While studying abroad at the London School of Economics, UC Davis grad Alex Aguiar befriended a young homeless girl. He found her sleeping beneath an overpass, using folded cardboard to keep the cold concrete from chilling her body. Aguiar could not get the girl’s plight out of his mind. “I couldn’t stop thinking about her and started coming up with ideas of how I might help,” he says.
To understand his market, Aguiar spent the night with the homeless community, learning their stories and about what might help them. That’s when the idea for Tent Pals was born. The Tent Pals product is an all-inclusive, high-quality portable tent. Made from durable nylon, the tent includes a self-inflating mattress pad, a blow-up pillow and a blanket attached to the tent lining. The portable tent folds down to the size of a yoga mat, making it easy to pack and carry.
Aguiar’s business plan includes a buy one, donate one model: When someone buys a Tent Pals product, they buy one for themselves and one for a homeless person. “I designed the product to be cool and innovative enough for a person who is into camping and the outdoors, but also practical enough to meet the needs of a homeless person,” says Aguiar, who has a degree in neurobiology and a double minor in psychology and technology management.
Aguiar’s progress from idea to action hinged on the support he received from the Sacramento Entrepreneurship Academy, a program that helps develop successful entrepreneurs by providing real-world mentoring, training and a network of support from local business leaders. Once in the program, Aguiar was able to identify clear steps to implement a plan for his product. He started by choosing a team, then formulated a business plan before pitching the product to the class and the board. “In the SEA program, they taught me all the steps of how to go from idea to reality,” he says.
In its thirtieth year, the SEA has produced over 700 graduates in the program, accepting between 20 to 25 fellows each year. “Our goal with the program is to help prospective entrepreneurs gain the tools they need to be successful,” says Linda Chock, SEA’s administrator.
The program is comprised of a board that donates both time and money, with each board member paying annual director’s dues of $1,200. The dues are used to support the program and its fellows. Board members also sit in on pitch sessions and provide lifelong mentoring and networking resources.
While pursuing financial backing for his Tent Pals product, Aguiar was accused by some of promoting homelessness. “That’s not what I am promoting at all,” he says. “The Tent Pals product is meant to be a temporary solution for someone who finds themselves on the streets but is working to change their situation. But while they are in the midst of dealing with having no home, they have a warm and comfortable sleeping environment with a Tent Pals tent.”
Aguiar’s first prototype has been built and tested. Now he is ready to move on to prototype number two and is looking for an engineer to help him with the next step. “Mathematically, I know the Tent Pals product can be built as I’ve designed it,” he says, “and I’m looking to my SEA mentors to help me get there.”
Ultimately, Aguiar would like to be able to manufacture and assemble the Tent Pals product in-house, employing the homeless to build the merchandise. “Tent Pals is a temporary shelter for a temporary fix, but employing the homeless to build the product is a much more lasting solution,” Aguiar says..