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Enforcing diversity in teams pays off — a student story

On Aalto Ventures Program's Startup Experience course, the students are divided into teams by the teaching staff. One of the main criteria along with mutual interests is diversity. Students with different backgrounds bring different viewpoints into the team, giving the team an edge. Read the story of one Startup Experience team below.
An illustration depicting a diverse puzzle

Working with a dream team is extremely rewarding, but a bad one can turn any course into a nightmare. On a course such as Startup Experience, where teamwork is everything, the team is what defines the whole experience. This fall on the course the team Pick ‘n Play had its ups and downs, but the one thing they never doubted was each other.

We don’t deny it — Startup Experience is a demanding course in the best of times, and the transformation into an online course due to the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t made it easier. Still, every semester a growing number of ambitious students are ready to take on the challenge, many of them with excellent results. This fall, Björn Höglund, Linda Miettinen, Daiyan Goulamhoussen and Alaa Barazi were among those students. Their diverse team had a rollercoaster of a ride on the course but passed with flying colors, and we wanted to have chat with them to learn more about their experience, idea and future plans.

A picture of the team members
Pick 'n Play: Alaa, Daiyan, Björn and Linda

Do talk to strangers

As often happens in Startup Experience, the team members didn’t know each other beforehand. The teams are formed by the teachers to assure not only mutual interests but also diverse backgrounds in each group. This can make some students nervous, but we think a little nervousness is a decent price to pay for the new perspectives people from different backgrounds can bring into teamwork.

The group admits they were a bit worried at first too, but feel that they got really lucky with their team. “At first there were some challenges in communication since we’re quite different, but in the end, we worked really well together,” says Linda, who is studying Industrial Engineering and Management and has a background in renewable energy. “Diversity really paid off I think,” says Björn, who came to the course from working in supply chain management and logistics to learn more about entrepreneurship. “Our different backgrounds complemented each other more than clashed, which led to good results. I think we did more reflecting as a team as I’ve done in 20 years in working life.”

Alaa, who is doing his Ph.D. at Aalto University on building technology and construction and Daiyan, who’s studying material science as an exchange student, wholly agree. “Everyone did their job seriously, but not too seriously, and we managed to have fun too,” Alaa sums up.

Keeping it simple

Once they were all teamed up, it was time to find a problem to solve and start working on an idea. In Startup Experience, all teams must work on a problem related to the Sustainable Development Goals as defined by the United Nations. In their team, everyone had expressed their interest in SDG #3, Good Health and Well-being, so it was natural to start finding a problem from that area. Alaa already had an idea in mind about an app that would connect people through doing sports, and after voting between all the ideas they had, the team decided to start working with Alaa’s suggestion. “We wanted to contribute to both physical and mental wellbeing”, he says, “and making new friends while doing sports seemed like a perfect way to do it.”

Their solution — Pick ’n Play — is a platform that allows users to define a sports activity they’d like to do and find new friends to do said activity with. The team initially identified three user groups: people who are already into sports, people who are lonely and ex-athletes looking to get back in the game. They intentionally picked a simple idea even if it wasn’t that original. “If you want to play tennis with someone, the app finds you a partner — it’s that simple. We thought that’d make our lives easier in the ideation phase,” Björn says.

And right they were. “In the beginning, the other teams seemed to be working a lot more and having trouble, but not us,” says Daiyan. A simple idea gave the team more time to reflect, get to know each other, and really focus their efforts on the problematic parts. User surveys also proved easier to conduct when the product can be explained in one sentence. Of course, good things rarely last, and the team eventually ran into problems. After the first couple of pitches, the judges suddenly started stating out flaws in the team’s plan and giving quite critical feedback. “I felt they started to treat us like a real startup team and we no longer got off easy by being just students,” Björn says. And like a real startup team, they too took heed of the advice and made the necessary adjustments. “We got criticized for our ability to create a user base, so we simplified the concept and narrowed down our potential users to people who are already into sports,” Linda says. This way, the team could focus on one type of people and provide the best possible experience for them instead of trying to please everyone. In the end, they were praised for the very same elements that were criticized earlier. “Really shows how important it is to listen to feedback and be ready to make adjustments,” Björn says.

 

More than credits

After the changes they were once again in the favor of the judges and in the end, they were voted as the third-best team on the course. They were even encouraged to keep developing their idea further and maybe start a company. All the team members already have other plans though, at least for now. Some of them already have their own business ideas, while some are still busy with studies or other types of work. They still believe in the idea, however, and don’t deem it impossible to get back to it later. Even if they don’t, though, none of them thinks the course wasn’t useful. One of the biggest takeaways was understanding the different pieces of the puzzle that is startup entrepreneurship. “It’s like a ready-made playbook for becoming an entrepreneur,” Björn describes the experience.

Overall, the course exceeded the students’ expectations, despite some minor flaws. “I mostly took the course because I thought it sounded interesting and I needed nine credits,” Linda says, “But in the end, I really liked it even if there were some hiccups every now and then. I’ve realized entrepreneurial skills can be applied anywhere, so it’s also really useful.” They all agree entrepreneurial skills can be practical, even if one doesn’t choose to become a founder. “Entrepreneurship is really just a broad way to see the world, and that’s important for everyone,” Alaa says. We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

Above everything else, however, they value their team — and that can be useful for one’s career in the future too. “If I’ll ever have a company of my own, I’d hire all of these people on the spot,” Björn says. Maybe we’ll someday see this team back together after all.

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