Update: Blacksmith’s Entrepreneurial Trajectory

Initially a Student Interest Group dedicated to coffee appreciation, Blacksmith has evolved into an entrepreneurial venture that now enjoys the ...

Nov 21, 2015

Initially a Student Interest Group dedicated to coffee appreciation, Blacksmith has evolved into an entrepreneurial venture that now enjoys the mentorship and support of NYU Abu Dhabi. Two alumni from the class of 2014, Rafael Scharan and Stephen Underwood, are leading the process of turning Blacksmith into a functioning coffee shop that will open its doors here on Saadiyat Campus.
In a previous interview with The Gazelle, Scharan said he expected a soft launch during the summer of 2015. Scharan and Underwood began working on the project shortly after graduating in May 2014.
“I’m really excited to share that we’ve made tons of progress ... Right now we’re on the brink of starting construction on our space here on campus,” said Scharan during a recent interview. He also added that Blacksmith will be unveiling new branding with the launch.
“I really don’t want to mention any date. Of course we do have our project timelines, but I don’t want to disappoint anyone. It's not an exact science, but it's definitely at the beginning of 2016,” Scharan said when asked when the NYUAD community could expect Blacksmith to open.
According to Scharan, the school has been extremely supportive from the start of Blacksmith’s establishment and vision, providing Blacksmith with office and living space on campus as well as support and mentorship. Scharan also shared that Ramesh Jagannathan, the Vice Provost of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, has served as a standout coach in this regard.
Scharan explained that the larger NYUAD community's excitement about Blacksmith helped keep motivation up for the project. He said both in May and again recently that student engagement is paramount to Blacksmith’s success.
The process of student involvement has been evolving since the beginning.
“We’ve always tried to go around and gather as much feedback, and as much input from the students in order to ensure that we aren't creating something that’s just us and what we want and we like, but what the community wants," said Scharan. "There is actually a significant gap between the way that things are done at an undergraduate level, and the way things are done at a professional business level, especially in an environment like the UAE where they’re still developing the entrepreneurial infrastructure.”
The gap was too difficult to bridge in certain cases, jeopardizing direct partnership with students.
Junior Brittany Trilford was hired by Blacksmith to do design work.
“I was on the design team from the beginning of the project, and contributed to the brainstorming and visualizing of Blacksmith," Trilford wrote to The Gazelle. "After its conception, I worked with Erin Meekhof, class of 2014, on branding. She took the lead on that and I was to work on space design."
Trilford is no longer part of the project.
“There was a lot of freedom for me to craft the role, which led to it becoming a supportive role," she wrote. "This I had not expected."
Trilford said that she and Meekhof would often ask questions about other aspects of the business model, such as future employees, inventory and pricing methods.
"All questions [Scharan] could not answer," she said. "This frustrating role worsened when I studied abroad and communication waned."
Trilford believed that this failed business relationship reflects a lack of student involvement in Blacksmith’s development.
“We bought a student perspective and a gateway to student interest. This was not used or valued. I felt like this worsened as the investor's influence grew and the project moved further and further away from Blacksmith’s organic and original vision. The disrespect my work received reflects the lack of value Blacksmith has of student input. The student voice has been lost, which worries me greatly,” wrote Trilford.
She also acknowledged discomfort about Blacksmith’s progress among the larger student body.
“Resentment has grown among the student body because they don’t know what is going on and in the context of budget cuts, the conclusion many draw is that the early entrepreneur privilege is being abused," wrote Trilford. "This could have been avoided with some community development, such as posting updates on the Facebook page or having a presence in the community so as to show that progress is being attempted.”
Scharan notes that the school’s involvement has been gradually decreasing as Blacksmith gains independence.
“All of our funding came from our Emirati investors. NYU did not give a dime to Blacksmith [and] NYU does not own any shares in Blacksmith,” said Scharan.
Blacksmith has plans for direct engagement with students in the form of internships.
“We’re planning ways of making sure that we are able to implement programs and initiatives that are much more structured. So I’ve already been in conversation with folks at the [Career Development Center] in order to create internship programs,” said Scharan, who sees these internships as a mechanism to enrich the community.
“I hope that all the know-how we’ve been generating with NYUAD will help them to finalize the groundworks for the entrepreneurship program so that students will be well supported as they develop their startups,” he added.
He also shared that the lessons of Blacksmith have been sought by those outside the NYUAD community as awareness of the venture grows.
“I’ll be meeting with a high school student, from an international school here in Abu Dhabi [about Blacksmith]...I’m really happy to be able to do that because a couple of years ago I was in that position. I was going around looking for experienced businessmen and sending them emails and saying, ‘Hey, can we meet?’" shared Scharan.
Robyn Brazzil serves as Head Enabler of the Idea Lab Program, which supplements the 4,000 square foot prototyping facility known as the Idea Lab in A5 on campus. She is currently working to lay the framework for future success by creating an environment of mentors and connections which will foster opportunities for students.
“Idea Lab the program is being developed as a result of some things that we see coming out of the Idea Lab, some of the student projects and student competition groups that are coming out of there," she explained. "Idea Lab ... is managing a program around the entrepreneurship and commercialization process."
As of now, Brazzil’s work is focused on community building.
“This fall I put together a startup series in partnership with Flat6Labs, which is a startup accelerator here in Abu Dhabi, to give our students and our NYUAD community a glimpse into the lean startup methodology, and the teachings and fundamentals of what you need to think about when you’re creating a startup,” said Brazzil.
In time, the school also hopes to provide opportunities for grants and funding for student-led projects in a similar model to NYU New York.
“They have an entrepreneurial institute, and they have several different funding options, and different grants for prototyping for innovation, venture funds for either developing software or hardware-based prototypes. It would be nice to kind of take some of those practices, and eventually set up similar structures here for our students,” said Brazzil.
Brazzil was never specifically involved in Blacksmith, which had already secured investment by the time she took her position at NYUAD.
Finally, Scharan noted that Blacksmith’s evolution has been extremely important for enriching the community it affects.
“Entrepreneurship is much more than meeting deadlines or quantifiable milestones, it’s about enriching the people who are leading that entrepreneurial venture so that they can enrich the people who will be engaging with that particular venture," said Scharan.
Hannah Taylor is opinion editor. Email her at
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