SDSU Alumna Took Risks to Achieve Her “Entrepreneurship Dream”
When Meri Birhane’s family arrived in the United States in 1990, they left a world of war, oppression and danger behind them. “My parents fled to Sudan to escape the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia, and coincidentally met in Gedaref, Sudan,” said Birhane, who earned her MBA in 2015 from the Fowler College of Business at San Diego State University. “While in Sudan, my parents had me and my two sisters. At the time, Sudan was under Shari’ah law and was a very dangerous place for Christians. My mother was very persistent and convinced my father that we should begin the process to relocate to the United States as refugees. In 1990, my parents were finally granted status allowing us to move to San Diego.”
Once in the U.S., the family made the most of their new life and became naturalized citizens in 1999. “My older sister, Gebriela, recently passed the California bar exam, so she will be a corporate attorney,” said Birhane. “My younger sister, Betswan (’15, sociology) has her bachelor’s degree from SDSU and is now a manager at Anthem Blue Cross.” Birhane’s parents both own businesses and she followed in the footsteps of her parents when she established her own business, Meri Consulting Services in 2017.
Birhane formed her business when she noticed the high rate of turnover within the technology sales industry. “Business-to-business tech sales has the highest sales staff turnover of any industry at over 30%,” she said. “Losing sales team members can be a very costly problem in terms of severance pay and the time and money spent onboarding new sales professionals, only to lose them within three-to-six months. After running several experiments and iterations, I founded Meri Consulting Services to help tech companies train and retain their sales talent.”
However, Birhane found that her path toward entrepreneurship was anything but a straight one. In 2012, she had completed her undergraduate degree at UCLA and was enrolled at the university’s Fielding School of Public Health when she ran into an old friend who was passionate about entrepreneurship. “I was unsure if I wanted to become a public health professional after graduate school,” she said. “I told my friend about my business idea, Clothing Cam, a software that would allow users to tag and purchase items on social media. With a nudge from my friend, I decided to apply to a business school with an entrepreneurship focus and I learned that SDSU’s entrepreneurship program was highly ranked. So, after receiving her Master’s in Public Health at UCLA, “I packed my belongings, broke up with my boyfriend and moved to San Diego to pursue entrepreneurship at SDSU.”
Shortly after arriving at SDSU, Birhane joined the ZIP Launchpad to give her the tools she needed to establish a business. After surveying students at SDSU and UCSD, she found that her initial idea of streamlining purchases through social media was not as popular as finding a solution for limited campus parking, so she founded Go Ryder which was intended to offer students on-campus valet parking.
When Birhane decided to test the idea during a campus event, her two partners offered to work as valets for the evening. But before the event even got started, the partners unsuccessfully demanded more equity in the business, then walked out with one of her key resources. “They ended up taking my website domain,” she said. The moral of the story? “Choose your business partners wisely and be sure to pay for your website domain using your own credit card.”
Not long after, Birhane was introduced to Fowler alumnus, Craig Stevens (’82, finance), who agreed to mentor her as she looked for her next business idea. “Craig coached me in the importance of learning to sell,” she said. “He also helped me land my first corporate business development job out of business school.”
Although Birhane was working as a portfolio manager and an account executive in the corporate world for five years after she graduated from SDSU, she never lost her desire to establish her own business and in 2017, she founded Meri Consulting Services while she simultaneously worked in corporate sales. In March 2020, she left the corporate world to concentrate on her business full-time. “I took all the lessons I learned at the ZIP Launchpad and, later, the CONNECT ALL @ The Jacobs Center, to launch my business,” said Birhane. “It’s a Black-owned, woman-led firm founded to help IT providers, startups, and sales professionals book more sales meetings, increase revenue and reduce salesforce turnover rates.”
Birhane also used those lessons to launch Empowerment Mastermind and to offer five pieces of advice for future entrepreneurs:
- Network and obtain a mentor
- Conduct customer interviews to identify a true problem worth solving
- Map out your problem or solution using a business model canvas
- Build your minimum viable product without large capital investment and run experiments
- Focus on execution and generating sales, not pitch decks and raising money
While Birhane is now focused on her road to success in her own company, she realizes her willingness to take a risk in coming to SDSU was the key to putting her in the driver’s seat. “All of these experiences would not have been possible without leaving my comfortable life in Los Angeles and moving to San Diego to follow my entrepreneurship dream,” she said. “Now in the midst of a pandemic, I can look back at my time at SDSU and appreciate the amazing opportunities I had, the risks I took, and the memories that were created.”