Students learn business end of starting a startup
By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau
The Colangelo College of Business provides students with a lot of straight talk about what it takes to be an entrepreneur. And it doesn’t get more direct than what several master’s program cohorts heard Thursday night.
Rachel Mertensmeyer, the first speaker of the spring semester in the CCOB Dean’s Speaker Series, came to the Grand Canyon University campus to tell them the story of how she moved from prominent roles in the corporate world to creating her own startup.
The catalyst was a serious injury in 2016 that left her with a pile of medical bills – 38 in all from 11 providers. That gave her the idea to start Rexpay, which seeks to provide a better medical payments solution for patients. It also gave her an authoritative voice to provide this advice to anyone who thinks they have what it takes to be an entrepreneur:
“I would tell them to find a product or business idea that they believe in. They’ve experienced a problem personally so (a) they understand it personally, (b) there’s a core belief that’s going to drive them beyond money.
“I think if you’re doing it just to make money and just for the glory dream, you should pack your bags and go to corporate because it’s really hard to make money in the startup world. You have to do it for a greater purpose, and that gives you the courage to keep going.”
Mertensmeyer cited several studies that demonstrate the need for her startup: According to multiple sources, medical debt is the No. 1 cause of bankruptcy in the U.S., about 20 percent of Americans have credit problems because of medical debt, and 90 percent of the bills contain errors.
Rexpay, located near downtown Phoenix in the Center for Entrepreneurial Innovation, is designed to help patients manage the bills and payments all in one place. It’s part of an incubator for health care startups and is on course to begin beta testing next week.
But Mertensmeyer took a cautious approach before she committed to leaving behind a corporate career that included jobs with Unilever and Avon in New York and BBDO and WPP in Shanghai (she speaks Mandarin in addition to English).
“The first step we took was market research – really uncovering, ‘Is this my personal experience alone or is there data that says this experience extends to a mass of people?’” she said. “The second step was doing consumer research, talking to the real people and getting their feedback on ‘What are your key pain points and what is the solution you’d like to have?’”
When she decided to go for it, it earned her the usual “What are you doing?” questioning from the people who know her best. She emphasized to the students that they must be “exhilarated by risk” if they’re going to make the jump to a startup.
“You have to really believe in what you’re doing,” she said, “and believe in the potential of it.”
Mertensmeyer grew up in Glendale and went to Glendale Community College before moving on to Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif.
“At first I was planning on being a doctor and wanted to do the Doctors Without Borders thing, and then I realized I couldn’t stand the sight of blood,” she said, laughing. “Then I went into foreign policy studies because I thought, well, I still want to do things internationally. I thought I’d be an ambassador and be in the foreign policy department.”
Even though both of her parents are entrepreneurs, she never thought that was the path for her. She still didn’t think so after graduation, when she learned persistence close to home – she applied to 26 Starbucks locations and got turned down at all 26.
So she took a job selling wine in China before moving on to Western Luxury Brands and then the Ford Motor Company. Belief in herself was key.
“Don’t be afraid of applying for something you’re not qualified for,” she told the students.
She also wants to be an inspiration to women. Mertensmeyer has encountered gender discrimination in various forms throughout her career and said her favorite question is, “Aren’t you a little young to be a CEO?”
“Would a man get that?” she wondered.
And what happened to her medical debt? Fortunately, she was represented by a pro bono lawyer and was able to reach a settlement that she could pay off.
“Otherwise, I would still be in debt today,” she said.
Spoken like someone who has been there, which is what the Dean’s Speaker Series is all about.
“Rachel’s personal and professional story was outstanding for our graduate students to hear,” said Dr. Randy Gibb, the CCOB dean. “Her comparison of corporate versus startup risks and rewards provided the real-world insight that complements our MBA coursework.”
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or firstname.lastname@example.org.