Conservatory musicians join forces with a LaunchU venture.
Long before pianists Jingning “Jenny” Huang ’19 and Celina Kobetitsch ’19 began their studies at Oberlin Conservatory and participated in the college’s venture incubator LaunchU, they both dreamed of using their music to do good. Jenny admired the huge sacrifice her Chinese parents endured to afford her first piano lessons, while Celina was crushed by the poverty she discovered in her own backyard. While brainstorming in an entrepreneurship class at Oberlin, they stumbled upon the idea to partner with nonprofits to grow donations through community-wide music programming. Their teacher, Director of Entrepreneurship Bara Watts, urged them to take the concept one step further.
Huang and Kobetitsch have organized their first concert for good: Living in Harmony, which will be hosted by Bay Presbyterian Church in Bay Village, Ohio, on Saturday, April 7, at 4:30 p.m. They have partnered with the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless to raise funds for those in need. This is an exciting first step in an effort to bring resources and music to underserved people in communities everywhere.
When did you first dream up Concerts for Good? What inspired you to investigate this idea that’s now come to life?
Huang: “I choose music because I love it, and I am going to use music to help those who are unprivileged.” This was my response to a college essay when I was 18 years old. In the small town where I grew up, music was a luxury. For years when I was young, my parents drove six hours for my piano lessons every week. I watched as my parents earned just enough to support the family; they sacrificed so much for my music education. And because of that, it had always been my dream to use music to help people in need. This dream has stayed with me through the past three years at Oberlin. After lots of thoughts and research, I decided to partner with my friend Celina, who shares my passion to use music to help others. Together, Concerts for Good was born.
Kobetitsch: I very clearly remember a day in October when I was driving through an impoverished neighborhood of Cleveland. I remember looking to my left and seeing two girls on their front lawn, using a shopping cart as a trampoline in front of a house that looked like it could collapse at any moment. My heart hurt. Jenny and I both took Bara Watts’ Intro to Entrepreneurship class last fall, and I believe it was then that I started thinking more about what kind of impact I wanted to make as a musician. I decided that for my winter term project, I wanted to get out of the practice rooms a bit and start helping the community by creating benefit concerts, the first being for Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless. I went to Bara Watts to ask if she would be my winter term sponsor, and she encouraged me to really work with this idea. I never thought of it being more than just a small project.
What was your vision when you started and how has it evolved through the LaunchU program?
Huang: When I started out, I only thought about how to use music to change people’s lives, but I wasn’t thinking too much about a long-term plan. Throughout the LaunchU program, I learned about business models, marketing, business law, sales strategies, finance and forecasting, fundraising and team building, and more, all of which led me to expand my vision for the future of our dream. We created an innovative business model that is sustainable and a social enterprise. It wasn’t easy, but we hustled it. For us, having a business means committing to our goals and persevering to achieve our goals.
Kobetitsch: At first, all I wanted to do was hold a benefit concert: give up some of my time, get some musicians together, and raise funds and awareness for poverty in Cleveland. At that time, I had no idea how much work it takes to organize a single event, and until Bara Watts proposed the idea to me, I never thought of it becoming a business. During the LaunchU program, we took this idea, we doubted it, we stretched it, we threw it away, we picked it back up, we rebuilt it, and we came out with a sophisticated business model that we feel confident about. Now we just need to test it out, and we know our model might change and numbers might change, but our desire to create new opportunities for musicians and do service in our community remains at the core of our mission.
What was your biggest takeaway from the boot camp weeks in January and the pitch competition in March? What was the highlight of the experience for you?
Huang: I think the LaunchU program as a whole was the highlight of this journey. I have learned so many practical skills and so much information, met wonderful colleagues, built a network with amazing mentors. In addition, I have stayed up all night for five days to produce a complete three-year financial forecast, which I knew nothing about prior to LaunchU. During the final pitch, which included a very intense two hours of Q&A, I had the opportunity to present our ideas to people. The LaunchU experience was remarkable, and it’s an unforgettable experience.
Kobetitsch: There are always going to be people who doubt our idea and tell us it will not be scalable, necessary, or lucrative. That’s part of starting a business. The most important things I took away from LaunchU were resilience and persistence. Bara Watts always said, “There’s never a problem. Just a challenge waiting for a solution.” I will remember this phrase!
What skills do each of your bring to your team?
Huang: I discovered a love for strategy through my professional training in the game of Go, which is a popular Asian abstract strategy board game that is similar to chess. As a national game of Go winner, strategy has become my way of thinking, and it drives me to focus more on the financial and strategic planning of our business.
Kobetitsch: Jenny balances me out in every possible way, and I appreciate this so much. I am more conscious of what other people think, whereas she stands her ground despite what anyone else says, and I really admire this. Whenever I’m overly thorough, she knows how to be perfectly concise. She’s great with numbers, whereas I enjoy writing. We both strategize and ideate in different ways, and although different personalities and different skill sets can be difficult to balance, I believe it makes us the strongest team that I could ever ask for.
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