the Carrot team

Alumni essay

The accidental entrepreneur

Or, how I helped launch a start-up in 48 adrenaline-fueled hours.

Ingrid Gonçalves, AB’08

I was not excited for Startup Weekend Education. When I registered on a whim, it hadn’t clicked that I’d be spending my entire weekend—the kind of sunny, 70-degree September weekend that Chicagoans pine for all winter—holed up in a classroom.

But I sucked it up and took the bus to the Loop from my job at the University of Chicago, already worn out from a long week at work. I hoped, at least, the weekend might be a fun experience and a good networking opportunity. Plus I felt bad backing out.


After pizza and introductions, 24 participants pitched their ideas for improving education through technology. Teachers, programmers, and entrepreneurs tackled problems ranging from language learning to summer planning, all in less than 60 seconds. We voted for our favorites, then formed teams around the six products that made the cut.

I had a few half-baked ideas of my own, but nothing I’d pitch in front of a crowded ballroom, so I approached the process like an investor: which product would yield the greatest return on my time? Prizes for the winning team included memberships at the start-up incubator 1871 and tickets to a 4.0 Schools Essentials workshop—opportunities that take most people way longer than two days to get.

I braced myself and walked up to the designated area for Whipping Post, a product pitched by Ryan Spencer, a former high school graphic design teacher. Spencer had hated all the paperwork involved in reporting student discipline issues. He wanted to build an app to save teachers time. I knew student behavior management was a big challenge (and a big budget line item) for many schools. I asked Spencer if he’d consider a new name, and he agreed, so I decided to join. Soon enough, a team-sized group was standing in our corner.

The next hour was a whirlwind of features spitballed onto a wall of giant Post-it notes. I’d barely had time to learn anyone’s name, but our simple little app had morphed into a disoriented hydra. At some point we called it a night and went home. I lay awake for a long time despite my exhaustion. This is going to be a disaster, I thought as I finally drifted off.


The next morning, a competitive drive awakened in me that I hadn’t felt since my last debate tournament in high school. Whipping Post wasn’t going down without a fight. We regrouped over breakfast and refocused on our immediate goal: winning Startup Weekend Education. We had five minutes to convince the judges we’d built a useful, marketable product.

How could we one-up the paper forms and clunky spreadsheets most K-12 schools use for student behavior management? The app had to be efficient and intuitive; otherwise, it would just create more work. By tracking positive behavior and exposing patterns through data, we could help educators avoid disciplinary action such as out-of-school suspensions, which double a student’s chances of dropping out. Text notifications could instantly loop in parents, coaches, and other teachers, helping them collaborate to provide students with timely, holistic support.

Dividing and conquering was easy, thanks to our well-rounded team. Nathan Conroy, Jeremy Peters, and Spencer had education backgrounds. Spencer was also a software developer, as was Abhi Pillai. Pat Doyle, Purab Kaur, and I handled marketing and business development. We agreed on a less scary name—Carrot, to reflect our new focus on positive behavior—and got to work.

We started coding. We designed a logo. We surveyed teachers and principals and counselors, calling and tweeting all the educators we knew. We crunched some numbers. We argued. We researched the competition. By dinnertime, Carrot had grown into a coherent product with a working demo. I finished the pitch deck (which, as far as I can tell, is what they call PowerPoint presentations in Silicon Valley) around 1 a.m.


We spent the final day polishing our story, timing our demo, and taking in last-minute feedback. The logo T-shirts were a game-time decision. Peters rode his motorcycle to Wrigleyville to pick them up at a one-hour printing shop—the closest one that was open. Before we knew it, it was show time. Team Carrot sat united in the same ballroom where we first met, 48 long hours before. We were anxious to see what the others had come up with.

First up was Pairs, a tool for partnering students so they can learn from each other. Then we heard from Watch Me Work, a video library of experts practicing their skills in a non-tutorial setting, and Eternity Engine, which is like Google Earth but with history-related educational content. Fantasy Finance and Jock Games used sports-inspired programs to teach financial literacy and math.

As we waited for the judges’ decision, we already felt like winners. Carrot had been a team for less than two days, but we meshed as if we’d been working together for months. We had a blast regardless of the outcome, we learned a lot, and we had a pretty cool product to show for it.

Carrot ended up sweeping first place and the people’s choice award. We toasted our victory with fellow participants, including runners-up Pairs and Fantasy Finance, and the Startup Weekend Education organizers. After working nonstop, we finally had a chance to ask each other where we lived and what we did for fun. But we knew we’d have plenty of time to get to know our teammates.


To capitalize on our momentum, I started building Carrot’s website,, the following evening. The Carrot team continues to meet regularly, often at 1871.

At this point, we’re taking a close look at all the assumptions that led to Carrot 1.0. Our first goal is to gather as much feedback as possible. The 4.0 Schools Essentials workshop, which Conroy and Pillai attended in early November, gave us a framework and a game plan for talking to users, understanding their needs, and developing a tool that benefits educators and families.

Based on interviews we’ve conducted so far, Carrot is moving away from our original focus on tracking student discipline issues. Instead, we’re emphasizing positive support and collaboration among teachers, parents, counselors, coaches, and other stakeholders in students’ lives.

What will the final product look like? Is this a viable business? We don’t know yet. Now the real work begins.


Ingrid Gonçalves, AB’08 (center) presents a united front with the rest of the Carrot team: Ryan Spencer, Abhi Pillai, Nathan Conroy, Jeremy Peters, Purab Kaur, and Pat Doyle. (Photography by James Richard IV, National Louis University)