reason we know that small businesses fail is under-capitalization,” Weiner said during the panel event. “So, I think one of the things we have to be realistic about are the systemic barriers as to why the field is imbalanced – access to capital, access to support, has just been inequitable, and we are working to change that. I often find that one of the best opportunities that we have is to speak other founders’ names into rooms where they normally wouldn’t be represented. I also think that the other part of this is just not waiting to be invited to the table – taking our own…new table.”

Startup Week also showcased a co-keynote event, “Six Degrees of Penn State,” with alumni Hunter Swisher (‘16, founder and CEO of Phospholutions), and J.T. Marino (‘09, chief disruption officer of Serta Simmons Bedding and co-founder of Tuft & Needle). Swisher said he utilized the Penn State Alumni network, in addition to programs such as the Pennsylvania Technical Assistance Program (PennTAP) and Happy Valley LaunchBox powered by PNC Bank, to help fuel his entrepreneurial endeavors when he was a student.

Swisher also said one of the most pivotal moments in his life was receiving funding through the Summer Founders program to work full-time on Phospholutions. The Summer Founders program, a signature program of Invent Penn State, is a 13-week entrepreneurial bootcamp that provides Penn State students with $15,000 grants to work full-time on their startup, social good, or nonprofit idea during the summer.

Other keynote speakers included Penn State alum and Summer Founders program donor Matt Brezina (‘03, founder of multi-million-dollar companies Sincerely and Xobni), and Natalie Nixon, president of Figure 8 Thinking, LLC. Brezina spoke to his experience going from seeking funding to becoming an investor, whereas Nixon brought to light the importance of using creativity to adapt and get ahead in business.

“I’ve been through all the ups and downs of building startups, and now what I do is help founders go through that same journey I’ve been through, hoping to save them a little bit of agony and help them be more successful,” Brezina said during the keynote event.

Additional opportunities for students included Startup Market, a University-wide resource fair hosted by Lion LaunchPad that included 15 organizations offering services such as no-cost consulting, accelerators and networking opportunities. Startup Market was hosted in conjunction with a Small Business and Startup Career Fair, which connected students with 31 small business and startup employers.

Furthermore, Startup Week featured educational sessions that taught and provided insight on numerous topics and were hosted by colleges and campuses across the Commonwealth. Some of these sessions included “Technology Leaders and their Vital Role in Culture Cultivation,” hosted by the College of Information Sciences and Technology, and “Innovators in Mental Health Care During a Pandemic…and Beyond,” sponsored by Penn State Lehigh Valley.

In addition to keynote speakers and panel discussions, student competitions and challenges were hosted as part of Startup Week. Eight student competition winners were honored by President Barron during the virtual student recognition reception, and two additional competitions will wrap up in the coming months.

To watch the best of keynote speakers, panels, competitions, and more from Startup Week, visit the Invent Penn State YouTube channel.

About Penn State Startup Week powered by PNC

An integral part of the broader Invent Penn State initiative, Startup Week is a university-wide event that connects students with innovative alumni and pioneers who are achieving success in a variety of industries and disciplines. Throughout the week, students discover, explore, experience and celebrate entrepreneurship.

For more information on Startup Week, visit