George Guarnieri talks about running the world’s largest student-run company
The Boston community has a unique resource in Harvard Student Agencies (HSA), a nonprofit corporation that gives Harvard students the opportunity to manage the largest student-run company in the world. HSA has close ties with Xfund — the sitting president of HSA always serves on Xfund’s board.
We sat down with current HSA president and Xfund advisor George Guarnieri to discuss the challenges of leading the world’s largest student-run company through a pandemic, and how the HSA-Xfund connection benefits students. George is a Harvard senior studying economics and computer science; he’s been with HSA for close to three years and was elected president in 2020.
What’s the relationship between Xfund and HSA?
The relationship between Xfund and HSA is really tremendous, and I think it’s grown a lot over the past year. It’s been fantastic to work with Patrick — he really is a great friend to the firm, and so is Jadyn Bryden, who was previously Chief Strategy Officer of HSA.
Xfund has given us the opportunity to take the really great talent at Harvard and offer them insights into the world of entrepreneurship and venture, with Patrick and his team as the source of that information. It’s really hard to access that kind of knowledge elsewhere.
For example, we launched a new program called the First Year Entrepreneurship Program this past year, with Xfund as a partner. It was fantastic; everybody had a really great experience and it was an opportunity for incoming freshmen to get exposure to entrepreneurship before they even come into school. We also held an innovation challenge within HSA, with Patrick and his team as the judges. So with events like that — where Harvard students can be exposed to entrepreneurship and innovation — Xfund has been invaluable.
Is there a lot of interest in venture and entrepreneurism on campus?
Yeah, 100%. Tech is such a common path for Harvard students now — everyone wants to work at Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, you name it. Because so many Harvard students are tailoring their experience around going to work at these tech companies, they’re developing the skills for that career path. Somewhere along the way, maybe they have a great idea, and because they have the technical background to pursue it, they go in that direction.
I also think you see a lot of Harvard students with great tech backgrounds, but a lot of uncertainty around the practicality of “how do I go about launching this as a venture?” That’s where Xfund comes into play as our resident expert.
As president of HSA, you’re an advisor to Xfund. What does that entail?
The great thing about being an advisor to Xfund is that Harvard’s ecosystem is relatively small, so if Patrick wants to know who are the best entrepreneurs on campus, or if there are any students with great ideas, it’s easy for me to find them and direct them to Xfund.
There are a lot of Harvard students who don’t understand the importance of getting funding or haven’t even thought about it — or they’re interested in funding, but have no idea where the heck to go. Thanks to Xfund, I can say, “Hey, if you have a funding need, we have a great partner we work with that’s really student-friendly. I’d be happy to put you in contact with them.” That’s a big part of being an advisor and it’s why Xfund is such a valuable asset to Harvard’s community.
How did you become involved with Harvard Student Agencies?
When I came to college, I was taking all the intro-level, cookie cutter classes, like intro-level economics and intro-level computer science. But I had wrestled since third grade and I was used to being part of a team — so what I really missed in that first semester of college was the team dynamic.
On the recommendation of my roommate, I joined HSA the second semester of my freshman year. I ran our dorm essentials business — services like laundry delivery and micro-fridge rentals. We launched a new bed rental product and that was my introduction to business. In my second year with the company, I oversaw The Harvard Shop, a retail operation in Harvard Square with three brick-and-mortar locations.
Then, COVID hit. I thought it would a really interesting time to lead an organization, so I ran for President, won, and have been around since.
What was it like to manage HSA through a pandemic?
When I signed on as President, I knew what I was getting myself into. We were going to hire and train everyone remotely, and we had no idea whether we would have any in-person component.
We’re students and most of the time, we can defer to some business expert who’s already faced the problem we’re facing. But there’s no book on managing during a pandemic.
I don’t think we had a formula from Day 1. However, our strategy was to execute quickly, try new things, and see what worked and what didn’t. We were available for our people, let them know they were being supported, and we were there as mentors and coaches. I think that worked for us. Especially early on, we didn’t know how our businesses would be affected. I honestly think the best approach is to keep trying things until something sticks — never give up.
So how did you get through the past year? What changes did you make?
What makes HSA special is the relationships that we form. Early on, we were worried how we would continue to foster organic, meaningful relationships when we weren’t in person.
From the management perspective, the solution came down to this: we needed to stop viewing ourselves as disadvantaged by being online and instead see how we could make the online environment an advantage.
For example, thanks to Zoom, connecting with our team is easier now. We can connect more frequently than we would normally be able to, and do so at times we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. Before, people would have to walk over from class to my office, then we had to sit down and we’d only get five minutes to meet. I think the relationships aspect was difficult at first, but then we realized it wasn’t going to be lost just because we’re online.
In addition, Jim McKellar, HSA’s general manager, is worthy of a lot of recognition for the role he played at HSA this past year, as well as the rest of our full-time staff members. Their presence has been invaluable and it’s made all the difference for students.
What do you enjoy most about your work with HSA and Xfund?
What I’ve enjoyed most about working with HSA and Xfund are the people I’ve met and the relationships I’ve built. I’ve formed some lifelong relationships, and I think those are pretty rare. I think a lot of the people I work with now, I’ll be in contact with for years — I think they’ll be at my wedding.
Any advice for student founders?
There’s a lot of pressure when you’re operating a business at our age to feel like you should be the expert on everything. But I’ve found that there are a lot of really smart people who have already figured out a lot of the things we’re trying to figure out. Much of our progress at HSA this past year has come from accepting that we’re not the experts on certain things, and that it’s 100% okay to speak with someone who knows more. That’s how you learn, that’s how you push progress forward, and that’s how you optimize systems. We’ve done a really great job with this over the past year. It’s so much more important to know what you don’t know, than to expect yourself to know everything.
As I get ready to graduate, I’m excited about continuing to serve HSA as an alumni, being a mentor to incoming students, and continuing to be a friend to Xfund by funneling entrepreneurs their way. It’s always “people first” for me.
Originally published at https://blog.xfund.com on January 9, 2022.