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Achtung, entrepreneurs!

Leading the planning and execution of StartLabs’ TechTrek to Germany in 2022 was a life-changing experience.

group of students posing on a viewing balcony overlooking a city
Adriano Hernandez ’22 (top right) and fellow StartLabs students on their TechTrek to Germany in 2022.Courtesy of Startlabs

At MIT, it’s easy to get sucked into the daily grind. Throughout my time at the Institute, I observed that most MIT students have a borderline masochistic tendency to want to one-up everyone else academically. I had a friend who took nine classes in a semester, and I even heard of someone taking two virtual finals at the same time. However, if there’s anything I learned at MIT, it’s that it’s impossible to do everything. And for those of us who want to become entrepreneurs, the most important elements of success are focus and determination. There are many possible lives you could live and ideas you could help bring to market—and precisely which ones will pan out is close to unknowable. So you need to get your hands dirty early—tackling real-life challenges—and keep iterating until you succeed. What really matters in life is how you live it, more than what, exactly, you do.

students giving a thumbs up from the stage of a presentation
COURTESY OF STARTLABS

StartLabs, one of MIT’s undergraduate entrepreneurship clubs, aims to give students the tools, community, and encouragement they need to become successful entrepreneurs. I joined my freshman fall because I wanted to found a company during or after my time at MIT. The club runs mixers, pitch competitions, and educational events geared toward helping technically savvy undergraduates both found and join early-stage startups. StartLabs encourages students to start tinkering early through programs like Sandbox, giving them the resources necessary to take that first step into entrepreneurship—and to keep pushing through the struggles they encounter on their journey.

COURTESY OF STARTLABS

I was fortunate enough to go to two TechTreks with StartLabs—one to Switzerland and one to Germany. Tech Treks typically involve a trip to another country with the goal of connecting with and learning about entrepreneurial and innovation ecosystems around the world. With support from MIT organizations, grants, and innovative corporations and startups in the target country, they give students the opportunity to broaden their horizons by leaving the MIT bubble and see how people operate elsewhere.

For me, the TechTreks were refreshing and enriching—an adventure as well as a team-building experience. In the spring of 2019, when I was a freshman, I went to Building 5 with Brendan and Anthony at 9 a.m. to send out hundreds of sponsorship emails. We really felt like hustlers, and back then it seemed to me that if we worked together, anything was possible. In Switzerland we shared the same jokes, saw the same surreal presentation—a postmodernist work of art in the form of a series of video frames—at EPFL (La École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne), and had group conversations about life deep into the night. I felt I was really forming stronger bonds, and even through the disruption of the pandemic, I maintained many of those relationships.

The German TechTrek over spring break in 2022 was somewhat similar, but since I led the planning and execution of the trip, it gave me a new perspective. I never realized how hard it would be to plan and run such an event. Even with help from coorganizers Daniela Velez ’24, Erika Pilpre ’25, and Joy Ma ’24, who all devoted many hours of work for two months before the trip to make it possible, I dropped a class to be able to spend over an hour a day doing outreach and logistics. The combination of covid, the invasion of Ukraine, and general administrative work that in past years had been handled by others added a lot of work beyond the nontrivial marathon that is outreach.

COURTESY OF STARTLABS
COURTESY OF STARTLABS

In Germany we lived life at 2x speed, squeezing in almost three visits a day in just under a week. We were almost late to nearly all of them because there weren’t enough hours in the day. For me and my fellow organizers, it was particularly crazy, not only because we had to be on top of things to the minute, but also because we had to improvise—a lot. The first two nights we had both real and false-alarm cases of covid and had to move mattresses up and down stairs (in secret) at 1 a.m. to create a quarantine room in the hostel where we were staying. On the fourth day, I got off the train at the wrong station, rescheduled a visit for two hours later than planned, and had to run to a covid facility to be tested before it closed. The fifth day I couldn’t find an open store to buy a bottle of wine as a gift for one of our German contacts, so I talked a restaurant into selling me one.

Adriano Hernandez ’22 (in blue shirt) talks with an entrepreneur in Germany.
COURTESY OF STARTLABS

Keeping up such a fast pace forced me to rely on my fellow organizers, teaching me once more the importance of a team. It also meant that we were exposed to a lot of different businesses and organizations, which gave me a clearer sense of how big the world is and made the trip feel longer than it actually was. Beyond that, we bonded over conversations about life. I hadn’t really talked with anyone about my personal worries and struggles in many years, and it helped me gain more mastery over them, feel more connected with others, and understand that the daily grind at MIT is not the be-all and end-all but part of a longer arc encompassing both the future and the past.

I wouldn’t hesitate to call the TechTrek to Germany a life-changing experience. Some of the 20 other students who went on the trip told me that it really helped them gain perspective on their academic and entrepreneurial work. For me, too, both TechTreks felt like a lifetime in another world and led me to find more long-term meaning and vision for my quotidian endeavors at MIT.

Adriano Hernandez ’22 earned his BS in computer science and engineering and is now first engineer at a tech startup in San Francisco.

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