Inside of a building surrounded by a scenic landscape in a quiet neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, an energetic group did what seemed impossible.
The headquarters of Bootcampers in Rio de Janeiro
The MIT Innovation & Entrepreneurship Bootcamp is an accelerated learning program for individuals looking to shift careers into the startup world. The participants had the opportunity to learn how to apply the proven framework for innovation-driven ventures, as well as to network with entrepreneurs from all over the world. In turn, the MIT team expected nothing but the best from them.
Therefore, over six strenuous days, 122 Bootcampers from 37 different countries went through the most intense educational experience of their lives. They were pushed beyond what they had ever done before. Functioning on a few hours of sleep, they handled team conflict, met tight deadlines, and fought to exceed their coaches’ high expectations.
Here’s what it was like to take part in this unique Bootcamp experience in Rio, held July 28 and August 3, 2018.
Day 1 — Teams, not individuals
There was much enthusiasm at the Bootcamp kick off. On a sunny afternoon, the group convened on a rooftop overlooking the mountains and the sea, in the Urca neighborhood of the vibrant Brazilian city.
Tushita Singhel, an Indian student in Software Engineering
“The energy here is so great,” said Tushita Singhel, an Indian graduate in Software Engineering. “I cannot wait to meet new people and exchange areas.”
Bootcampers formed teams wreathed in friendly handshakes and smiles. They were meeting the people who would become their closest companions until the end of the program. Teamwork is a pillar at MIT, as they soon discovered.
Vimala Palaniswamy, Associate Director at MIT Bootcamps
people who develop technology, and it’s people who lead,” said Vimala Palaniswamy, Associate Director at MIT Bootcamps.
A friendly atmosphere prevailed on the rooftop during the welcome dinner with Brazilian-style barbecue, caipirinha drinks, and a Bossa Nova live band. But despite the inviting ambiance, the participants felt their adrenaline kicking in.
Bossa Nova live band in the welcoming night
The call “Ready, set, pitch!” became familiar from day one. Step-by-step coaching guided Bootcampers with actionable feedback over the week-long extensive training. The coaches preferred giving constructive criticism, rather than being easy to please. The first remarks from coach Ingrid Toppelberg ranged from, “You are not inspiring trust, keep your hands visible and quiet” to “You asked for money, but you didn’t say what you will be using it for.”
Coach Ingrid Toppelberg
It was past 10 pm when the tasks were finished — which proved to be an early night compared to the following days.
Day 2 — Getting to the root of problems
At 7 am, breakfast was served in a charming tent on the rooftop, brightened by the early morning sunlight and cooled by a soothing breeze. During the week, the area became a site for quick escapes and inspiration boosts.
While beachgoers occupied the sand in front of the building, like on every sunny Sunday in Rio, Bootcampers were focused indoors as the program gradually intensified. “We will break you down, but we will build you up,” said Erdin Beshimov, Founder and Director of MIT Bootcamps.
Erdin Beshimov, Founder and Director of MIT Bootcamps
Along with Brian Subirana, Beshimov taught the first steps of the systematic, rigorous and data-driven MIT’s innovation framework. They explained how the teams were directed to get to the root of problems and identify significant opportunities.
To apply the model, the teams needed to discover their working styles. Even though the Rio Bootcampers had vastly different professional backgrounds and cultures, the teams had to work quickly as a productive team. The participants were not only learning how to function as a group — and already solving their first conflicts — but also how to lead. Leadership techniques were practiced by all attendees, where each person had the chance to be CEO for the day.
Teamwork and lectures alternated during the day. After midnight, Bootcampers were bustling around to meet the 3 am deadline for the first deliverable. “I feel it’s going to be more and more difficult,” said Orkun Özbatur, a Turkish senior product manager. “We’ll see more teams’ dynamics change along the week, but I’m still excited about it.”
Day 3 — Talking to real people
The first of a series of keynote speakers opened the third day. Maurício Antonio Lopes, Head of Embrapa, presented how Brazilian agricultural agency successfully applied technology to increase commodity production and to reduce the impact in the environment.
Over the course of the program, keynote talks featured well-known entrepreneurs to talk about the real entrepreneurial problem they faced. Vitor Olivier, a partner at the second Brazilian Unicorn, Nubank, told how the venture challenged the Brazilian banking system. And the creator of Mathematica, scientist and entrepreneur Stephen Wolfram, demonstrated his powerful Wolfram Language Code.
From listening about everyday obstacles faced by entrepreneurs to getting their hands dirty, Bootcampers ventured onto the streets of Rio or reached for their phones to speak to potential customers. The aim was to set aside their own assumptions and simply ask questions, listen, look for patterns, and learn about their needs.
“The phase that we are in right now is to go to real people, get their perspectives to gain a deeper insight into what we are developing,” explained Krishna Thiruvengadam, an Indian product designer.
Krishna Thiruvengadam, an Indian product designer
The new perspectives gained by speaking to potential customers validated or invalidated the business projects leading many teams to reposition their ideas. However, Thiruvengadam was still confident about his team’s solution to addressing women’s insecurity in Brazil. Until early afternoon, the team had spoken to ten out of the twenty expected people. “Not knowing Portuguese is a barrier, but it has been fun. It’s going great.”
Day 4 — The masterclass
Professor and entrepreneur Bill Aulet headed the Bootcamp as soon as he landed in Rio de Janeiro. Managing director at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, Aulet arrived wearing a shirt with the phrase “Discipline is Freedom” written across it, as a preview of the long work hours ahead.
MIT Professor Bill Aulet shared his journey as an entrepreneur
Aulet advocates that anyone can be an entrepreneur, although he acknowledges this is not an easy journey. “What a Bootcamp is really good for is to get things moving, learning the fundamentals of entrepreneurship, and most of all, inspiring the heart,” he said during the break.
The entrepreneur inspired the heart of Bootcampers through his energetic lessons on how to achieve market segmentation, break customers’ habits and define a strong core for the business. During his two day stay in Rio, Bill was unstoppable. Wasting no time, he answered Bootcampers’ questions even during breaks and meals.
Svitlana Damon, a Ukrainian project manager
But while Aulet was full of energy, the same could not be said for Bootcampers, who could no longer hide their tiredness. “At this point, it’s starting to kick in,” said Svitlana Damon, a Ukrainian-American project manager. “It’s been a couple of days, and we all feel that we’ve been here for two weeks already. We are getting less and less sleep; there are people on the couches everywhere; I barely can keep my eyes opens.”
Damon added, “But we are still learning, pushing the limits. You don’t think you can go another hour, but then you can do it, you realize it can happen.” By then, there was still space for good mood, jokes and laughs, and late-night pizza to make their teamwork less arduous.
Day 5 — Pushing beyond the limits
Bill Aulet said his goodbyes early in the afternoon, summoning Bootcampers to create great ventures. The early sunny days were over. As the rain suddenly appeared, they felt the weight of the final pitch approaching.
The coaches’ advice now focused on survival skills during the final pitch. Coach Priyanka Bakaya taught the keys to successful presentations, including objectively addressing the problem to be solved, convincing their audience about the team’s abilities, and explaining how to provide a solution. “End on a call to action, and don’t forget to end strong,” she summed. To stand out in the final pitch, anything goes.
At 10 pm, Carlos Mourão, a Brazilian community manager, and his colleagues were testing a prototype built from scratch. They built a watch that popped a light — blinding potential attackers.
Carlos Mourão and his team discuss their prototype
“We are going to present Profit, which is a very nice company that wants to help women to be safer in the streets when walking back home or taking a bus,” Mourão said. “We are quite confident it’s going to be OK. We had some really good preparation in the last days and I can’t wait for tomorrow.”
However, the night was just beginning for most Bootcampers. Teamwork and coaches’ feedback extended overnight. Physical endurance turned essential to push forward as a group. Remaining focused was one of the most pressing challenges. Conflicts broke out from stress and exhaustion.
The tension of the final night
Bootcampers took off their shoes, sat on the floor or on the stairs, stood on the tables, and napped on the corners. They were singing, praying, nervously laughing, and memorizing and practicing their lines alone. The deadline was at 7 am, and many simply skipped sleeping.
Day 6 — Unwrapping the present
Emotions were running high while the day unfolded. The participants’ adrenaline levels were at their all-time high, as their extensive work was funneled into a seven-minute powerful pitch in front of judges.
The participants spared no efforts to make their strenuous journey worth it. Ingenious prototypes, inventive, even funny performances, and passionate speeches intended to make their stories, sweat, and tears remembered.
When the first pitching phase was concluded, excitement overcame tension. A Portuguese innovation and impact advisor, João Souza, described his feelings a few minutes after his team’s pitch:
“It is like waiting for Christmas when you are a kid,” Souza said with wavy hands and accelerated voice. “Remember waiting for midnight of the 24th to open all the presents; it’s exactly the same. It’s like unwrapping and seeing that you got exactly what you wanted, so it feels absolutely great.”
A Portuguese innovation and impact advisor, João Souza
The emotional rollercoaster continued over the course of the day as finalists were announced. A second pitching phase followed, and, finally, thrilled winners took over the stage. Everyone thrived, even though sometimes the tasks seemed undoable. Each Bootcamper left with a toolkit for innovation and fueled with the drive to make great changes — both in their lives and in their professional fields.
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