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Coworking Abroad: Startup Weekend in the Azores

This year I was lucky enough to be one of the 15 Business undergrad and graduate students selected to participate in an International Entrepreneurship class. This class was special. It came with the privilege and opportunity to represent America during a trip to São Miguel, one of the nine Azorean islands of Portugal, during spring break. The goal of this trip was to get American business students to collaborate with Portuguese locals during Startup Weekend.

Honestly, I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I accepted and enrolled in this class. I had heard about Startup Weekend before but had never attended one or even looked into it. When you’re presented with a class that includes a trip to Portugal, you don’t hesitate. I signed up immediately. The eight days I spent on the island and 54 hours at Startup Weekend Azores was the greatest experience of my life.

Azores fields

What is Startup Weekend?

Startup Weekend is a 54 hour event from Friday night to Sunday night where students and community members work together and compete to create a startup business. Anyone is allowed to register and pitch an initial idea or become a member of a team. After ideas are pitched, participants select an idea they want to help work on and groups are formed. This is where the chaos begins.

Groups now have the remaining time to develop their company name, logo and business model while analyzing their target market, cost structure, customer wants and needs (by actually getting out of the building and talking to them) and producing a minimal viable product. During this frenzy, mentors, coaches, sponsors, investors and other experienced professionals are there to help teams navigate the development of their startups.

Startup weekend work

On Sunday, business pitches and presentations are put together and presented to a panel of judges to determine the winning company, whose members are then awarded a prize. It is, to say the least, an insane 54 hours.

UPDATE: UMass Dartmouth is hosting a Startup Weekend THIS WEEKEND (3/31 – 4/2)! Anyone can buy tickets and register here before Friday at noon. Come innovate and collaborate with us!

International Learning

When we first arrived on the Island of São Miguel it was a week before Startup Weekend and we had to learn a lot more about the area before working with locals and creating a business that would be viable there. Our hosts at Nonagon, a Science & Technology Park, took us on educational and incredible tours to learn about the culture, history, economics and businesses on the Island. They also hired a camera man and drone to capture our adventures and made this amazing video for us.

Nonagon is an incredible facility and company focused on science, technology, innovation, and the development of human capital. In their space they house major local companies, offer coworking space, and support entrepreneurs developing startups with their Incubator Go-ON.

Created in January 2012, the Nonagon Association’s mission is to support the technological dynamization and training of qualified human resources in the field of information and communications systems, and the monitoring and observation of the Earth, Space and Sea; To strengthen collaboration and liaison between its members and between them and the scientific and business community, to stimulate cooperation with other entities, seeking national or international partnerships around common objectives and towards the development of scientific and technological centers.


Nonagon – Lagoa, São Miguel

Not only is the building itself incredible, but the people who work with Nonagon and inside it are even better. Our entire trip was put together by the Science & Technology Park’s staff and there is no way I could ever thank them enough. Startup weekend is 100% led by volunteer community leaders and it is amazing how they spend months of their time organizing this event for hopeful entrepreneurs.

Cross-cultural Collaboration

My friends and family have all been asking me what my favorite part of the trip was, which is a fair question with a very difficult answer. There were so many beautiful sites, fun excursions, and incredible memories made but I have to say that meeting and working with the locals on the island was the most meaningful to me.

Startup weekend

For the event I became the only American, only woman, and the youngest member on my chosen team. I went into the event with the goal of getting out of my comfort zone and branching out by not working with my fellow classmates that I knew and worked with before – It was the best decision I could have made. My teammates were all very intelligent men with great ideas and I had an amazing time working with them. Not only did I learn a lot about them and how they work, but I learned a lot about myself and what I bring to a team in a real world setting.

The personalities and skills of my team members were very dynamic and diverse. We had two older men in our group who had been there, done that and knew a lot about how businesses and the government operated on the island. The other two guys on my team were closer to my age and had very innovative ideas and amazing computer and design skills. I brought my business management and leadership skills to the table and together we made a very well rounded team.

Playing the Part – Pushy Woman

Despite the fact that I was the youngest member of my group as well as the only American and woman, I was delegated the leadership role. I helped organize ideas, described to them how the Business Model Canvas works (a major topic that we had been studying in class at UMass) and gave the final pitch presentation in front of the judges and audience. We all viewed each other equally and recognized that we all had different skills and abilities that we brought to the team and we took on tasks accordingly.

Azores my team

I wouldn’t say that I was surprised that this happened but I wasn’t really expecting it. I often find myself taking on a leadership role in groups out of necessity, but those teams were different. In most of the groups that I have been a part of we all had the same culture, spoke the same language, were about the same age, and we had relatively even gender ratios. None of those aspects were the same but I was still able to step up and hold my own while improving the dynamics of our group.

I wasn’t judged by my age, gender or my hair color, but by the intelligence my teammates saw in me and my ability to communicate effectively between them. I learned more about myself by the end of the weekend than I had expected to.

To my surprise, I actually like people

azores waterfall

Nordeste, Azores

While I am deeply in love with the green land and naturalness of the island, I really admired how the people that lived there treated it with respect and wanted it to remain as undeveloped as possible. I keep thinking about this and am honestly surprised with how I truly feel about it. I’ve never considered myself a huge people person and I usually say that I am inspired by nature and animals rather than the actions of people, but this experience has changed that.

I am extremely inspired by the way the Azorean people view their home, protect their land and hope to improve their poor economy in the most eco-friendly way. They don’t take their environmental impact lightly and work together, business-to-business, person-to-person to benefit each other, simply because they can and they want to.

GW azores lakes

Lagoa Do Fogo

Sometimes it’s hard for me to have faith in humanity because I often don’t agree with or understand American culture and motivations. The people of São Miguel have really showed me that I can have faith. They hold themselves individually responsible for their environmental impact and that individual decision makes all the difference. I am extremely honored to have been able to meet and work with so many amazing people from both São Miguel and UMass Dartmouth while on this trip, and am lucky enough to have gained some lifelong friends in the process.

Hopefully I can return to the island as soon as possible with a one-way ticket. I may need to pack all of my classmates and mentors in my suitcase because it was them that really made this experience as phenomenal as it was.

~ A personal, huge thank you to the Azores Startup Weekend organizers; Teresa Ferreira, Ricardo Machado, Toby Stapleton, Emanuel Raposo, Rui Amaral and Tiago Freitas as well as, the event facilitator Sergio Ferreira, my professor Peter Karlson, the UMass Dartmouth administration team that made this happen, my classmates, group members, mentors and everyone else who participated in the event!



Lisa Schiavone
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