An optiMizer’s retrospective with Aashka Soni, co-founder of Detroit Entrepreneurship Network, optiMize Cohort 1 Fellow

In April 2013, when we awarded grants to five project teams in the first optiMize Social Innovation Challenge, one of those grants went to Detroit Entrepreneurship Network, co-founded by Aashka Soni and Andrew Janatka.

Five years later, Aashka is working at Google and DEN is still going strong — with former participants now taking organizational leadership roles.

Aashka spoke with two optiMize student leaders, Zoya Gurm and Natalie Ricklefs, for today’s feature.

Enter Zoya, Natalie, and Aashka.

Zoya: To get started, can you tell us a little about your project?

Aashka: Yeah! I started DEN– Detroit Entrepreneurship Network. Basically, it is bringing together students of various backgrounds and from different parts of metro-Detroit in order to start businesses, school organizations, or clubs. I think it is important for children to be taught how to work with a diverse group of people at a really young age in order for this mentality to be in their minds early on in their lives. I also felt that it was important to connect individuals from both the city and suburbs of Detroit to facilitate these connections.

Z: It’s a really awesome project. How did you get involved in optiMize and how has it impacted your project?

A: My co-founder Andrew had known Jeff Sorensen and he began telling us about optiMize. After hearing about it, we were like okay, I guess we’ll give it a shot. By participating, we started to realize that optiMize was like an adult version of DEN. optiMize asks how can we encourage college students to pursue their ideas along with providing a space to work on these ideas. With DEN, we were giving high school students the same kind of process and space with while ending with a pitch competition where they can share their ideas.

It was pretty crazy how that first year we really relied on optiMize to help formulate our idea, and we still use very similar pitch decks going forward that we first built at optiMize. optiMize allowed us to meet so many good mentors and people who have helped DEN throughout the years. And actually, up until last year, optiMize funding sustained DEN for four full years because we were so good with allocating the funding we were given.

Z: What is your role in DEN now? How are you still involved?

A: I now sit as an advisor. Last week, I had the DEN executive team to come to my office at Google so they could share with me what challenges they were running into. I provided them with advice and was able to show them what it’s like to work at Google. It is really crazy to think that the students that are now the executive team of DEN actually used to be high school students in the program. It’s exciting because now they’re coming to me and pitching me on what they think the next vision for DEN should be.

Natalie: And how are you still involved in the optiMize community?

A: I’ve stayed in touch with the people I met in optiMize and participated in projects they’re running post-college. I also have had the opportunity this year to be a mentor for the Challenge Teams.

One of the reasons I was so excited to move back to Michigan for my job was because I knew the optiMize community was back here. Now that I’ve settled down a bit, I have the time to come back, hang out, and learn from the students and the problems they are trying to address through their projects. These issues are very different than those we were facing just five years ago.

Z: Going off that, what are some of the things you have learned from optiMize that you now apply in what you do at Google?

A: I would say the number one thing is how to prepare for a pitch, which is really what I do day in and day out. optiMize enabled me to assess the details and values I need to focus on. It also gave me a place to prototype and test my hypotheses.

Another thing that optiMize has created is a strong program around is Design Thinking — the whole workshop model really seems to stick to it. It basically helps individuals learn how to test something really quickly. When I’m trying to get my advertising agencies to adopt, let’s say a YouTube product, I’m really just testing it with a small section of YouTube and seeing how they react before I pitch them a large dollar amount. Overall, I think many skills that I learned through optiMize are able to translate directly to what I do now.

Z: To wrap up, do you have any advice for the students in Cohort 6 right now?

A: I would say go in with open ears and an open mind. When you’re meeting people, you’re not meeting them with a goal in mind. I have found that the conversations I had spontaneously and through the social events, such as in between the workshops and during the breaks, are when I met some of my very good friends and got the best ideas. I’ve met such good friends here. I still joke with them that we’re all going to start a business together when we retire!

For more information on DEN, visit their Facebook page.

And if you enjoyed this interview, you can find more optiMize Fellow stories on our Instagram@socialinnovators.