No five-year plan
Alumnus Eric Schneider has followed a winding path from mechanical engineer to entrepreneur.
Becoming a success in the business world might seem a stretch from earning a degree in mechanical engineering, but Eric Schneider ’15 would beg to differ. Schneider earned his engineering degree and went to work in industry, discovering that he had a deeper drive to understand the mechanics of business. Along the way, he also found ways to help others succeed.
When he was looking for a place to go to college, he hoped to find a campus that felt unique and inviting. He found this when he came to Virginia Tech from his home in Maryland, uprooting his plan to stay in his home state after a rousing show of Hokie energy on the front steps of the school’s main administrative building during his first campus visit.
“When I got to Virginia Tech, the pride in the school was overwhelming,” he said. “We were standing on the steps of Burruss Hall about to take a tour, and people are driving by screaming ‘Go Hokies!’ and wearing Virginia Tech gear. The immense school pride and energy was exciting. I could feel it. This was an environment I wanted to be a part of.”
Schneider chose to major in mechanical engineering because it elevated the math and science skills he brought from high school. He found an array of specialties available within the department, eventually putting his focus into aerospace projects. He was particularly intrigued by large plane engines and turbines, and followed his interest into a series of internships at General Electric (GE).
Working behind the scenes for an industry leader gave him a taste of the corporate world and a hunger to learn more. His team was one of several that had a part in tackling a large, challenging problem, and he took note of how the consortium operated: Mechanics, sales, customer service, new technologies, and many other topics came together in a chorus of specialists capable of bringing large projects to fruition.
Graduation and starting over, sort of
By the time he graduated, Schneider had completed four internships, three of which were offered by GE. At graduation, he entered the company’s Edison Engineering Development Program, a cohort of aspiring engineers with the capacity to work across disciplines. He found the program rewarding, but it didn’t give him the broad view of interconnectivity that he sought. After a little over a year in the program, he dropped out and went a different route.
“I ended up becoming much more interested in the business and strategy side of things,” he said. “I knew that in a company like GE, it could take a while to become a leader, and I didn’t want to wait to lead transformational strategy decisions.”
In a slight departure from his familiar field of engineering, he joined LEK Consulting, a management consulting company that worked in a variety of industries, including travel and transport.
His goal was to better understand a business’ comprehensive functionality, from strategy to full implementation. The consulting firm did just that, across many different businesses. Schneider was able to see not only the approach of his own company, but the inner function of others as well. This rapidly gave him the experience he was looking for.
“It was like being a kid in a candy store,” he said. “I was learning from the variety of businesses we worked with and colleagues who had a variety of business experiences.”
After three years in the practice, he had gained a range of new skills. Understanding competitive landscapes, market dynamics, innovation and growth, and new trends all became part of his professional toolbox.
The undercurrent of service
As Schneider continued sharpening his professional chops, he kept another high priority in view: service. While at Virginia Tech, he had been active in the Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity (CEED) and the College of Engineering Dean’s Team. Both groups aided students who were gifted but who didn’t have an abundance of opportunities that allowed them to advance. Schneider found that he took great joy from seeing others reach their full potential.
“Being a mentor and a leader in the Virginia Tech CEED program made me realize the benefits of mentorship broadly,” he said. “I think a lot of students with no prior exposure to engineering feel like fish out of water. Having at least one person to ask questions to makes an immense difference.”
Taking this question-asking model of mentorship into a new venue became a passion project for Schneider even as he was recharting his professional path. He was looking into the possibility of business school, which meant he had to take the GMAT test. While he scored well, he found that others struggled with the pressure of a single test that could define the trajectory of their careers. To help ease that anxiety, he started a nonprofit website called Grad Mentors.
The site’s model was simple: Nobody gets paid and anybody gets help. Mentees would apply for assistance through the site and be matched to a mentor, who would volunteer for a couple of hours each month.
“It started as me posting on different GMAT forums and saying I started a company, that people could apply to be a mentee,” he said. “Then I would do most of the mentorship myself. I was working 10 to 20 hours a week outside of work just trying to build the website, match people, and get it up and running.”
He started with one initial founding team, and others eventually joined him. To date, the website has connected mentees from more than 25 countries.
“I think of my mom,” he said. “When she applied to her undergrad program, she was the first in her family to go to college. She worked three jobs to get through college. To do that and have no support is amazing. People like her might not have known about business school or known anyone else who was taking the GMAT or GRE.”
After Schneider passed the GMAT, he did get into a business school: Harvard’s. While at Harvard he focused his time within the entrepreneurial ecosystem, even taking time away from school during the COVID-19 pandemic to work with a venture studio based in NYC, 25madison. There he focused on building new ventures as well as early stage investing. He stacked that education on top of his work and mentoring efforts, graduating in December 2021.
The next step: insuring electronics
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Schneider happened to meet Jared Brier, another young professional with a passion for building customer-focused products. In a conversation through a Facebook business group, the two realized they had complementary skill sets and joined forces to grow Brier’s vision of a simple-to-use electronics protection service.
These services are frequently offered in the checkout lines of department stores when buying electronics, but Schneider and Brier wanted to put all the protection plans in the same place, enabling coverage for electronics already in a customer’s possession. Their model was a single monthly fee that covered everything.
“It’s like Spotify but for device protection,” Schneider said. “You pay a monthly fee, and you can cover all your electronic devices under one plan. Phone, laptop, tablet, audio equipment, photography equipment, game consoles, TVs, monitors — all of that can be covered in one plan.”
They raised money through investors, hired employees, and continued to expand the product and technology. Today, the company has 21 employees and is growing at an extremely fast pace. They remain committed to their initial vision: removing the need to buy individual warranties and providing an easy claim service. The company is called AKKO, and Schneider hopes it will be the last protection plan his customers will ever need.
Now six years past his undergraduate degree, Schneider’s path hasn’t been a straight one. His trajectory from mechanical engineering is far from traditional, but he never tires of the excitement of trying something new and growing in a different direction. Although the connections may not seem clear at first glance, Schneider understands the added value in the stops he has made along the way.
“What I continue to want to do is meet amazing people and do things that I find interesting, challenging, and helpful,” he said. “I don’t have a particular five-year plan, but have learned that I love tackling big problems, working with incredible people, and building businesses that matter in people's lives.”