Student Entrepreneurs Take Flight at BASE Camp
Entrepreneurship@DU’s inaugural 6-week summer accelerator lifts business ideas to the next level
By Lorne Fultonberg
There was no sleeping in for Chennelle Diong on her 38th birthday. No breakfast in bed either.
Instead, by 8 a.m., the MBA student was awake, caffeinated and dressed in business casual attire. The bags under her eyes were evidence of the long night she had spent fine-tuning the presentation she would deliver to a group of University of Denver faculty, seasoned entrepreneurs and her peers.
Her place on the stage was the result of a last-minute decision to go all in on her startup, GoodLove Foods, which produces gluten-free, frozen baked goods.
“Pitching something I had been working on to people who had no idea about it really scared me,” Diong said. “But it also made me realize that BASE Camp is what I needed because I needed to refine and discuss the full vision of what GoodLove is all about, how we plan to change people’s lives and [show] that it is a viable product that is in demand.”
The BASE in BASE Camp stands for Building and Accelerating Student Enterprises—a jumping off point to turn their ideas into viable businesses. Interested DU students had to work their way through a rigorous application process that included a written component, an interview and a live pitch.
“We felt like this would be something that would benefit our students that were really serious about moving an idea forward or growing a business,” said Joshua Ross, DU’s director of entrepreneurship. The Entrepreneurship@DU team, including faculty John Sebesta and Neil Pollard, provided the resources: mentors, subject-matter experts, office space, equipment and programming. The Anchor Point Foundation provided $5,000 stipends.
Diong’s pitch on this April day is strong enough to secure her a spot in the inaugural group. Beginning Aug. 1, Diong and her peers (a cohort of five other DU student teams) will devote nearly all of their energy to their startups—learning new skills, building new relationships and creating a bona fide business with a sustainable model for growth.
This story follows her journey week by week.
“Pitching something I had been working on to people who had no idea about it really scared me.”
BASE Camp: Inaugural cohort
Andrew Moore and Jacen Wilkins
Homemade, ready-to-drink bottled Chai, designed as an alternative to coffee and energy drinks
A social club and ceramic studio for everyday artists, free of long wait lists and inflated studio fees
Healthy and tasty protein bars made from sustainable mealworm powder
Dog beds made of ultra-sustainable materials to reduce plastic waste
A consulting startup to educate collegiate sports coaches and teams on relationship skills, emotional intelligence and trust building
Gluten-free, frozen, ready-to-bake goods that are celiac friendly but delicious enough for all
“By the end of the program, I really am focused on the pitch and getting a CEO/boss mindset.”
Baking a startup from scratch
The ingredients for GoodLove Foods came together slowly, acquired one by one over Chennelle Diong’s career. Stints in fashion design, graphic design, hospitality, project management, events, food and aerospace manufacturing laid the groundwork. A first date with her future husband, who has Celiac Disease, got things cooking.
“Unless you have a direct family member, a loved one, a friend [who is afflicted], it’s kind of hard to grasp what Celiac Disease is and how it affects someone’s life,” she says. “After our first date, I went to Barnes and Noble and found a ‘Gluten Free for Dummies’ book. I immersed myself in it. I learned about it. I started turning all my foods into gluten free foods.”
Six years ago, Diong received her own Celiac diagnosis. In 2020, after starting her MBA at the Daniels College of Business, she became more interested in working in food manufacturing. The name GoodLove Foods popped into her head.
“It encompasses what it means to be someone with Celiac Disease or know someone with Celiac Disease,” she says. She quickly bought the name and snagged the social media handles. “GoodLove to me is letting our customers know that we’re here for you and we empathize. It’s not a fad for us. We want to truly provide you with an experience [where] you feel welcome, that we understand what you’re going through, but also we provide you with some delicious food options that you haven’t had before. We want to provide that experience that people have been missing out on.”
The Daniels MBA program provided a perfect laboratory as she built her business model and tested the market. GoodLove launched in February 2021 but, before she graduated in 2022, Diong realized BASE Camp could give her business a boost.
“By the end of the program, I really am focused on the pitch and getting a CEO/boss mindset,” she says. All of her attention to this point has been focused on making her products. “You may have created your product and have your prototype, but you need to be able to run your company. And at the end of this, that’s the kind of perspective I want to have.”
WEEK 1: The climb begins
BASE Camp orientation lasts just two hours. After all, before arriving, each student team had to complete a bevy of assignments—setting up an LLC, applying for an Employer Identification Number, getting a grasp on their (projected) revenues and expenditures—greasing the wheels so they could punch the accelerator.
Almost immediately, the entrepreneurs get down to business, taking their first stab at what will become a six-week project: perfecting the way they pitch their startup to investors.
Quick elevator pitches help the cohort break the ice and learn more about one another, but many are focused on Day 2, when they will recite lengthier PowerPoint presentations.
“You’re just raw and you’re in front of your audience.”
The entrepreneurs receive guidance from Tim Jones, the CorporateLink program director at Innosphere, the first of many guest speakers E@DU will host during BASE Camp. He offers advice on constructing a pitch deck: how to start, how to finish, what to include and what to exclude. Specifically, he homes in on finances, encouraging the students to think about their business model, how much to fundraise and how they’ll eventually return money to investors.
The students, seated in the Burwell Center for Career Achievement, take it all in. Many make last-minute adjustments to their pitch decks—moving images, altering text and running through their routines.
“There’s a lot of anxiety around it,” Joshua Ross says just before the first presentation. “The goal is to build a perfect pitch by the end of the six weeks, so we want to see what they have. We’re recording them; we recorded them yesterday. Today, everybody’s evaluating them and then next week they’ll come back again and work on it based on the feedback they get here and the videos taken of them.”
Diong is nervous too, but she’s also excited to incorporate the comments her cohort offers, on paper and verbally.
“It’s not meant to be a personal thing,” she says. “We’re all here and we’re all from different industries. We’re all cheering for each other.”
The initial pitches are clearly a work in a progress. Some slides are clunky and text heavy. The narratives meander in an attempt to squeeze in everything the budding entrepreneurs want to say. As a result, some take double or even triple the suggested 3-5 minute timeframe.
When it’s Diong’s turn, she opens a Pyrex container and places a single biscuit on a paper plate. She passes around a stack of branded plastic bags, takes a swig from her branded water bottle and starts her pitch. This is the moment she will later describe as the hardest of Week 1.
“You’re just raw and you’re in front of your audience,” she says. Some of the things she thought would trigger interest fell flat. “I think that’s one of the moments you might feel the most emotionally drained, after something like that. I’m hoping to learn as we go through BASE Camp to take that emotion out of it. You need that emotion to drive your passion. That’s why we’re all here, because we’re passionate about it. But you’re going to be giving so many pitches throughout the lifetime of your venture that you can’t get so drained from it. You’re going to hear nos. You’re going to hear feedback you didn’t expect to hear, so don’t take it personally.”
WEEK 2: Watch and learn
The restaurant isn’t open yet, but at 9 a.m. the tables at Chook Charcoal Chicken are full of young entrepreneurs, hungry for any morsel of information they can consume.
Chook is the first stop on a day of off-site visits for the BASE Camp cohort—a chance to meet successful entrepreneurs up close, ask questions and swap stories.
Whole chickens spin and crackle over a 1,500-degree Australian charcoal stove. But all the attention is on restaurateur Adam Schlegel (BSBA 1999), standing behind a table in khaki shorts, one flip-flopped foot resting on a chair. He opened Chook in 2018, but Schlegel’s entrepreneurial story starts years earlier, when he and his brother, Jon (BSBA 1997), opened the now-famous Snooze Eatery.
Schlegel tells the group that being an entrepreneur is like being a circus performer, and he describes the acrobatics it took to get Snooze off the ground. The brothers lived in an apartment above their LoDo business, working seven days a week without taking a salary, often sneaking down to the restaurant kitchen to slap together an after-hours meal for themselves.
Through the experience, he says, he learned how to surround himself with the right team, how to channel his passion and how important it is to get involved in the local community.
Later that day, stops at Queen City Collective and Bruz Beers (founded by MBA alumnus Ryan Evans) offer similarly insightful experiences.
“The line through all of the entrepreneurs, business owners, founders—they all worked really hard,” Diong says at the end of the week. “They didn’t sugarcoat it. They got the nos, they got rejections. They had to cut costs extremely in the beginning. How did they get that traction? It eventually came but they put the hard work into it. They didn’t glaze over that. None of them did.”
Adam Schlegel (BSBA 1997) tells students his entrepreneurial story at his restaurant, Chook Charcoal Chicken.
“I didn’t go into it thinking it could be a business opportunity for me,” Diong says afterward, “but as an entrepreneur and as somebody that does believe in their product, I was like, ‘I’ll pitch to you, I’ll pitch to anyone.’ Even if it’s something that Adam doesn’t eventually need, now he knows my name, now he knows my product. It could lead somewhere or nowhere, but why not put myself out there?”
Schlegel cherishes the opportunity to be a resource for up-and-coming students, he says, paying forward the mentorship he received throughout his journey.
“I actually walked away from this just as encouraged to see really cool, fun, innovative ideas that stand to benefit our communities over the long term,” he says. “As long as we’re out trying to do the right thing, I’m always open to try to help out.”
WEEK 3: Comfy and collaborative
The grind of an intense, immersive accelerator has been grueling at times for Diong. In addition to full days at BASE Camp, she estimates she’s putting in 40-50 hours a week to keep GoodLove Foods running. On lunch breaks, she sometimes makes deliveries to her customers. On weekends, she’s completing assignments for BASE Camp and spending time in the kitchen.
“It’s the whole time management piece and figuring out how you can fit it all in,” Diong says. “You do have the time, it’s just how you can be more strategic about it. What are my priorities?”
This week, a priority is evaluating how GoodLove fits into the marketplace. Diong is trying to get a feel for what customers want. She’s developing a survey so she can gather data while simultaneously working to cultivate community through a new blog and expanded email list.
“I think we’ve all found our stride this week.”
“It’s been a little bit of a rollercoaster the first two weeks, but we’re getting into more of the fun stuff,” she says. “I think we’ve all found our stride this week. Now it feels like we’re in this kind of collaborative space.”
That space, in many instances, is the E@DU Garage, an on-campus house devoted to development and collaboration. Each BASE Camp entrepreneur has their own basement office space to spread out and iterate. Tables on the main level allow students to trade ideas and learn from one another.
“The space was designed for what I call natural collisions—for people to run into each other and figure out that they may have something in common, they may be able to help each other in some way,” Ross says, emblematic of what E@DU hopes to create across campus. “Being an entrepreneur can be very lonely. Five of our six startups were single founders. That can be very tough in terms of who to go talk to for advice and to pitch ideas and to get support.”
Through the cohort model, Ross says, the students challenge one another to be better, collectively raising their games. Plus, with all the time they’re spending together, they become invested in each other’s businesses and can lend a hand using their diverse backgrounds.
Diong and Clare Whetzel, founder of Illegal Oats, toy with concepts for their food service businesses. With Julianne Lukens, founder of Mezzanine, she talks pop ups and events. Emily Lloyd, creator of Unite Athletics, helps Diong with scripting her pitch. In return, Diong offers Lloyd guidance on the visuals of her pitch deck.
“[I’m] feeling good about the connections I’ve made with this cohort,” Diong says. “It’s that feeling when you learn something new and things start to click. I went through those highs and lows but I feel like I’ve found my stride.”
WEEK 4: Bright lights, big stages
The BASE Camp finish line is in sight and Diong is struck by a whirlwind of emotions. She’s tighter than ever with her cohort and feeling more and more prepared to run GoodLove Foods full time. But she also realizes that the BASE Camp finale event—where she will pitch her business to her largest audience yet—is fast approaching.
To get a taste of the bright lights and big stage, the cohort travels to Boulder and visits Black Lab X—a venture capital firm and incubator for startups that focus on wellness and human performance. Inviting them inside is alumnus and E@DU entrepreneur in residence William Powell (MS 2008), who serves as managing director.
Throughout the morning, the cohort gets to know the founders of four different startups. The catch: Before each Q&A session begins, each DU student must take the microphone, step on stage and deliver an elevator pitch.
“Sure, give me the mic. I’m ready!”
“Our nerves were going because we had that initial, ‘Oh my gosh there are these bright lights and there’s a camera and we have a microphone in our hands,’” Diong says. But the cohort settles in. “By the second time everyone was like, ‘Sure, give me the mic. I’m ready!’”
With immediate feedback from Powell and the near-immediate opportunity to apply it, the group’s pitches evolve quickly.
For Diong, it’s a microcosm of the BASE Camp experience. She has a better understanding of how to craft her pitch for her audience, key terms and phrases to use, and what she needs to say up front to capture attention.
On the flip side, at Black Lab, Diong’s attention is drawn to the honesty of the established entrepreneurs who join the cohort for Q&As. They open up about their struggles and how they precipitated changes in their respective products, even as their missions stayed the same.
“What I took away was, you can still make money, you can still create a product or a service and expect to profit, but you can also be the change you want to see,” she says.
For Ross, these offsite sessions aren’t just a change of pace during the grueling six weeks. They’re also an important reality check for students with the entrepreneurship bug.
“It’s not all white unicorns and pink puffy clouds” in entrepreneurship, he says. It’s important “hearing how [others] struggled to make payroll, how they manage cashflow, how they’re not only selling the products but unloading the trucks and cleaning the toilets and doing whatever it is to keep the business moving forward.
“They were such good people,” he says of the entrepreneurs at Black Lab, “and so willing to give of their time, which shows you how amazing our DU ecosystem is, if you decide to reach out and tap into it.”
WEEK 5: Helping hands
“How are things going?” asks Fite, a longtime sales executive who now runs his own company, J3 Consulting.
Mentorship is a cornerstone of the BASE Camp programming. Each student team is surrounded by seasoned professionals even before the formal start of camp.
“I think mentorship is so important, having people these entrepreneurs can go to,” Ross says. “People that can not only give them advice but push back upon ideas and also hold them accountable.”
“I just feel confident. I’ve enjoyed every one of our sessions.”
When matching students with mentors, the E@DU team takes into account each startup’s industry, stage of development and blind spots. Ross, Pollard and Sebesta have their own regular sit downs with the teams where they can check in and offer advice.
Diong and Fite have met every week since BASE Camp began. Their time together is loosely structured. They start with whatever’s top of mind—any pressing issues, sticky spots, immediate needs.
First on the agenda this week is the session Diong just exited. Where does sustainability fit in with GoodLove’s goals and business model? The pair talks about the ways environmental, social and corporate governance might affect Diong’s target audience, who she eventually hires and from where she sources her ingredients and materials.
From there, the conversation shifts to the upcoming final pitch presentations and the ways entrepreneurs can take care of themselves mentally during times of hard work and high anxiety.
On paper, Fite, who specializes in software and sales, might not seem a natural match for Diong’s food service business (although he does eat gluten free). But the duo has leaned into their different backgrounds, leveraging them to their advantage.
“Everything that I brought up in all of these meetings, Justin’s been able to provide his personal and professional insight,” Diong says. “He’s been able to provide some general insight for me as a business owner trying to make something big happen. [I] just feel confident. I’ve enjoyed every one of our sessions.”
“Are you nervous?” Listen in on Diong’s mentorship call before the final pitch
WEEK 6: Reaching the summit
The elevator inside DU’s Burwell Career Achievement Center dings and opens its door, ready to escort the BASE Camp cohort to the climax of the six-week experience.
On the third floor, the finish line awaits. Several dozen people from the University and the greater business community are gathered, eager to hear each entrepreneur’s final pitch, forged and polished under the pressure of the accelerator.
Diong steps into the elevator and punches the number 3. How is she feeling? “Really nervous,” she says. All day, she’s been mentally flipping through the slides of her pitch deck, trying to remember the content, trying to make it sound and feel natural.
“I knew I was going to forget things because that always happens,” she says. “I tried to come to that understanding within myself, ‘You’re going to mess something up or you’re going to miss something, but that’s OK. You know your product and your brand.’”
The cohort sits in the front row, a pair of monitors illuminated behind them. The room buzzes with anticipation and excitement before Joshua Ross flips on a microphone and hushes the room.
“Today we are here to celebrate these six startups, to hear their pitches and to hear a little bit about their journey,” he says, “and I am so proud of them. They worked their butts off on their idea for six weeks. And what you’re going to see is the result of their hard work, their energy and their commitment.”
Each entrepreneur that takes the stage is selling their startup in some capacity, probing the audience for contacts, connections or production space. But, both directly and indirectly, they’re also sharing their own stories. Their 15-minute presentations tell tales of progress and transformation, featuring new logos, business models and, in some cases, even new products.
“At the beginning of the six weeks, Mezzanine was just a concept,” Julianne Lukens says of her startup, which provides affordable studio space for everyday artists. Now, she’s hosting pop-up events at galleries, breweries and coffee shops.
Diong, too, has exciting progress to report. The conversation she had with Adam Schlegel at his Chook restaurant in Week 2 sparked a follow-up meeting. Diong brought the Snooze co-founder some of her fully baked biscuits and talked about the wholesale food business. Schlegel says he will bring samples to his friend, a chef who has Celiac, and will provide feedback.
“Regardless of what the outcome is, I felt that confidence boost,” Diong says.
Confidence is perhaps Diong’s biggest takeaway from six weeks of nose-to-the-grindstone work. More than ever, she says, she understands the “why” behind her business. She feels comfortable channeling her passion and pitching her idea to strangers.
Diong has already begun to turn her attention to the next milestone for GoodLove Foods. Earlier in the month, she was accepted to Trout Tank: Pitch Accelerator, a program from the Denver Metro Small Business Development Center that culminates with a pitch at Denver Startup Week.
As the Entrepreneurship@DU faculty present the inaugural BASE Camp cohort with certificates of completion and branded vests, Diong feels a pang of sadness. She’s grown close to the other entrepreneurs in the program and has treasured the time they’ve spent together.
“I don’t want it to be done,” she says, “but also I do. Because now I have all of that confidence. I’m reinvigorated to get out and do what I’m doing. I have all of these connections that I can reach out to if I have questions or problems or just want to reconnect later down the line. … I know moving forward that I have a really strong support system, but I also know I have that pitch bug. I’m ready to go out into the world and start pitching.”