It all began with a trip to France! Kathleen Hu, Founder of Dibbs, winner of Illinois Innovation Prize (IIP) in 2018, shares her entrepreneurial journey to launching Dibbs, expansion plans for Dibbs with the IIP prize money of $20,000, and the increasing popularity of social entrepreneurship.
While I was in France, I was using an app similar to Dibbs. I wanted to bring back the concept to the United States because I loved the objective of reducing unnecessary food waste by redirecting the food to someone who will use it. That’s how Dibbs started.
Before Dibbs, I had a few ideas on my mind that I developed with friends but did not bring it to market. I re-used a vintage fabric to make bike seat covers. I collaborated with people from Ghana to design international friendship bracelets. I made reusable, collapsible grocery bags with a business model to give back to the community.
Did you always dream of launching your own company? Did you plan to launch your startup in college?
Not always. I love working on personal projects, creating things, and learning. I enjoy finding new, creative ways to solve important problems. I also enjoy building and developing teams. Working on a startup became a natural path to combine my interests.
I didn’t plan to launch a startup in college. However, when I was in High School, I attended the Women in Engineering overnight camp on campus where I met Supriya Hobbs and Janna Eaves, founders of Miss Possible. They inspired me to see more of what’s possible in college and I felt encouraged to launch a startup.
Do you think college is the right time to launch a startup? Why or why not?
Yes! Being a student means access to incredible resources. Also, there are relatively low stakes in failure. However, being a student, it’s difficult to work on a startup at the same time. Careful prioritization is important.
Do you think social entrepreneurship as a business model is getting popular? Is it sustainable?
I do think that the social entrepreneurship business model is getting popular as millennials are more impact-focused than previous generations. However, social entrepreneurship has its unique challenges - being sustainable is a major one.
You won the 2018 Illinois Innovation Prize, how did the experience and the prize money of $20,000 impact your startup?
The caliber of all the finalists astounded me, and I am proud to be at a university with immense support for innovation. Winning the Illinois Innovation Prize felt like a validation to the impact I've created in our community with Dibbs. It gave me more confidence to push my start-up further. The Illinois Innovation Prize money is helping us bootstrap development and expand into new cities in the coming months! We’re looking at establishing operations in other college towns. It is one focus in the near future.
How did participating in Cozad New Venture Challenge further your idea?
Cozad provided us with valuable feedback, an opportunity to connect with awesome people in the entrepreneurship community and helped us learn about business plans and pitching through the informative workshops.
How was the iVenture Accelerator experience?
It was phenomenal. iVenture helped me find many resources in the community I didn’t know of before. The cohort experience developed over summer with everyone working all the time on their ventures is incomparable.
Were there other campus entrepreneurial resources or classes you could utilize for Dibbs?
I love the people in Founders, a student RSO at the University of Illinois. Founders organizes relevant events and invites interesting people to speak to student entrepreneurs.
As a woman in entrepreneurship, what strategies did you find most helpful to overcome any barriers you may have encountered?
My strategy is taking calculated risks, starting small, and becoming more comfortable at the edge of your comfort zone. This is typically where people learn the most.
Also, sometimes women can be more empathetic and collaborative than males. These traits are critical in designing solutions people use. Whatever your strengths, be sure to use them!
What kind of market research did you do for Dibbs? Who are your competitors?
My market research involved having several conversations with potential and target users. I am not sure about competitors, but, there are incredible organizations in Dibbs’ landscape that I admire such as Boulder Food Rescue, and Robin Hood Army.
What, according to you, is the biggest challenge when choosing entrepreneurship? Do you have advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
One of my biggest challenges with entrepreneurship was a feeling of not fitting in. Getting plugged into the entrepreneurial community here has been instrumental to my happiness. My advice to aspiring entrepreneurs would be to surround yourself with supportive, idealistic people, and find a mentor! One of my awesome mentors introduced me to the concept of the Comparison Fallacy: other people are not you, and you are not other people. Thus, there is little reason to compare oneself to other people. Instead, find your own values, priorities, and goals. We’ll all end up where we need to be.
What’s next for you? Any other startup ideas in mind?
I’m attending Watson Institute’s Spring Incubator, and I’m beyond excited to work alongside passionate people on Dibbs full-time after college. My long-term goal is to do something impactful internationally within the intersection of health and sustainability.