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Passion and Engineering Combine for First-Time Entrepreneur

Insights from Caitlin Parrucci ’15, Founder and CEO, Equine Design

Only recently did I realize I am an entrepreneur.

Maybe it had something to do with losing my father right before my junior year. Maybe it had something to do with being rejected from a project team. Maybe it was the role models in my life who ran their own businesses. But something clicked by my senior year at Cornell and I wanted to pursue a career that would make me happy — and I would have to create it myself.

I received my B.S. in mechanical engineering in 2015 and am now pursuing my MEng at Cornell. I love the mathematical and problem-solving aspects of engineering, but have often felt lost under pressure to choose a “more traditional” career path in aerospace, defense, or similar large industries. My dad was diagnosed with bone and liver cancer in May after my sophomore year and his passing in 2013 was a brutal shock. Shortly afterward, I applied for the Baja project team, an internationally competitive off-road vehicle build group, with a strong resume coming from a job as a car mechanic. I was rejected before interviewing — they suggested I was only tagging along after my boyfriend who was on the team. Although mechanical engineering is male dominated, I had never encountered such outright sexism until that point.

The combination of challenging life events offered clarity to my dad’s words of wisdom: “Spread your wings and fly, don’t be afraid to pursue your passions.” My passion for horses spurred an idea for improving their health and well-being. I took a product design class and the two came together: I would create products for the equine industry.

Caitlin Parrucci ’15 made a presentation in September 2015 at Rev: Ithaca Startup Works for her idea for a startup company to develop products to improve the health and well-being of horses. Her company, Equine Design, was successful in obtaining a grant from Rev, a business incubator and partnership among Cornell, Ithaca College, and Tompkins Cortland Community College.

In the year since, my company Equine Design has progressed from an underdeveloped idea into a commercially viable business poised to improve the health and well-being of horses. My foray into entrepreneurship sometimes takes on a life of it’s own. Prototypes are being tested in barns, I have assembled a team, we are planning for next year’s round of trade shows, and Equine Design is newly incorporated. At times, the task list seems endless.

I was positioned to both add to and greatly benefit from the conversation around women in entrepreneurship at the Women Redefining Entrepreneurship and Leadership Conference, which was held on February 6 in Kennedy Hall. Advice came at the right moment, with much needed wisdom, affirmation of my startup’s process, and a few surprises.

The keynote speaker, Laura Danckwerth, director of software engineering and new product development and president of eBay’s Women in Technology, had very tangible, immediately applicable advice. “The tough part is letting others see who you really are. If you are not able to be yourself, you are probably in the wrong role or the wrong environment,” she said.

In my own experience, I gave up my search for a place in big industry engineering and moved on to solve a problem that I’m passionate about. It’s worth the risk. I heard my dad’s advice through Danckwerth: be vulnerable, be passionate, and don’t underplay your accomplishments. Be an authentic leader.

Another high-impact part of the conference was the “Scaling Up Your Small Business” panel with Chelsey Kingsley, of Kingsley Quality Woodworking; Heather Lane, of Purity Ice Cream; and Amy Zarbock, of Ithaca-to-Go. They are living the challenges of owning a small business — they are where I want to be. They affirmed that I can be a leader for my own values, my own reasons.

Kingsley spoke about maintaining a sense of integrity and making sure your work is your best work, points that resonate deeply with my own aspirations. The panel was full of practical advice laced with encouragement.

“I am rigorous about having a to-do list, but I do not beat myself up when I don’t get something done,” said Lane.

Zarbock has a week to week plan but spoke to always looking ahead. “If you are not looking five years out, there’s someone else in your industry who is.”

Kingsley made the point that having a level of integrity makes you credible and builds trust. She reiterated something that is a core value of Equine Design — be fanatical about your quality. As Kingsley said, “I want to go to bed with the peace of mind that I am living to the fullest, that my values shine through everything I do.”

For Caitlin Parrucci ’15, the opportunity to meet with, and learn from, entrepreneurs was one of the highlights of the Women Redefining Entrepreneurship and Leadership Conference.

The panel “Biases and Stereotypes Women Face” was the real surprise of the conference for me. I expected a discussion on biases and stereotypes to be negative, one-sided, or emotional. Instead, it was reasonable, data centered, and opinions were framed as just that, opinions — an unbiased discussion on biases.

“Know the research. Know that research shows people lie to females more in negotiation, go into negotiation prepared with this data,” explained Michele Williams, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the ILR School.

This conference follows the long line of resources I have had access to through Cornell. I first tested the concept for Equine Design in a product design course. Adding business courses to my program, I was able to flesh out my business model. I built the first prototype in theSouthern Tier Startup Alliance’s Hardware Accelerator in the summer of 2015 at Rev: Ithaca Startup Works. Both STSA and Rev are, in part, made possible by Cornell. Currently, Equine Design is a member company of eLab, Cornell’s capstone program for student startups.

Looking back, it all makes sense. I learned from my parents — who both had their own businesses — that I did not have to work for a prestigious corporation to be successful. I spent my life building expertise on horses, their behavior, and the equine industry. Having always enjoyed finding creative solutions to difficult problems, I pursued engineering. I had extremely supportive mentors who helped me identify my path to apply the math and problem solving of engineering to my passion.

I am deep in the process of starting a business and far enough along to see the near future.

It was not always this clear. I attended this conference to gain perspective around my own story. Perhaps I will be asked to speak at a future Women Redefining Entrepreneurship and Leadership conference and will relay my story to others who need help finding their path.

Caitlin Parrucci ’15 is founder and CEO of Equine Design, a company dedicated to saving equine lives. Her premier product measures a horse’s water intake — a key indicator for colic, a leading cause of horse fatalities. The Women Redefining Entrepreneurship and Leadership Conferencewas organized by Rev: Ithaca Startup Works and the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Instituteat the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management. The Passenger to Pilotentrepreneurship program offered through Rev is designed to give women business owners support, accountability, access, strategy development, and a road map to achieving the next level of success.

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