Rooney Lee is an MBA student at Darden (Class of 2023) who recently placed second in the U.Va. Entrepreneurship Cup (eCup). With 7 years of experience in HR, Six Sigma, analytics, business transformation, and product, as well as a past internship at Google, Rooney brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the world of entrepreneurship. After winning the eCup, Rooney shared some insights about his experiences as an entrepreneur at Darden.
Could you share a little bit about what led to your interest in entrepreneurship and your experience competing in the UVA Entrepreneurship Cup?
Growing up in a family business has always inspired me to pursue entrepreneurship. Prior to joining Darden, I pitched a business idea at my previous company and secured $1M in funding, and developed a new product. This experience fueled my eagerness to jump into my own business.
Attending the Startup Academy by Batten was my first Darden event, and it introduced me to the multitude of resources available for entrepreneurs, including the eCup. The most valuable part of the experience, however, was meeting Damon DeVito, who not only introduced me to the Darden entrepreneurship ecosystem but also instilled in me the true essence of entrepreneurship. His advice and guidance have been invaluable to me in pursuing my entrepreneurial ambitions.
Participating in the eCup allowed our team to assess our business against the judging criteria, which helped us gather feedback from mentors and users and to shape our vision. What was even more exciting was being part of the thriving entrepreneurial community at UVA. The event felt like a festival of innovation, where like-minded individuals could connect and share their entrepreneurial experiences.
Tell us about Newsublease.com. How did you come up with the idea and what has your process been like to move it to production?
When I was interning at Google, it was a nightmare to find a reliable subletting solution for my mid-term housing needs. After resorting to Airbnb and paying exorbitant rent while still being stuck with my original rent, I knew there had to be a better way. Unfortunately, I soon discovered that over 10 million students and traveling professionals were also struggling with the same problem. It was frustrating to see so many vacant homes going to waste while people were losing money and time. We knew there must be a better way. So, we decided to create a trusted platform that would make subleasing easier and more affordable for everyone.
You chose to participate in both the Spain DWC focused on Design Thinking and the Italy DWC focused on Luxury Goods. Could you share some highlights from those global courses?
During my participation in both the Spain and Italy DWCs, I gained valuable insights and experiences. In Spain, we focused on Design Thinking and explored the legacies of Gaudi, Picasso, and Dali. We learned how creativity and the arts have the power to influence the world and change the way people think. One of the highlights for me was keeping a journal where we documented our experiences and shared our inspirations and feelings with other Darden friends. This journal is filled with my notes, drawings, tickets, and photos, which bring back memories of Barcelona whenever I open it.
In the Italy DWC, we focused on Luxury Goods and had the opportunity to visit some of the world’s most renowned brands, such as Pagani, Ducati, and La Morzocco. We learned how these companies produce the best quality products with an artisanal soul and fantastic design. Additionally, we got to experience how the historical legacy of Bologna and Florence inspired many brands to innovate and grow in unique ways. Overall, both DWCs were amazing experiences that broadened my horizons and taught me valuable lessons about design, creativity, and innovation.
Did you learn any design thinking tools/practices/mindsets during the Spain DWC that influenced the development of newsublease.com? Please explain.
One of the most important lessons was the importance of having an experimental mindset in the creation process. For example, Gaudi experimented with various designs and architectures before building Sagrada Familia. This mindset helped me pivot an existing platform from my previous business to build NewSubleases in one night, and it allowed me to continuously experiment and iterate. If I had been afraid to try or waited for a perfect product, it would never have taken off. Although our product is not perfect yet, I believe that continuous experimentation will lead us to make it right.
Another important lesson was the value of user-centered design. Like Gaudi, Picasso, and Dali, who approached their art and design from the user’s perspective, I continuously seek feedback from our users to create the best possible user experience. This focus on user needs has been essential in creating a transformational experience for our users, who previously relied on unreliable spreadsheets and tedious processes for subleasing.
Finally, the Spain DWC also taught me that creativity is essential to solving complex problems. This has been critical in addressing the legal complexities of subleasing, which many incumbent businesses have given up on. By thinking creatively and exploring new solutions, we are committed to finding a way to help the millions of students and traveling professionals who waste over $50 billion due to the lack of affordable mid-term housing options.
Any advice you’d like to share with prospective or incoming Darden students?
Entrepreneurship may not be the most popular area of focus at Darden, but I believe it’s critical for anyone pursuing a career in business. Whether you’re a consultant, banker, or general manager, entrepreneurship is essential to understanding any business and making a true impact for your clients or business.
Thankfully, Darden offers a wealth of resources for entrepreneurship, and the Charlottesville ecosystem can be a fantastic launchpad for anyone interested in exploring this area. I encourage more people at Darden to consider entrepreneurship, and the eCup is a great way to get started. With three rounds, each milestone can be a valuable learning experience. I’ve heard many of my Darden peers express an interest in entrepreneurship at some point in their careers, but waiting won’t bring their ideas to life. The two years in the MBA program might be your last time to make mistakes and learn from them freely, and it’s important to take advantage of this time.