Student entrepreneur was inspired by internships with startups


George Mason University information technology major Areej Ali first became interested in startups while interning for two of them. She didn't expect to have access to a company's CEO or contact with its clients as an intern, but that was the case when she worked at the startups.

students working in the MIX
Students working in the MIX makerspace. Photo by Creative Services

“I really liked the startup environment,” said Ali, who is concentrating in cybersecurity. “I like the close-knit community and how we can communicate effectively and work together. Even though we were just interns, we could communicate with clients on a regular basis to help them solve their problems.”

Ali secured two internships through the university’s participation in the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative (CCI), working first at the technology-focused business intelligence firm Next5 and then at the cybersecurity consulting firm Solvitur Systems.

Like many Mason students in computing-related degree programs, Ali found her internship turned into a part-time job and then full-time employment. While she is currently pursuing her master of science degree, also in cybersecurity, through Mason’s Accelerated Master’s Program, she is also working as a business intelligence analyst at LookingGlass Cyber, which acquired the Next5 startup.

And now, she is starting her own company and is one of the student companies in the Mason Innovation Exchange’s incubator space.

DigiMicro, the company Ali has created with electrical engineering major Kanwal Ahmad, is a Web3.0-based technology, single sign-on service that can allow people to access niche articles. Through DigiMicro, Ali and Ahmad would enable consumers to pay for access with micropayments, with a small fee of $1 or less, versus having to pay for a full subscription to access just a few articles.

“So, there's a pain point there that we wanted address,” said Ali.

Ali said they have received a lot of good feedback on their business idea and even came in third place in the Center for Advancing Human-Machine Partnership’s 2022 Student Entrepreneurship Challenge.

The mini Innovation Commercialization Assistance Program (ICAP) program offered through the MIX made a big impact on Ali, as did learning about things like a minimum viable product (MVP).

“I haven't really haven’t had a lot of experience with business,” said Ali. “I thought once a technology is made it's kind of hard to change it. But what I learned through the courses was your minimal viable product is destined to change. You have to be able to adapt and change in order to be successful.”

The mini ICAP course also taught Ali and the other student entrepreneurs a lot of the nuts and bolts about the business operations of starting a company like registering the company with the state and taxes.

“[Ahmad] was already familiar with the business aspects, but for me it was really an eye-opening opportunity to learn more about business operations.”

Ali’s tip for someone wanting to starting a business is find the right people to work with. She and Ahmad met their freshman year.

I'm lucky to have met someone that I want to start a business with,” she said, “because that's what's really important in a startup—knowing the right people.”