The popular view of an entrepreneur is of a powerful solitary figure – a Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg – who, through force of personality, bends an entire organization to a founding vision.
Gabriella D’Agosto has a more egalitarian perspective. “One thing I really enjoy about entrepreneurship,” she said, “is coming together as a team, brainstorming solutions to all sorts of problems and then translating the best idea into a new design.”
D’Agosto, set to graduate May 18 with a degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Virginia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, first became enthusiastic about entrepreneurship when she took “Engineers as Entrepreneurs,” a class taught by professor Bernard Carlson, chair of the Department of Engineering and Society.
She was part of a team of students from the class that took third place in the Engineering School’s Entrepreneurial Design Competition. They developed a collapsible bicycle helmet featuring D3O, a lightweight smart fabric that becomes rigid nearly instantaneously on impact. “Our thought was that if you could stuff your helmet into your backpack when you weren’t riding, more people would wear one,” she said.
Encouraged by the experience, D’Agosto enrolled in the Technology Entrepreneurship focus of the engineering business minor. She found that if one looks carefully, there are many problems crying out for a solution.
For her Engineering School Capstone project, D’Agosto and her teammates worked on a medical device that could help laparoscopic surgeons more easily remove gall bladders. “Gall bladders change shape after they are detached,” she said. “We’re developing a bag that compresses the organ so it can be drawn more readily through the incision.”
D’Agosto applied the same entrepreneurial spirit as vice president of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers.
“There are many opportunities for SHPE to become involved with people in the community and students on Grounds,” she said. D’Agosto helped the group bring 75 Hispanic students from Northern Virginia and Tidewater to U.Va. in March for a free two-day program on engineering. Called “Juntos Podemos (Together We Can),” the program is designed to encourage the students to pursue a four-year degree program in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.
“It’s been gratifying to hear from high school guidance counselors around Virginia who want to know more about programs we offer,” she said. “Ultimately, I would like to see high schools around the state form their own SHPE chapters so that the college organization can build mentorship programs with them.”
D’Agosto was also involved in supporting the Hispanic presence in the Engineering School. She worked to increase corporate involvement with the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers chapter, opening networking opportunities for members with companies like General Electric and Microsoft. She also organized a low-key luncheon for all Latino undergraduates, graduate and faculty members in the school.
“This year we welcomed our largest Hispanic class to the Engineering School,” she said. “SHPE is trying to build those numbers further by encouraging more Hispanic students to come to the school, by enhancing their sense of community while they are here and by providing better opportunities for their success after graduation.”
The opportunities that D’Agosto has enjoyed as a student in the Engineering School to immerse herself in the entrepreneurial process and to develop her leadership skills have already proved an advantage. Even before she began her last semester, she had accepted a consulting job with Deloitte.
“The experience of working together with people of different backgrounds and with different kinds of expertise has really prepared me for the kinds of situations I will experience as a consultant,” she said. “And it was important to me to discover that I really enjoyed it.”
— By Charlie Feigenoff