Will these two students become the next big business entrepreneurs?

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May 29, 2019

By Mike Killeen

2 guys holding pickaxe tool

Saint John’s University students Bardia Bijani Aval (left) and Joe Caughey display their Pickaxe tool developed with resources provided by the Donald J. McNeely Center for Entrepreneurship. Photos by Jillian Schulz '20.

Around the Donald McNeely Center for Entrepreneurship, Bardia Bijani Aval and Joe Caughey are known as the “Odd Couple.”

Bijani Aval grew up in Gothenburg, Sweden; Caughey in Shoreview, Minnesota. Bijani Aval is a numerical computation major at Saint John’s University; Caughey is majoring in global business leadership.

“We have no common interests, we have no common classes, we have nothing to talk about,” Caughey said.

“We’ve grown to become really good friends, but at the same time, we do not have anything in common,” Bijani Aval said.

But they do share one thing in common.

It’s their student business venture, Triink LLC. And, they’re quick to point out that if it wasn’t for the Entrepreneur Scholars program offered through the McNeely Center, their business would have never gotten off the ground.

“I don’t think many of the things we’ve dealt with would have been possible had it not been for the resources we’ve gotten through the McNeely Center – especially the mentors that we’ve gotten access to,” Bijani Aval said.

“The idea of entrepreneurship can’t be taught. It has to be done,” Caughey said. “The only way to learn entrepreneurship is to launch entrepreneurship. What the program provides is to give you the time and the resources to do entrepreneurship.

“One thing that’s beautiful about the McNeely Center and our program in particular compared to many other programs is we allow students of any background, any major, to be a part of the entrepreneur cohort,” Caughey added.

The American beer tool

Triink’s first product is the Pickaxe. It’s the size of a room key, easily fits on a key ring, looks like a pickaxe and is geared toward beer and spirits enthusiasts.

Using a Kickstarter campaign, Triink raised $8,376, or 111 percent of its goal, during a period from March 5-April 9.

“The money raised will go toward making our project a reality,” Bijani Aval said.

Triink is now working on fulfilling the 500 Pickaxes sold by July. Later this summer, an online store will be set up on their website, where the Pickaxe and other coming products from Triink will be regularly available to the public. The Pickaxe will retail for $17.

To get to this point, however, took a lot of work.

“Since this was our first crack at making a product, it took a lot of prototypes,” Bijani Aval said.

How many? About 250 prototypes, with maybe 800-1,000 3D prints used to help design the tool.

The Pickaxe is a multi-use tool that can be used to open bottles and cans. It also has several other uses, including a screwdriver and a box opener.

“What makes our company special – and the tools that we make special – is that we target people that haven’t necessarily thought about using multi-purpose tools before,” Bijani Aval said. “Our intention is to fulfill an intended purpose for an intended audience and doing so in the most efficient way possible.

“We really emphasize portability with most of our tools,” Bijani Aval continued. “As Joe usually says, the best tool is the one you have on you. It’s just reaching in your pocket and there it is.”

Opening minds to questions any entrepreneur faces is one of the things the McNeely Center does, according to Margrette Newhouse, the center’s director. She said it becomes a case of “trying to be more explicit about where innovation and entrepreneurship happens.”

“Being able to see the skill set that’s needed isn’t always a business skill set,” Newhouse said. “It’s taking risks and trying new things and going outside your comfort zone. A lot of what we do is helping build confidence, and seeing the possibilities in a bigger way of what’s ahead of them – both for their ventures and for themselves.”

Mentoring plays a key role

When those questions can’t be answered by the students or faculty, Entrepreneur Scholars can turn to a group of mentors offered by the McNeely Center.

Both Bijani Aval and Caughey agree that those mentors have been instrumental in getting Triink started.

“They have many, many different backgrounds, and they all have their own areas of expertise,” Bijani Aval said. “It’s that variety of expertise that has really been valuable to us. In the case of legal stuff, Bob Foster has been the person. And, in the case of creativity, we’ve had people like Ed Driscoll (’83) and Jason Hardie (’06) who have been monumental in our progress.”

Caughey mentioned one example concerning Foster, a 1972 SJU graduate and a lawyer by trade who is chair of the McNeely Center Advisory Board.

“We were in the Twin Cities for a business trip, and we could not fit him into our schedule that day. We absolutely needed to talk to him,” Caughey said. “He was actually flying out to Africa that night.

“He left work early, came to the restaurant we were already at, had a glass of wine and we were able to get the answer we needed on some legal matters.”

They also put together an advisory board of 12 people who were directly related to the McNeely Center.

“We realized we need some help. We needed some perspective on this,” Bijani Aval said. “We put some people together that we’ve really been able to count on throughout this path.”

In addition to McNeely Center staff and associates, they received a big boost from Adam Konczewski, information technology specialist at CSB and SJU. Caughey said he walked into Konczewski’s office at Alcuin Library, checking out the 3D printer.

“He (Konczewski) goes, ‘When are you planning to come in?’ I say, probably Sunday night. He goes, ’What time?’ I say maybe 7 p.m. He says, ‘I’ll be here.’

“We were there until almost midnight. We thanked him, and said he didn’t have to come in. And, he goes, ‘Joe, we’re here because you guys are here. Students come first. That’s our job. If you need me on a Sunday night, that’s my job to be here.’

“That’s the kind of staff we have access to here at Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s,” Caughey said.

Center is open to anyone

Here’s the best part of the McNeely Center – it’s open to help any student at CSB or SJU, regardless of major.

“It not just for the Entrepreneur Scholars. There’s plenty of students on both campuses that have businesses, and the McNeely Center has been a part of that and helped them,” Caughey said. “All of the things that we have access to (at the center), anybody on campus has access to it.”

One of the students from outside the center who helped Bijani Aval and Caughey was Justin Blake, who graduated May 12 from SJU with a degree in global business leadership.

Blake was responsible for all of Triink’s marketing materials, which includes a campaign video, short commercials, miscellaneous graphics and product packaging design.

“He is amazing at what he does,” Bijani Aval said. “He’s further proof of how students outside the McNeely Center also can have entrepreneurial mindsets.”

But the Entrepreneur Scholars program is the showcase of the center.

In 16 years, the McNeely Center has helped students create 58 start-up businesses. The 16th cohort of Entrepreneur Scholars begins next fall, and 203 scholars from 23 different majors have passed through the three-semester program.

“I don’t think there’s a better spot to do entrepreneurship or to launch a business than there is at a liberal arts school,” Caughey said.

“In our case, it was really emphasized that if you’re a part of the team, you’re going to be able to get more stuff done,” Bijani Aval said. “It would have been impossible for both of us to launch this on our own.”