This is part of a series of articles that will be posted in September sharing the stories of LAS students who were part of this summer’s CYstarters cohort at the ISU Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship.
Kaleb Nichols (’24 liberal studies) was an innovator before he ever stepped foot onto Iowa State’s campus.
As a senior at Hoover High School in Des Moines, Iowa, Nichols identified a need among his community’s Black youth, and he did something about it. Together with some friends, Nichols came up with the idea for a sneaker drive. He raised money to buy shoes for the youth in Des Moines whose families couldn’t afford to purchase new shoes on their own.
“Black youth and other minority groups came to the event, and we gave them free shoes, free food, and a place to converse with and be around people that looked like them,” Nichols said.
The sneaker drive was so successful, Nichols continued to create events that embraced Black youth as he wrapped up high school. His entrepreneurial enthusiasm followed him to Iowa State University, where he discovered that the Start Something LAS Academy could help him further navigate a direction for his big ideas.
“Some of the biggest highlights from the academy were definitely the community that I gained, the members I worked with, and the classmates I had,” Nichols said. “Learning about their different businesses and getting and hearing their feedback was probably one of the best resources I got from the academy.”
Taking the next step
Building upon what he learned in the Start Something LAS Academy, Nichols applied for and was accepted into the 2023 cohort of CYstarters, a competitive, 11-week summer accelerator for Iowa State students or recent graduates to focus on their startup or business idea. Individual students receive $6,500 and student teams earn up to $13,000 for the opportunity to dedicate time and resources to pursue their entrepreneurial aspirations.
The funds from CYstarters allowed Nichols to spend his summer fine-tuning his business dedicated to lifting up Black youth, named Akyn. Instead of working a temporary job to buy groceries and pay rent, Nichols built professional working relations, created a company website, and designed merchandise for his business.
“The financial component was one of the biggest plusses for joining CYstarters,” he said. “Not only did they give me educational sessions and professional meetings with attorneys and things of that nature for free, but they also gave me money to fund my organization and business.”
Successes and challenges
Access to professional mentors through CYstarters has allowed Nichols to take Akyn to the next level.
“I already had a business going, but a lot of the things on the back end that have to do with finances or taxes or attorneys, I didn’t have any idea about,” Nichols said. “CYstarters gave me those resources and those professional sessions where I could actually meet with professionals in those fields and learn those things.”
But developing a new business does not come without its challenges. Unlike some of his CYstarters’ cohorts, Nichols is leading Akyn solo, without the help and support of teammates.
“The biggest challenge that I face with developing my business is just being the founder and the one that’s currently running everything,” he said. “I don’t have a team, so just doing a lot of the workload and finding the balance to do everything within the summer has been one of the biggest challenges.”
Nichols’ immediate goal for Akyn is to continue holding events within the state of Iowa where Black youth can gather in safe spaces to showcase their talents. Following graduation from Iowa State, Nichols’ personal goal is to obtain a master’s degree and doctorate in African American studies. From there, he will focus on Akyn full time, and hopes to take it national.
“My biggest goal that I want to do is have big events, similar to Coachella, Lollapalooza, or Rolling Loud,” he said. “I want to have big concerts that include different Black performers and Black businesses showcasing their artistic endeavors.”
While establishing a new national, headline-type festival may seem like a lofty goal, Nichols is confident he can make it happen.
“The most important lesson I’ve learned on my journey with CYstarers is that anything you set your mind to, and it’s cliché, but anything you set your mind to, you can actually accomplish if you have the proper preparation.” Nichols said. “If I set my mind to do something and do everything to prepare myself, there’s nothing stopping me from succeeding.”