The Startup UNC Course allows students, faculty, staff and alumni to try their hand at entrepreneurship and take a business idea or scientific invention to market.
You might be surprised to see a TV producer or a linguistic researcher working in the public health field, let alone teaming up to build a company. But when Kathryn Carpenter and Emily Newman met as masters students at the Gillings School of Global Public Health, they realized they would make the perfect team in the course offered through the Kenan-Flagler Business School called Startup UNC.
The new ventures course is designed to help a variety of people in the UNC-Chapel Hill community—students, faculty, staff and alumni—develop business ideas into high-growth companies. Newman was interested in content creation and storytelling in the realm of wellness and health coaching, while Carpenter wanted to focus on health messaging. Their idea: a creative agency for public health organizations whose work impacts behavior change. So what inspires two masters students in public health to start a communications-based venture?
After being introduced to design thinking strategies as tools in the ideation process, students are encouraged “to really sit and be in this kind of messy, unknown place. We don’t have to decide exactly what our plan is today.”
Before becoming a Tar Heel, Carpenter was Fulbright Scholar grantee in Portugal, and a university professor teaching English in Oaxaca, Mexico. As she walked through the streets of Oaxaca, she noticed how health messaging was communicated through colorful street art. Fascinated from a linguistic perspective, she collected the messages with the goal of analyzing their effect on public health outcomes. Carpenter then realized she didn’t just want to analyze the messages—she wanted to learn more about how to make that type of messaging.
“I didn’t know what public health was, much less health communications or marketing, but I applied and found myself at Gillings,” said Carpenter.
For Newman, the journey to Gillings and Startup UNC was no more orthodox than Carpenter’s. She was a reality TV producer in New York City for over a decade, while simultaneously developing “Move Your Booty,” a motivational fitness lifestyle brand. Once back in her home state in North Carolina, her interest in health and wellness led her to also enroll for her graduate studies in public health at Carolina. Using her video and TV production skills to create material for researchers in the school, she realized that she could bring many of the skills from her past career to the public health table.
Over coffee with Carpenter, Newman suggested applying to Startup UNC, which she found through the Gillings e-newsletter. In the midst of exams, travel and a fast approaching deadline, the pair applied and were accepted, beginning their working relationship and entrepreneurial journey. Both students heard about Startup UNC through an email and applied after identifying their common interests—shortly before the deadline.
“Kathryn and I both knew that we just wanted to make stuff. But Kathryn said something really powerful. She was like, ‘I want to do that now, instead of waiting until later, or until graduation,’” said Newman.
They discovered that the course would give them a framework to develop their idea and learn what they didn’t know about the business world of startups.
“The idea is evolving,” said Newman.
And this is only the beginning for these public health and entrepreneurial enthusiasts, who appreciate that the course grants them a great deal of flexibility in their approach. After being introduced to design thinking strategies as tools in the ideation process, they are encouraged “to really sit and be in this kind of messy, unknown place,” Newman said. “We don’t have to decide exactly what our plan is today.”
“But when we do decide exactly what it is, it’ll be the right thing,” said Carpenter. And while they are still operating in a developmental phase, it’s important to both Carpenter and Newman to embrace all the opportunities that they still have as students—taking advantage of the networking possibilities and resources that are available at the University.
“It’s not a traditional class style,” Carpenter says. “I was expecting it to be a top-down, this-is-what-you-do and that’s-how-you-succeed course. But it actually is ‘what does your venture need and what can you work on to develop that.’ It’s a lot more flexible than I was expecting, which is great.”
Carpenter and Newman’s startup will be an agency that creates visual content and messaging so that health organizations can effectively and creatively influence behavior. Unlike other agencies that focus only on the creative elements of design or advertising, or health organizations that know the science but not the art, their agency will offer expertise in both. Their goal is to make sure health organizations don’t miss opportunities to make an impact when they communicate with their audiences. And they believe that effective outreach and messaging will begin with a shared knowledge that goes beyond typical agency aesthetics: They will understand public health professionals because they are public health professionals.
So what’s next? We’re eager to follow Carpenter and Newman on their startup journey. Stay tuned to hear about what’s on the horizon for these two innovators.
If you’re a Carolina student who’s working on a commercial or socially driven startup, you will soon be able to apply to two of UNC-Chapel