When student becomes teacher

Published Jul 10, 2019

The Victoria Entrepreneur Bootcamp (VEB) had such a profound effect on former ‘bootcamper’ Jacinta Gulasekharam that she has wanted to help other students to experience the same life-changing programme ever since. 

General Manager of the successful social enterprise she originally developed at bootcamp—one that’s had positive impact on over 25,000 women to date—Jacinta recently got her wish when she was invited to join the 2019/20 VEB Delivery Team. 

Viclink—the University's commercialisation office—started the first Bootcamp eight years ago, in line with its mission to support entrepreneurial students. Since then, over 180 Victoria University of Wellington graduates have completed the programme, developing entrepreneurial thinking and skillsets that have helped them to secure jobs or start their own businesses—almost a quarter of which are still operating successfully today. 

During the 2016/2017 intake, Jacinta co-founded Dignity—a social enterprise and women's well-being initiative committed to making sanitary items accessible to all Kiwi women—with friend, flatmate and fellow student Miranda Hitchings. 

“Periods are expensive, with sanitary products costing anything up to $15,000 over a woman's lifetime,” says Jacinta. “As students, we understood the financial burden. But when we heard that young girls unable to afford these items were missing school because of it, we knew we had to help.” 

She says the VEB really helped them to shape their ideas. “We went into Bootcamp thinking that we were going to start developing an app in week one. But our mentor encouraged us to talk to women about their experiences first, which ended up completely changing our direction.” 

After carrying out extensive research and customer interviews, the pair realised a buy-one-give-one model was the most beneficial and sustainable way forward. 

“Under this model, a workplace buys a bulk order of pads and tampons for its staff, and for every sanitary product they purchase, another is delivered—free—to one of over 100 schools and youth organisations in need, all over New Zealand,” says Jacinta.

She says that progressive, values-based businesses understand that providing sanitary items to their female employees is just like providing coffee when some people are caffeine-free, or putting hand towels in the bathroom: “It's just another office consumable.” 

Jacinta is quick to point out that without the VEB, Dignity simply would not exist. “The confronting mentoring sessions, and the expertise provided by Bootcamp partners such as Chapman Tripp were just invaluable. Learning to develop resilience to setbacks, and working out how to play to our own strengths and weaknesses were just some of the many soft-skills we learned that helped us not only to launch, but also to persevere with, our business.” 

That perseverance saw them continue to build Dignity part-time for two years—even when both Jacinta and Miranda secured full-time jobs with small businesses straight out of Bootcamp. 

After signing up a number of major corporate clients—including Flick Electric, ANZ Bank and Xero—Jacinta started working in the business full-time three months ago.

And while she says the goal now is to double their client-base, she and Miranda have always viewed impact as being more important than money. “We’re currently working to extend the reach of our impact by expanding our beneficiary base to include the Red Cross, Family Planning clinics and the Pacific Islands.” 

Being her own boss will allow Jacinta to “flex her hours” and still find time to act as a facilitator and mentor at the next VEB when it starts on 11 November. She says she will help the Delivery Team to run the weekly sessions during the 12-week programme, and mentor some of the teams through the “mental whiplash” she expects will occur. 

“I’ll have incredible empathy for the students because I know exactly how hard, draining and stressful it can be some days—but obviously I also know how rewarding it can be as well,” says Jacinta. “I’m hoping that my first-hand experience of what they’re going through will help me to know when they need to be challenged, and when they need to be encouraged.” 

Emily Grinter, Viclink’s Student Entrepreneurship Manager and VEB Programme Manager, says that the VEB Delivery Team consists of a number of successful entrepreneurs with a range of different experiences. “As a fairly recent graduate herself, Jacinta’s experience will be especially relatable for our students,” says Emily. “Dignity gives us the perfect example to use when talking to them about how to build a startup whilst balancing full-time work and study.” 

Mark Loveard, Chief Operating Officer for Victoria University of Wellington, and formerly a member of Dignity's advisory board, agrees. “It's great to see Jacinta's Bootcamp journey come full circle," he says. "Her willingness to share everything she's learned first-hand about setting up and running a business—both from Bootcamp and real life experience—will really enhance the Bootcamp experience for our future student entrepreneurs. We’re delighted that she’s been so successful and is generously giving back!” 

Know someone who might be interested in applying for the Victoria Entrepreneur Bootcamp 2019/20 intake? 

Apply now (before applications close on 18 August 2019), visit the website, or email Emily Sullivan for more information.