UT alumna creates entrepreneurship opportunities for students in new position at Blackstone LaunchPad

Amarachi Ngwakwe

Frustrated by the lack of resources available for liberal arts students to explore entrepreneurship, Nina Ho marched into the office f the former director of the Liberal Arts Honors program, Dr. Larry Carver, to air her grievances.

He said, “What are you going to do about it?”

Later that year, Ho, who graduated in 2016, founded Envision Austin, an entrepreneurship pitch competition in the College of Liberal Arts. 

“Liberal arts (students), given their focus on the humanities and their ability to view problems from a very multifaceted lens, are the perfect profile for a social entrepreneur,” Ho said. “But at that time, social entrepreneurship wasn’t even a topic on campus.”

Envision Austin competitors work in small groups to develop a business plan that addresses a social issue in the Austin or UT community. Groups then present their pitch to a panel of judges, and the top three pitches receive seed money for their organization. 

But Ho didn’t want progress to stop after she graduated. 

Now, as assistant director of UT’s Blackstone LaunchPad, Ho said she is using her role to make the entrepreneurship space more diverse and inclusive across the Forty Acres.

Blackstone LaunchPads powered by Techstars, a national program brought to UT in 2017 located in the Flawn Academic Center, is housed under the School of Undergraduate Studies. One of 24 Blackstone campus centers in the world, it serves as the “Google Maps” of all things related to entrepreneurship on campus, connecting students with on-campus resources, collaborative coworking spaces, small events and mentorship. 

Ho said she now uses the frustration she felt as a student to motivate her efforts to diversify the disciplines and backgrounds represented in entrepreneurship at Blackstone.

Program coordinator Shannon Lundquist has worked at Blackstone for over a year and said Ho brings a new life to the space and has redesigned the room to encourage more student interaction. 

Coming in, Ho said one of her main goals was to empower students. One of the first things she changed in her position was the title of Blackstone’s undergraduate interns from “student ambassadors” to “innovation fellows.” 

“(They) aren’t just ambassadors,” Ho said. “They are solving problems. I (want to) empower our fellows, to treat Blackstone like a startup and help us solve our core business challenges — everything from marketing, venue management, community building (to) operations.”

Economics senior Seun Ibitoye has worked at Blackstone for three semesters and said Ho actively tries to connect students with their interests. 

“She’s taking a lot of time to understand us innovation fellows, what (we’re) interested in (and) what (we) value so that you are working on things that you truly care about,” Ibitoye said. “I’m into (human resources), and she allowed me to (lead) recruitment for junior fellows.”

Ho said she is not sure if staff and faculty are aware of how talented students are and is using her position to leverage opportunities for students within the program. 

“For the Kendra Scott workshop, I’m like, ‘Let’s hire and pay a student videographer and student photographer,’” Ho said. “I (also) pulled in two students to become innovation fellows from Texas Creative.”

Students shouldn’t feel the pressure to be experts in entrepreneurship before coming to Blackstone. Ho said her main goal is to empower students to problem solve in creative ways.

“Whether they go off and start their own company or whether they learn a lot from being in our space, talking to our mentors, being around other students, there’s value for everyone,” Ho said.

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to correct the number of Blackstone campus centers in the world.