StartupBus – Exploring Entrepreneurship on the Voyage of a Lifetime!

Spiffy the interplanetary journalist next to Madelena Mak of StartupBus who is wearing a hat.

Hi all, I’m Spiffy. As an Interplanetary Journalist, I’m thrilled to be here on Planet Earth interviewing some amazing entrepreneurs and leaders for Nasdaq’s Pride month. Today, I’m talking to an explorer in her own right, Madelena Mak!

SPIFFY: Hi Madelena! Thanks for joining me today, could you tell me about the challenge you’re addressing?

Madelena: Of course, Spiffy. But first I’ve got a question for YOU. Do you think you have what it takes to build your dream tech company? 

SPIFFY: I think so! I’ve never tried :)

Madelena: The thing is, big ideas can only become reality with a dream team of amazing talents, and to build a dream team you need an unforgettable adventure that bonds everyone together.

Equal parts entrepreneurship boot camp and road trip, StartupBus is the legendary startup competition that challenges top tier talents to hop on a bus and conceive, build, and launch a startup in just 5 days. Yes, you heard it right - you will build your company from scratch in 5 days - on a bus jam-packed with people who are as awesome as you are!

We are here to help ambitious and talented folks realize their dreams by empowering them to take their very first step towards their dream startup. We believe that entrepreneurship cannot be taught, but it can be learned through unique experiences.

SPIFFY: And that’s certainly a unique experience. Where does the motivation to do StartupBus come from?

Madelena: It’s not easy to make it in America as a transgender immigrant of color - let alone survive at all. I feel extremely fortunate to come across StartupBus during the formative years of my career, and I want to give back to my communities and provide them with the same opportunities that I had received.

StartupBus had helped me grow as a leader in the tech industry tremendously. After I first rode on the bus in 2014, it had connected me to an open, generous, and insanely awesome community of "Buspreneurs", which include founders of great startups such as Instacart, LISNR, and Major League Hacking. Altogether, our alumni startups have raised more than USD$2.8 billion since 2010.

The new friends I met on the bus had given me numerous opportunities in the years since (and still giving). We built a few startups with a good run and won a lot of hackathons together. I was invited to speak at Google and Facebook NYC headquarters, and was featured on the StartUp Podcast, NBC News, and Diversity In Action magazine - all because of StartupBus. And right now I'm helping another StartupBus alum to build a new top-secret product.

StartupBus is a community of tech pioneers, and I want our community to continue to foster the next generation of pioneers in tech, going boldly where no startups had gone before. 😉

Colleen Lavin with reporter Eric Mennel on the New York bus going thru Blue Ridge Mountains in 2017

Photo of Colleen Lavin with reporter Eric Mennel on the New York bus going thru Blue Ridge Mountains in 2017 (Image Courtesy of Madelena Mak)

SPIFFY: They’re like some space explorers I’ve met! How do you use the Bus to make the world more equitable?

Madelena: Great question, we worked hard in the past few years to create a more equitable world for more diverse tech talents, by giving them a chance to thrive and build a startup of their own.

We had launched special edition buses, such as the IBM Blockchain bus exclusively for Women, Transgender, Gender Non-Conforming tech talents, and the Advancing Black Entrepreneurs bus for connecting Black tech talents across historically Black communities in the US.

SPIFFY: I hear that’s much needed in the tech industry. With everything going on, have you reached any milestones with your efforts?

Madelena: The tech industry – and our country – is now waking up to the inequity caused by centuries of systemic racism and gender discrimination. We learned collectively that action speaks a lot louder than mere words.

Through our Diversity Fellowship Program, we had reached a few significant milestones in the past few years: Almost half of our organizing team and our Buspreneur recruitment were women or gender non-conforming folks, and in 2019, a staggering 60% of our participants were people of color.

SPIFFY: What about a time where you faced failure with StartupBus? What did you learn from it?

Madelena: There was one time during StartupBus 2018, due to a mistake in our trip planning, our bus ran the wrong way through the Blue Ridge Mountains and could not reach our final destination before running out of time! We were dropped off in a parking lot in the middle of nowhere and were at least 3 hours of walking to reach our hotel. Our conductors and I remained calm and quickly devised a plan to hire the only two Ubers running within 30 miles to shuttle our participants to their hotels safely.

While waiting for the cars to come pick us up, my friend Kristine and I watched the crystal clear sky full of stars while laying down on a makeshift bed of luggage. We remembered how we met in 2014, pondered how we came to this point in time, and laughed at our predicament. It was a beautiful moment.

Until now I still hear from some of our participants that we intentionally planned these 'accidents'. They very much enjoyed the ruckus. The lesson here is that even within apparent failures there are great memories to be treasured - and that's a win to me.

SPIFFY: What a beautiful moment! Have you learned something unexpected from someone recently?

Madelena: My little secret during the pandemic is that I have been watching a lot of Star Trek Voyager :). Like StartupBus, it's a crew stuck in a vehicle for an extended period of time, though instead of 5 days they are stuck for 7 years!

Being far from home in a state of uncertainty for 7 years would be daunting for many, and that was exactly why the crew learned how to be *resilient* in order to survive. Life can sometimes feel like a long endless road trip full of setbacks and obstacles, but remember, don't forget to have fun and explore new worlds along the way! It's important to keep your chin up no matter how dire the situation is; be giving and always choose to do the right thing despite you may be running low on dilithium; focus on what we can change and be grateful for the company of friends around us.

SPIFFY: Space flights can feel endless… But I’ve never had a flight that long! Thanks for talking with me today, I’ve had a blast.

Madelena: Me too, Spiffy. Come again soon!

Madelena is a UX/Product Designer and Director with 15 years of experience. She is currently the Senior Director of StartupBus. While StartupBus is on hiatus during COVID-19, we would love to reconnect our world and envision a better future with our awesome tech entrepreneurship road trip when our world begins to heal again someday. (Nominated by ImpactHub)