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From girls in stem to chicken wings: UNC students keep pace with booming business startups

Women&girls in science.jpg

Fourth grader Kaiya Cassidy Lee Duhart tests her motor during International Day of Women and Girls in Science, an event that Pink STREAM held on Franklin Street on Friday, Feb. 11, 2022. 

At one point in high school, Rida Bayraktar realized she was the only girl on her robotics team.

The experience led her to question why robotics wasn't as popular among girls her age.

“I realized looking back into my childhood, I was generally playing with dolls, Barbies, those kinds of things, whereas my male peers were all playing with their own robots, cars, Legos, those kinds of things, that actually prepared them for these kinds of careers,” Bayraktar said.

In 2018, she founded Pink STREAM, an organization that empowers young women to pursue an education and career in science, technology, robotics, engineering and math.

Bayraktar, now a junior at UNC, is one of many students who are running their own businesses.

'Be part of the solution'

As business applications nationally have soared over the past year, student entrepreneurs at UNC have been keeping pace.

UNC had 538 active startups founded by students, faculty or recent alumni as of July 2021, according to the Innovate Carolina Innovation and Entrepreneurship Impact dashboard. UNC-affiliated ventures earn more than $14 billion annually and employ nearly 13,000 people in North Carolina.

The Chapel Hill community helps support student businesses through initiatives including The PITCH, the Launch Chapel Hill Accelerator and the 1789 Student Venture Fund.

The PITCH is an event space on Franklin Street that provides low-risk opportunities for aspiring student entrepreneurs. On Jan. 31, it held a launch for a student-run business, Blue House Cafe.

UNC's student innovation and entrepreneurship hub, 1789 offers free membership and various types of support for students.

In 2021, Bayraktar's organization received the 1789 Student Venture Fund. Pink STREAM hosts events, programs and classes for K-8 girls in robotics, app design and 3D printing, among others.

She said she designed her classes to be only for girls and to bring in female instructors in order to facilitate an empowering environment and break down the gender barriers built around STEM careers.

On Friday, International Day of Women and Girls in Science, Pink STREAM held an event on Franklin Street, which included both speakers and an educational workshop.

While the organization may take a lot of work, Bayraktar said it isn’t a burden.

“It’s more like a hobby for me to work on these things,” she said. “Always after I interact with the girls, I feel energized to keep going. It’s more like a relaxing thing for me between my classes and school work.”

Bayraktar, who attended primary school in Turkey, said the cultural differences between there and America helped her to realize the issues women in STEM face are global — and that they were issues that she could take steps to solving through Pink STREAM.

“Seeing that this is actually a global problem that institutions across the world are trying to solve was really life-changing for me,” she said. “As someone who experienced this issue at different levels in different places, I need to be part of the solution as well.”

'UNC allowed this to happen'

Since 2014, 1789 has supported more than 260 student ventures. Those ventures have gained more than $28 million in revenue combined.

Another recipient of the 1789 Student Venture Fund — which provides early-stage startup applicants with funding for their project — is QUVI, a water bottle sanitizer. Co-founders Kush Jain, Alekhya Majety and Harshul Makwana created a reusable water bottle cleaner which utilizes UV-C light to kill 99.9 percent of germs in less than a minute.

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Majety said 1789 funding and entrepreneurship opportunities at the University were crucial to the company’s success.

“Truly, UNC allowed this to happen,” she said. “We wouldn’t have been able to do it without all the people backing us and supporting us.”

Jain said the pandemic provided opportunities for QUVI, including being able to manage time more effectively with virtual, instead of in-person, meetings. 

When the pandemic began, Jain said, QUVI pivoted the product to focus more on sanitization, and it helped to create a more comprehensive product.

Despite resources offered through the University, Black, Indigenous and other students of color often lack access to or are unaware of the services available.

Sherrod Crum, a UNC student and co-founder of the Black Entrepreneur Initiative at UNC, said the University’s entrepreneurship arena, including events 1789 hosts, is not racially diverse. He said he founded BEI to bridge the access gap between Black students and campus entrepreneurship resources.

“Especially here at Carolina, the entrepreneurship space is very lopsided as far as racial demographics,” Crum said. “If you go to a pitch challenge, it’s rare that you would ever see someone that’s Black.”

BEI at UNC promotes grant, internship and event opportunities for Black-owned ventures.

More information on student startups and support for them can be found on UNC's Carolina Startups webpage.


@DTHCityState | 

Ethan E. Horton

Ethan E. Horton is the 2023-24 city & state editor at The Daily Tar Heel. He has previously served as a city & state assistant editor and as the 2023 summer managing editor. Ethan is a senior pursuing a double major in journalism and media and political science, with a minor in history.