Maria Rose Belding is the cofounder and CEO of a free, online database that matches businesses wanting to donate excess food with charities feeding the hungry. Cameron Ross launched a company that makes biodegradable and compostable straws and cutlery to help curb plastic pollution. Both business owners have launched successful ventures that are helping to better the world, but what makes them even more remarkable is that Belding and Ross are still in college.
The two students are part of the American University Entrepreneurship Incubator—an innovative program that helps develop young entrepreneurs eager to bring their innovations to market. Launched in September 2014, the incubator is the flagship of American University’s Center for Innovation, which ranks among the top 20 entrepreneurship centers in the world.
Students admitted into the incubator come from all of AU’s schools and colleges. Upon acceptance, they are awarded a $1,500 grant to start their business and are given access to workspaces, conference rooms, guest lectures, and workshops. Most importantly, they receive ongoing guidance from more than 50 faculty as well as alumni and other mentors on everything from deciding on a business and creating a supply chain to pitching ideas to investors. In its short history, the incubator has helped launch more than 40 ventures.
“Our incubator is the chance to really test, pivot, and retest new business models while surrounded by mentors and peers,” says Siri Terjesen, Director of the AU Center for Innovation. “This is experiential learning at its best.”
The program currently supports more than twenty business ventures with an increasing number of them focused on helping make the world a better place. “In any given year, about 10-25% of our ventures will have a purpose-driven mission,” says Terjesen. “Most of the time, these started from problems that the students witnessed firsthand.”
That was certainly the case for Belding, a 23-year-old public health major, and Ross, a 20-year-old finance major.
Belding grew up volunteering at her church’s food pantry in her hometown of Pella, Iowa, and by the age of eleven, she had already noticed the problems the pantry had in getting donated food to those who needed it before it spoiled. “We would end up throwing food away because we couldn’t communicate with other non-profits that were in the next town over,” she says. The injustice that people were going hungry when food was available motivated Belding to find a solution.
While still a teenager, Belding had the idea of building an online tool to bridge the communication gap, but she needed help creating it. The summer after she graduated from high school, she teamed up with Grant Nelson, a law student from Iowa who was writing code, and together they developed the MEANS database.
Though the duo launched the database before Belding started at AU, she credits the incubator, which she joined during her freshman year, for MEANS’ huge success. “We really built in the incubator,” says Belding. “The incubator helped us design a strategic plan for the first time, learn how to negotiate, and learn how to pitch as opposed to just present.”
MEANS is now in 48 states and the District of Columbia. “We went from a no-budget, nobody getting paid, skin of our teeth kind of operation to the large scale, about to go international, 2 million pounds of food and counting operation out of a college campus,” she says.
The social venture has not only helped feed people, it has brought acclaim to Belding, who has been recognized by numerous organizations for her work, including being named a CNN hero of the year in 2018.
Like Belding, Ross, now a sophomore at AU, also had the idea for his venture after seeing a problem firsthand. Two years ago, the Poquoson, Virginia, native was hiking on his favorite trail in West Virginia when he noticed that the trail was covered in plastic trash. “I carried fourteen bags of trash away that day,” he said. “I thought, wouldn’t it be nice if it biodegraded on its own.” That’s when the idea of his company, Celise, a manufacturer of biodegradable straws, cups, lids, and cutlery, was born.
A natural entrepreneur, Ross joined the incubator with a microfinancing company that grew to 16 employees. But after his idea for his latest business came about, he decided to leave that company to focus solely on Celise—and business is booming. Ross has already delivered over 300,000 straws and has contracts to deliver another six million by the end of 2019. His straws are in Compass Coffee locations across Washington, DC, and he is currently working on a multi-million-dollar deal for disposable waste products for an international franchise. He has also developed milkshake and smoothie straws for a juice bar franchise.
Ross, too, credits the program, particularly the mentoring and networking opportunities he’s been given, as the secret of his success. “Really, try to give us as many opportunities as possible,” he said. “I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without the incubator,” he said.
While both students are grateful to the incubator for the support its provided for their ventures, their professors and fellow students are also grateful to them. “They inspire so many other students in our incubator and at American University,” says Terjesen. “Maria Rose and Cam are completely focused on making a difference in others’ lives.”