Necessity is often the mother of invention, and Bryant University entrepreneur and Collegiate eCommerce Ignite competition champion Nina Karlin ’24 can attest. A three-sport student-athlete — basketball, soccer, and softball — in high school and a member of Bryant’s Division I Women’s Basketball team, Karlin loves competing, pushing herself to succeed, and the bond she’s formed with her teammates. But there’s one thing about being an athlete she doesn’t love: smelly shoes.
“I’d always have stinky shoes by the end of practice, or games, which wasn’t always the most appealing to my parents when I got in the car, or my roommates when I got back to the dorm,” says Karlin with a laugh.
But Karlin wasn’t willing to accept the smell of defeat. As a college student, she began to develop the idea for a three-in-one shoe accessory that would help prevent creasing, eliminate odor, and absorb moisture. To her surprise, there weren’t any other rivals in the same space. “I looked at the market and there was no other product that does what mine does,” she says.
And so, The Fresh Kick — her competition-winning idea for a cleaner, dryer, friendlier-smelling shoe —was born. And, with the help of a supportive community, she’s bringing it to the world.
Gone to the dogs
Karlin’s entrepreneurship journey started at the age of nine with the founding of her dog-walking and dog-boarding business, The Dog Whisperer, in Providence, RI. “My mom told me that I couldn’t have a dog of my own,” she recollects. “And I said to myself, ‘No, I don't accept that answer,’ and found a different way.”
She’s always been focused on innovative ways to make things happen. “I just think that when there's a need, I want to be the problem solver and fix it,” Karlin reflects. “When I'm passionate about something, nothing will get in my way.”
A fast-growing success, The Dog Whisperer gave Karlin an abundance of time with her new furry friends, but the new responsibilities she took on also sparked in her a love of entrepreneurship and a desire to chart her own course. The Fresh Kick, she says, is a continuation of that mission: find a need and work to solve it, however malodorous the problem.
At Bryant, Karlin’s found an ecosystem that’s helping her work toward her goal of providing others with the solutions they never expected. As someone who admits that she’s not a great test-taker, but thrives when she can learn first-hand, she points to classes like “New Product Development” with Adjunct Professor of Marketing Tim Wolski as especially valuable.
“People don't really care about your name; they care about what you have to offer them. They want to know ‘Why should I invest in you?’
The course introduces students to the numerous stages an organization executes to bring a new product to market — a perfect fit for an aspiring entrepreneur, Karlin says. “The class is constantly asking us, ‘What are you going to do in this scenario?’ It's all about developing real world knowledge that will really help me in the future,’ ” she says.
In another Wolski course, “Entrepreneurial Marketing,” she learned how to sell a new venture, “Homecooked,” a mix of Uber Eats and Airbnb she developed with a team of other students.
This combination of marketing skills and how-to knowledge, Karlin says, is helping her take The Fresh Kick to the next level. “People don't really care about your name; they care about what you have to offer them. They want to know ‘Why should I invest in you?’ ”
Karlin chose Bryant, she says, because she knew the community would be invested in her. “I wanted that one-on-one connection with my professors,” she states. “I wanted them to not just know my name. I wanted them to know me personally.”
Wolski, says Karlin, has been an invaluable mentor throughout her time developing The Fresh Kick. “He's always just a call or text away — and he's always willing to talk with me before or after class,” she says. “But he doesn’t tell me just what I want to hear. He’s always challenging me to do more.”
Senior Lecturer of Management Adam Rubin, who taught Karlin’s “Global Foundations of Business” course during her first year, has also been a catalyst for her success. Karlin has returned to him throughout her senior year for advice. “I have gotten his opinion on manufacturers, the name of my product, and even the logo of my product,” she notes.
“I think that one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that the connections you make are everything,”
Karlin has also honed her skills with help from the Bryant network, including interning with Trailblaze Marketing, founded by Christopher Parisi ’10, and House Enterprise, co-founded by Willliam Tondo ’19 and Jake Zimmer ’19. “Having these two internships really opened the doors to so many different opportunities that I would've never had without these connections.” she says, from meeting investors to practicing what she’s learned in a real business environment.
Her experiences at both Bryant and through her internships, Karlin says, have opened her eyes to the power of networking. “I think that one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that the connections you make are everything,” she says — especially when you’re a young entrepreneur just starting out. “There are so many people who have so many connections to different opportunities, and they all want to help each other. There’s a real entrepreneurial spirit and focus on innovation that people want to share.”
The Bryant community has supported her in other ways as well. When she first came up with the idea for The Fresh Kick, she applied for, and received, a Bryant University entrepreneurship grant, which aided her in hiring the engineers she needed to develop her prototype.
And, of course, she’s reached out to her fellow students for feedback on The Fresh Kick. “They’re my target audience, after all,” she points out.
Winning and beyond
It was through Bryant’s chapter of the Collegiate Entrepreneurs Organization that Karlin entered an entrepreneurship contest organized by Andrew Bikash and Ben Grossman, the founders of Rhode Island-based KANU, a virtual marketplace that helps college students develop and launch their ventures on campus. Through the competition, held in April, Bryant students provided mockups of their ideas online through the Kanu platform and were judged based on the number of pre-sales they made, the feedback they received, and storefront views.
The Fresh Kick, Karlin soon discovered, was more than a novel idea, it was a hit — earning her first prize in the competition. When Bikash and Grossman decided to partner with RI Hub, a Providence-based nonprofit devoted to supporting entrepreneurs, and expand the competition to students from schools across the state, she took the plunge again — and again came in first place.
“If I can make this happen, I can make the next thing happen too.”
“I think I always knew in the back of my mind that I was going to win,” she admits. “If I want to do something, I'll make it happen. When I’m really determined, I’ll wake up earlier in the morning and stay up later to do everything I can to get the job done.”
The external validation was still valuable, though. “It was pretty reassuring — and motivating too,” she says. “If I can make this happen, I can make the next thing happen too.”
Fresh off her win, Karlin is reaching out to manufacturers to produce The Fresh Kick and using her marketing acumen to put together other aspects of her business, including a logo and marketing video.
When she graduates in May, Karlin will be joining Venture for America, a national nonprofit and two-year fellowship program that gives recent college graduates entrepreneurial experiences by pairing them with startups in need of support. She’ll still be working on The Fresh Kick though. Karlin’s already thinking ahead to new marketing opportunities, pitch competitions, investor presentations, and connections that will help her push her company forward.
“With the experience I’ll get from my fellowship experience, I'm going to hit the ground running even harder,” she promises — and fresher, too.