Evolving Leadership: How FIRST has influenced my Entrepreneurial Journey
Blog post by ELP Student Nisreen Bahrainwala (Computer Science | Class of 2022)
My involvement with FIRST robotics started in 10th grade. At that time, I thought I wanted to go into medicine, but my friends encouraged me to give the club a try. Little did I know that it would change the course of my life.
FIRST taught me many technical skills, from learning how to CAD and 3D print, to working with various power tools, learning basic electrical and pneumatic concepts, and more entrepreneurial skills, such as writing a business plan, managing a budget, and coordinating outreach across an entire school district. However, I do not want to focus on these skills. Rather, I want to focus on what the overall experience has taught me, and how those ideals and lessons can be applied to higher education and professional life.
Teamwork is everything
There is nothing quite like the energy in the pit area of a FIRST robotics competition. Within each 8-foot-by-10-foot space, there are five or more people clustered around a robot, or huddled over a tool bench, working to fix or improve their machines.
Teams share tools, trade ideas or help each other fix parts. FIRST coined a term for this, Gracious Professionalism and Coopertition, which amounts to the idea that competition and mutual benefit are not two separate entities. I never thought I would find that level of collaboration between competitors again until I joined ELP.
Although everyone is working on their own startup ideas, and have their own goals, and areas of speciality, there is not a single person in the ELP Winter 2020 cohort that would hesitate in helping someone out by sharing their knowledge or time. I try to bring this same energy into whatever I undertake.
Sometimes there is a misconception regarding the entrepreneurial lifestyle, and many believe that it is a solitary undertaking, breaking away from the beaten path. While this may be true, there is plenty of support one can find along the way, and to this day I always try to stay open minded, learn from others, and help out whenever and wherever I can.
One of the major differences from transitioning from a leadership position on a robotics team to my position as president of Blockchain at Michigan (BAM) was a lack of defined goals.
FIRST was easy, one knew what the robot had to perform, and the six week timeline was already set. Leadership was more figuring out what colors to place within the lines of a picture, rather than drawing the lines themselves.
With BAM, there was no organized contest, and I had to quickly learn to draw the lines and figure out the colors. I returned back to the principles taught in FIRST.
Many robotics teams work in subgroups, with one student leading each subgroup. These students then report to an executive board. The main reason that this model works is because it forces delegation. There is no one student that is an expert in electrical and programming, or graphic design and pneumatics, and it forces people to trust each other and their individual specialities. Most importantly, it requires planning and extensive communication. These are all skills which I employ everyday, and it has helped me build my “safety-net” style of leadership.
I firmly believe that a leader should be able to take risks, and help drive a team toward a mission and vision. But I also think that a leader cannot simply forge ahead and expect the team to follow them. A leader must empower their teammates, and give them a structure that allows each member of the team to take risks to achieve their goal, hence allowing everyone to move ahead, not just the leader. This works through communication and trust in each member of the team.
The most important thing in robotics was staying true to yourself and your roots. As a team, we valued each individual’s perspective and input, and those principles have stayed with me.
The essence of entrepreneurship lies in individuality, and the ability to stand apart and create something new. Although robotics had some set definitions, no robot was exactly the same, and each team had its own culture and personality.
Throughout my college career and beyond, I hope to remain true to my core values, and create a positive net effect on the world.