An Insider View of spark, UMD’s First Idea Festival


Lakshmi in the front right in a photo with her spark team, “Steam Dream.”

by: Lakshmi Shyamakrishnan

As someone who is unsure of what she wants to do after college, I’ve had to be a bit experimental in the activities I pursue. I was already in the Smith School of Business, but I did not know where my talents or interests lay within the department. I decided to do something I had never been comfortable with, which was to just approach someone and ask for ideas. I caught up with one of my mentors in the Smith School, Ms. Kristin LaRiviere, and spoke with her about my dilemma. She encouraged me to experiment with entrepreneurship, the next step of which was to visit Dingman Fridays at the Dingman Center. These walk-in office hours were created especially for innovative and entrepreneurial students like me, who were unsure of how to carry on with an idea once it’s been hatched. I met with Ms. Sara Herald, Associate Director of Social Entrepreneurship, who introduced me to the event, spark: Where Fearless Ideas Start, which took place from Friday, October 7th to Saturday, October 8th. spark was a way for me to expand upon my talents and see if I was really cut out to be an entrepreneur. All the participants seemed eager and willing to start their projects as quickly as possible, but first we had to learn the basics.

There were about 70 students, both undergrads and graduate students, in one lecture alex08hall. Associate Vice President of Innovation and Entrepreneurship Dean Chang led a lecture about working step-by-step to think of a problem and come up with possible solutions. We started out by taking apart the stigma surrounding ‘Mondays’ and problems average college students face at the beginning of every week. Most people touched upon the fact that it is extremely difficult to simply rise out of bed at 6:30 a.m. sharp. We split up into pairs and delved into figuring out a way to make our partner’s Monday mornings a little more bearable. My partner’s issue was physically rising from their bed, so I thought of the solution of a built-in alarm clock in their bed, where the entire bedstead vibrated to a soft and melodious tune, but slowly amped up to rock-and-roll and heavy metal to ensure that the sleeper is fully awake. To put a cherry on top of the cake, the top half of the bed would automatically move up a minute after the alarm clock goes off, thus setting the sleeper in a sitting position, coercing them from a sleep to a wake state. It would be pretty awesome if that idea turned out to be a thing, to be honest.

alex24Afterwards, over pizza and sodas, we were free to mingle with the rest of the participants. Even before team formations were announced, I had found my team. Our period of networking was fast-paced, enjoyable, and easy. Every single person wanted to be friendly, and wanted to find people who could help them expand upon their ideas, if they had them. Not everyone did; I was one of the few who came to the event with even so much as a half-formulated plan. But that was the great thing about spark, so I found out: if you did not have an idea at the start, you sure did once you left for the first evening.

Before the formulation of teams was official, we had to attend incubators—smaller classroom settings to get down into the detail of the subjects at hand—which consisted of two rounds of three possible choices each on what we wanted to make an impact on. I attended ‘Sustainability’ in the first round, and ‘Education’ in the second. In the ‘Sustainability’ incubator, we learned the importance of preservation and how to ensure that, when you create something great, it stays long after you are gone. We came up with ideas about things in our neighborhoods, our homes, our schools, that needed to be sustained, that needed to be preserved. Students wrote on Post-It notes sustainability issues varying from “electricity” to “student interest,” and created solutions for these problems ranging from “solar-power” to “more fun activities in schools.” At the end of each incubator, we discussed with the facilitators the various problems and the possible solutions paired to them. Doing so, to me, was exciting and riveting, discussing the possibility of change for the better in this world. I felt as though I wanted to start expanding upon my service idea right then and there. But, we had one more incubator to go to.


My second incubator was ‘Education,’ which really centered in on what change I wanted to make in this world. Here it was more of the same: what problems faced future generations, and how could we fix those issues? The incubator idea seemed helpful and inclusive, given that the instructors brought in Smith students—those who had braced the risk of starting their own business and had succeeded in doing so—to talk to us. We learned that beginning your own business venture was not an easy task, but if done correctly, it would be worth everything in the end. You cannot simply jump into the business though—you needed a team, resources, and flexibility, since things change constantly in the world such that keeping to a strict guide would pretty much be useless.

After the first night, we all went home with our heads buzzing, excited for the day ahead. When I arrived back at Van Munching the following day at 9:45 a.m., I noticed about half of the people that showed up the previous day had not returned. Though this meant the competition was lowered, it also meant that the remaining teams would amp up their game. My team and I immediately reconnected and began figuring out our problem and its solution. We were told to “Fall in love with the problem first, and then figure out the solution later,” and so we did.

I think my team’s main problem was communication. There was no explicit leader of the group so we ended up talking over each other often and digressing every now and then. Mentors came to sit with us at our table and listened to our conversing, offering ideas and bringing us back to the main point at hand whenever need be.

I became quite competitive, and forgot that the whole point of the event was to have fun and learn image5one’s strengths and weaknesses. I suppose I realized soon thereafter that my weaknesses included being unable to relax. We ended up not being in the top 3 teams, but once the stress was over I was then free to mull over our presentation and product. I immediately began thinking up new ways to fix our idea, so when I heard about Idea Shell—a five-week term of classes to expand upon and actually create our product/service—this excited me, and I am now currently a part of it. I believe I have found my calling, in that I really want to create my own startup, and spark helped lead me towards figuring this out. The entire experience overall was enjoyable, and I got the chance to meet a lot of great people because of it. It was wonderful to see all the minds moving together and gears spinning as students actively sought information to better their ideas and make them into something great. I only hope I get the chance to actually begin my own business. If I do, I will definitely have spark to thank for it!

Lakshmi Shyamakrishnan is a Freshman at the Robert H. Smith School of Business, currently double-majoring in Business Management and Economics. She has big dreams for the future and plans to accomplish everything, no matter how difficult, but she knows she cannot get very far without a team. A quote she now likes to live by is “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with friends.” She used to be someone who worked alone, but because of spark, she has learned that working with others is how to progress and improve upon her ideas because of the expansion on creativity and differing mindsets. Lakshmi plans to start her own business venture in the future, and hopes that all who have supported her will continue to do so for her ideas on bettering the world.

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One thought on “An Insider View of spark, UMD’s First Idea Festival

  1. […] for solutions to problems they care about. The event gave 75 students like Smith School freshman Lakshmi Shyamakrishnan a convenient platform to explore how they could make an impact on the world by launching a […]

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