Indomitable hope, unending drive

Shah shaves on Tuesday before his 8 a.m. class. Photo by MARIJA MAJERLE.

This story was published on the front page of the Minnesota Daily 3/11/2009. It received second place in the AAJA Student Journalist contest for feature writing.

At 6:03 a.m. Tuesday, students across the University of Minnesota were sleeping, but at the sound of his first alarm, the CEO of Mxapp and Shah Ink greets the rainy day.

For a moment he lays in bed, checking his red BlackBerry Curve, his “obsession” that never leaves his side. But instead of stepping out into a high rise penthouse, this CEO tiptoes about his two-bedroom Dinnaken House apartment, cautiously avoiding waking his two roommates.

Parag Shah, a University of Minnesota entrepreneur senior, is no normal student or CEO.

After showering, shaving and preparing his white dress shirt on his mother’s pink-striped ironing board, he yawns and takes a seat on his moth-eaten couch, looking ahead to a day of meetings, interviews, projects and school.

Almost reluctantly, he throws the white shirt over his black T-shirt and puts on black pants — a far cry from his typical Chicago Bears hoodie — before walking out into the rain.

He strolls into to his first class, chatting it up with the professors and students as he takes his seat in the back. The class, Carlson Venture Enterprises, is a graduate class where he is only one of five undergraduates. The students serve as consultants for Twin Cities businesses — impressive, but nothing Shah hasn’t done before.

As a gangly high school sophomore Shah started Shah Ink, a one-man company selling ink cartridges to businesses as a mediator between the corporations and the manufacturer.

From there, Shah tried and failed several other times on ideas ranging from research databases to booster club discount cards, but he thinks he’s found an idea that will take him places in his new start up, Mxapp.

Shah’s company is a small outfit, creating a program that hungry customers can use to order food on their cell phones — something he came up with while standing in line at a café. The idea began to materialize when Shah received a $1,500 seed grant from the Gary S. Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship.

His company’s application, Lunchbox, is just in the works, but if his plans pan out, Shah thinks he can take it to a national scale.

It works like a mobile food takeout counter, except it would include thousands of items from every participating restaurant in the area.

Menus are posted along with ingredients and customer product ratings, and with the tap of a finger, viewers can browse the application by food item, like “burger,” or by area restaurant type. Then if they find something they like, they can push another button and instantly order it for takeout and leave a rating of the food item if they’ve already ate it.

But the application doesn’t exist yet, and reality has its speed bumps. For Shah and his company, the largest hurdles are lack of money and the length of the process. The company has no capital to pay employees beyond the grant and the $500 the five partners put in collectively, so paying programmers and convincing restaurants to participate has been an uphill battle.

9:45 a.m.

Shah holds an iPod touch displaying an interactive model of the Mxapp application, Lunchbox. Photo by MARIJA MAJERLE.

For half an hour of his 9:45 a.m. class in Hanson Hall’s International Dairy Queen Room, Shah pulls out a laptop and sets up meetings for later that day, while his classmates stare attentively at a PowerPoint presentation.

On average, Shah gets 75 e-mails a day and checks his BlackBerry at a minimum of every five minutes. But this class, which he barely pays attention to, is actually one of his favorites.

He admits his passion for entrepreneurship wins over his dedication to school. He’ll gladly skip class to schedule an interview with a potential employee or run out to a restaurant to pitch to a client. He doesn’t care for the theoretical, only for what builds his business.

“There’s priorities, it’s what you’re passionate about and you do it,” he said.

After class Shah strolls across the skywalk between Hanson Hall and the Carlson building, fist bumping students and calling out to professors he’s met as Vice President of the Entrepreneur Club, where he met his roommate and business partner, Dominick Grande, when the two were “food freshman” assigned to barter down the price on food orders for group meetings.

11:45 a.m.

Then in an instant, he turns on his stern, confident persona that works as his business armor. At 11:45 a.m. Shah joins other members of the Carlson Ventures Enterprise class to consult a local health provider.

The market research the students conducted in a contract with the client is nothing new to Shah, who did the same work for other medical professionals in the past, and at 1:30 p.m. he exits the room as he entered, confident and austere. He checks his e-mail as he gets in line for his Carlson café burrito.

2:15 p.m.

A different Shah walks into class at 2:15 p.m., lies back and scoffs at a quiz the professor returns.

Shah writes down the agenda for the Mxapp weekly business meeting in the Carlson School of Management. Photo by MARIJA MAJERLE.

“To show you how worthless this class is, for this test, we had to write a memo, which is something I think they did in the ‘50s,” Shah says, conveniently ignoring his 80 percent grade, which was lower than the class average.

But when the class breaks into groups assigned to create a marketing strategy for a “green” Target line, businessman Shah kicks in again. His knee starts bouncing and the wink returns to his eye as he slowly convinces all of the members in his group to adopt a strategy selling a friend’s product — a friend who, unbeknownst to his group members, promised Shah equity in the company if the deal goes though.

Professors, advisors and family claim Shah’s aggressive positivity allows him to pitch easily, work out a business deal and sell just about anything. And when the current “food freshman” needs help ordering from Pizza Hut, he gets a chance to stretch the business muscles that kept the Entrepreneur Club under budget when he was a first year.

When the Pizza Hut manager names a price, Shah dismisses it with a smile on his face, but cool authority in his voice.

“You guys usually give us a good deal,” he says, “That’s why we keep coming back to you.”

After 20 minutes, the manager finally buckles on his previous order price of $187.

“Can we cut it even at $125?” Shah asks. “Perfect, we’ll just meet you at the turn around at Carlson.”

Shah teasingly asks the first-year group member if she knows how to work a deal because this is the last time he’s helping.

The first year smirked, the look that means he’s said that before.

But after a day’s worth of good meetings and consulting, much of the positive energy in Shah’s day is sidelined by the complexity of his venture.

6:00 p.m.

In a 6:00 p.m. discussion in one of his classes, the harsh reality of the online credit-purchasing system hits the Mxapp partners as Harold Slawik, an advisor and lawyer for entrepreneurs, spells out the difficulty of running an Internet ordering business.

Slawik said Shah’s business isn’t ready to take on the responsibility of holding customer credit card numbers, an integral part to the mobile-ordering application.

If a competing business looked into Shah’s company structure and saw Mxapp was nothing more than five students with laptops, or if one of those laptops was stolen, the company couldn’t handle the implications, Slawik said.

“The consequences of this going wrong are the business going poof,” he said.

7:30 p.m.

Shah and business partners Kyle Cunningham, left, and Dominick Grande discuss a potential new Mxapp employee. The company currently has a staff of six and is looking to hire both a graphic designer and software engineer. Photo by MARIJA MAJERLE.

After the meeting, the group slinks out of the classroom, Shah leading the way, looking flat. He takes his time walking across the deserted Carlson floor, as most of the students had gone home for the night, but Mxapp had reserved a room for their weekly 7:30 p.m. meeting.

But when all five partners and the programmer got into the room, the energy immediately rises again.

With only $2,000 in the Mxapp bank account, one designer, no ability to keep credit card information and a staff — including Shah, who will be graduating soon without a fulltime job — all working basically for free, many people would think the business was at a dead-end.

But together, the group’s energy is volcanic, and ideas fly from all sides of the small conference table. And with one wave of his hand, Shah dismisses the credit issue and simultaneously instills hope. All is well.

In an hour Shah is back at his apartment, sitting in his blue basketball shorts and eating spaghetti made with noodles and sauce from Sam’s Club.

He ignores the NCAA basketball game on his grainy TV, blaring in the background. He ignores the deafening screams of college students who had taken hours out of their day to watch a game.

Instead, Shah sits rigidly in his black T-shirt, checking e-mails instead of studying for his 9:45 a.m. midterm.

12:03 a.m.

He picks up his homework and starts to read, but pauses to watch the final seconds of the game, the final shot, the victory.

The happy students stream out onto the court, like it was the best moment of their lives.

But it’s 12:03 a.m., Wednesday, and the CEO goes to bed.

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