Allie Lawn headshotQ&A with Allie Lawn, Adjunct Professor of Business

This August, Allie Lawn joined the Daniels College of Business and Entrepreneurship@DU as an adjunct professor. Before teaching at DU, she worked professionally in entrepreneurial spaces for years, including serving as design strategist at Pilot44, a partner at Operate Venture Studio and lead mentor at Techstars Boulder Accelerator. Prior to working with startups, she pursued an academic research path, earning a PhD in psycholinguistics at the University of California, Los Angeles in 2020.

The E@DU team sat down with Lawn to discuss her academic background and what prompted her to become an entrepreneur.

Q: Have you always been interested in startups and entrepreneurship?

A: Education has always been a staple of my professional life, even prior to working at Daniels. I pursued a PhD focused on psycholinguistics at UCLA, which inspired my love for teaching and research and surprisingly kick-started my entrepreneurial journey. In graduate school, I did a lot of work with non-English-speaking communities, and I had a moment of truth where I realized these communities could not access much of the work I was doing. I realized that, in general, scientific research tends to not be readily available to many people, even those that benefit from it directly. While I still think that academic research is extremely impactful, what drew me to startups was the ability to use my skills to create an impact much faster. I now help early-stage companies refine their business plans through actionable research strategies, which would not have been possible without my education and desire to reach a broad audience.

Q: Was this your first-ever foray into entrepreneurship? Growing up, were there entrepreneurs in your family who influenced you?

A: I did not grow up around entrepreneurs—my family pursued more “traditional” paths. That being said, I have always been the innovative type. As a child, I liked to ask questions, find problems, and try to solve them… albeit, not always successfully. I think this natural curiosity is what pushed me into a research path early in my career and ultimately opened the doors to entrepreneurship.

Q: What brought you to Daniels and the Entrepreneurship@DU program?

A: I came across Entrepreneurship@DU by luck. I had recently moved out to Denver and connected with a DU graduate, who then put me into contact with some of the professors in the program. At the time, I was mainly looking to connect with hubs of entrepreneurship in the Denver area – and DU seemed like a great place for that!

What drew me to the program specifically is the accessibility that it provides. Entrepreneurship sometimes gets funneled into a very specific niche: “you must be a tech founder,” “you must seek venture capital,” “you must scale this company and then make your exit.” There is absolutely nothing wrong with that path, and it is viable for many founders. However, people who have ideas that don’t fit that mold are often pushed out of the ecosystem.

At DU, entrepreneurship is talked about differently: it is about ideas that can impact the world in some way and how to get there. Whether you are working on a company in the consumer goods space, a traditional tech product, or a social impact company, everyone is welcome. That is something I have not seen in other similar programs.

Q: In your time learning and working with startups, what notable successes—or failures—have impacted you?

A: When I finished my PhD, I decided to start an edtech company on my own. It was aimed to teach English to gig workers. My background was in linguistics and foreign languages, and I saw a need in the professional development sphere for gig workers who were limited by language barriers. I took a stab at trying to start my own company: I worked on the initial wireframes for an app, I went through an accelerator and I started pitching to investors. Needless to say, it did not work! While I am still heavily affiliated with the venture space, this quick lesson taught me that not every company needs to follow the traditional path, nor does every “good idea” thrive in the market.

I am always candid about this story because we have all experienced failures in the startup space, and we likely always will. It’s very rare to strike gold on the first try! From each failure, I believe that “failing forward” is what defines an entrepreneur. From each challenge, we can extract key learnings, make pivots and keep moving forward. This early attempt at company building is what ultimately led me to my current roles as a partner at Operate Studio, head of insights at Bonus Homes, founder of The Scientific Startup and (excitingly) adjunct professor at Daniels!

Q: What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs just starting out?

A: Talk to your customers! Most people typically build a company purely from passion, and that is important when getting started, but it’s not enough. At the end of the day, a good business has three elements: a problem to solve, a solution for that problem and people willing to pay for it. The first two may come from passion and some good research, but the third element comes from knowing your customers and understanding their needs. If an idea adds value to the lives of customers, it is far more likely to thrive in the market.