[00:00:01] Sean Goheen (Host):
Greeting scholars and welcome to Following the Gong, a podcast of the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State.
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Following the Gong takes you inside conversations with our Scholar Alumni to hear their story so you can gain career and life advice and expand your professional network. You can hear the true breadth of how Scholar Alumni have gone on to shape the world after they rang the gone and graduated with honors and learn from their experiences so you can use their insights in your own journey. This show is proudly sponsored by the Scholar Alumni Society, a constituent group of the Penn State Alumni Association. I'm your host, Sean Goheen, class of 2011, and college staff member. If this is your first time joining us, welcome. If you're a regular listener, welcome back.
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[00:00:55] Sean: Paul Suhey, Class of 2014, is the Chief Operating Officer and co founder of Revel, a firm with the mission to enable electric vehicle adoption in US. Cities. Specifically, the company is focused on building fast charging infrastructure, and operating an all electric, all employee rideshare service. Before starting Revel in 2018, Paul worked for ExxonMobil and Gerson Lerman group. He earned a BS in Chemical Engineering with honors from Penn State's College of Engineering. In 2014, Paul joins following the Gong to discuss his time at Penn State as a townie, founding Apollo Benefiting Thon and conducting undergraduate research. He shares insight on his early career as a Chem E Grad, and ultimately how he decided to cofound revel a firm at the intersection of EV, adoption, and a new experience for ride hailing services. This episode is great for any scholar, and especially those in Stem who have an interest in EVs or interested in transforming an idea into a business. Paul's bio and a complete breakdown of topics discussed are available in the show notes on your podcast app. Sean: With that, let's electrify this discussion with Paul Suhey following the gong.
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[00:01:59] Sean: Joining me here today on following the Gong is engineer and entrepreneur Paul Suhey. Paul, thank you so much for taking time out of your very busy schedule to join us here on the show.
[00:02:09] Paul Suhey: Really great to be here. Thanks for having me.
[00:02:11] Sean: Very glad to have you. You are currently in Brooklyn, but you're a townie, and so probably a bit of an obvious answer here, but I always like to start by asking how you first came to, you know, you had a lot of options, but you did choose to stay at home and eventually the Schreyer Honors College.
[00:02:28] Paul: Sure, yeah, happy to answer that, and I will do my absolute best to give you the honest truth. I think sometimes when you look back on decisions that you make, it's easy to come up with fake answers or try to justify why you made certain decisions, but sometimes the answer is really simple. So for me, going to Penn State, it was very much in my DNA, simple as that. So it was almost I blinked and then all of a sudden I was in east halls. I was a freshman at Penn State just because it was so natural for me to go to the school where I grew up. But I was just so attracted to the sense of community at Penn State, the amount of diversity and opportunities that you would have. Really like large student body, I actually don't remember, but I think I applied to Shrier going into school and got rejected. But then a year later I was like, you can't get rid of me that quickly. I was really attracted to just the challenge of an honors program, how that made the university a little bit smaller, the opportunity to get involved in research. So I actually applied through Gateway and ended up enrolling my sophomore year.
[00:03:29] Sean: I don't think you are the only one to have that experience, Paul. I think some folks definitely maybe they don't get in coming out of first year. I came in as a third year student as well, so I know it's a lot of our scholars. Yeah, a lot of our scholars do come in that way, so it's a great opportunity. And so if you're a prospective student who's listening, consider that. And Paul, you were a chem major, and that's definitely a pretty challenging major. So what drew you to pick that of the like you said, the diversity of academic opportunities here at Penn State, where you can do almost anything academically?
[00:04:03] Paul: Sure, yeah. I think how I got to chemical engineering was first and foremost, I knew I wanted to do engineering. I had two older siblings that were both engineers and just through education to date, I was very much inclined towards just basic math and science. And I think at that point I was really just trying to keep my options open. And I knew that if I did engineering, if I did well, whether or not I actually went into engineering was a different story. So I tried to choose an engineering that was more broad. So that kind of led me to either chemical, mechanical, or maybe electrical. And at that point I had really gravitated towards chemistry, in particular in high school. So I think combination of math and science, wanting to keep options open, being sort of attracted to the chemistry side as opposed to maybe the physics side or things of that nature, is what I think ultimately led me to that decision. On top of that, I'm someone where, for whatever reason, I always just like a challenge. So if I'm going to run a race, I will go straight to the marathon. If I'm going to do something, for whatever reason, I just like doing things that are difficult. So people had told me that chemical engineering was supposed to be difficult, and for some people I think you try to choose the simplest major and try to slide through as much as you can. But I was actually attracted to the supposed difficulty of it?
[00:05:16] Sean: Well, did it live up to the expectation, the reputation that it has as one of the more difficult majors?
[00:05:22] Paul: It did, but I think the good thing is I made some of my best friends through that program. So because it was so hard, that just gave us more time to complain with each other being a lab, with each other being a computer lab, doing homework sets. So I benefited from it at a personal level of just those relationships I was able to build.
[00:05:41] Sean: And you can't see this because this is an audio only podcast, but Paul's been, like, glowing, talking about chem e. So for those who are in the major now or considering it, I think it sounds like you were probably pretty happy with the choice, even if it was on the more difficult.
[00:05:53] Paul: Yeah. Yeah, I have nothing negative to say.
[00:05:56] Sean: Well, something that I don't think anybody can have anything negative to say.
You know, you were a townie, so you were probably familiar growing up here, and that was Thon, of course. So how did you know? Engineering majors. That takes up a lot of your time. So how did you decide to get involved not only in Thawn, but in one of the special mission groups, when, again, there are so many ways to be involved.
[00:06:17] Paul: FTK, I think having grown up in State College, having friends, family that had been to the university, I was definitely around Thawn at that time. Special interest organizations or clubs that sort of exist explicitly to spend their time raising money and contributing to Thon's efforts was on the newer side. So there were a few organizations that had started, but it was kind of a new phenomenon. And at that point, I think a couple of friends I helped start this new organization called Apollo, and it was really the opportunity for us to do two things. One is contribute to Thon's mission, but also establish our own culture, establish a new organization, help welcome new students to Penn State, kind of create our own identity as an organization. So I think it was sort of the two things of being able to contribute to Thon as a whole, but also do it in our own unique way.
[00:07:09] Sean: Is Apollo still one of the active groups on campus, and how have they done the last few thawns here, do you know?
[00:07:16] Paul: Yeah, they've done really well. I've been keeping, I guess, loose tabs on their progress. I think it's always really exciting to see again, just I think the culture of that organization is palpable for the kind of the unique personality that they bring, and it's definitely lived on since we left, which is really cool to see.
[00:07:33] Sean: As a club founder, I'm sure that's something that you take great pride in. Now, you were also the president of the group during your time here at Penn State. Have you used jumping ahead a little bit or I guess merging two parts of your story. Have you been able to use any of the leadership skills that you took from running Apollo to your time leading the startup that you're at 100%?
[00:07:54] Paul: And I think this is a great example of something where it's hard to predict how an experience at the time is going to lead to something that you use in the future. But probably the two most important things that I took away from it, first and foremost is just what it's like to lead an organization and develop culture. So when you're leading a small team or a company, just the culture of that organization is so important. And how you set that, how you set expectations, how that just bleeds into everything that the company or group does is just so important. The other thing is just leading meetings, so trying to give everyone a North Star, talk about progress, talk about problems, keep people motivated, keep people entertained. Just what goes into that is something that I have to use every day at my current company.
[00:08:41] Sean: So you've mentioned culture a couple of times there in particular in that answer. What were some strategies that you've used either in Apollo or at Revel to help guide the culture in a way and get it going? Because once it's up and running, it can become organic and nobody can really control it, but you can get it going in a certain direction. So what did you do to make sure it went in the way that you were hoping it would as a founder?
[00:09:03] Paul: Yeah, it's a good question. One thing that we've tried to do over time is have checkpoints where we really try to take an honest look on what is the culture like, how is the culture developing, what do we really value here and why? And leading into that, I think sometimes you try to create this idealized version where we want to be X, Y, and Z, but it's off base of a reality of what you actually are. So we kind of constantly are taking a true look at how do we really honestly define what our culture is, put words around that, and then infuse that within our company, whether it's through the interviewing process, it's through the performance review process, it's how we run meetings, things of that nature.
[00:09:41] Sean: Well, if you're running one of our thousand plus groups here at University Park or many of the great student group opportunities around the Commonwealth at other campuses, hopefully that advice from Paul can be helpful for you. And speaking of campus, I have a few more questions for you about your Penn State experience before we pivot to your career. Paul sure. So you had shared in advance that you were a research assistant in two different labs on campus here at University Park. Can you talk about first how you got into those labs and then tell us about your experience, how those in addition to your thesis research, what that was like, contributing in those ways.
[00:10:15] Paul: Sure.
So the first experience was within a nuclear engineering laboratory, so it might seem a little bit odd because I ended up doing chemical engineering. So this was actually, I believe, before I had to declare a major or at least take major classes. So I have a huge interest and still do, in nuclear energy. It's just something that I'm fascinated with, I really, like, always enjoy learning about. So it was the combination of I really liked that as a potential topic that was of personal interest to me, and then I just wanted some research experience. So it was just, do I like this? What can I learn from it? Do I want to do more of it? So I just took that eagerness, and I think I just reached out to the department head. So at that time, reached out to department head, had a conversation, was able to find time in his office hours, and then he was able to connect me to one of their graduate research students, and I was able to spend the summer doing research. So then after that, after I had officially decided to go the chemical engineering route because it was a little bit more broad, I thought I kept my options open a little bit more. Same sort of story. Found a professor that I had a class with or liked and was able to just follow up with a metric class and try to get additional experience there.
[00:11:26] Sean: Excellent. So sometimes it can be as simple as just asking, and maybe the person you talk to isn't necessarily the person, but they probably know somebody like the department head that you mentioned with the nuclear engineering department.
[00:11:37] Paul: Exactly.
[00:11:38] Sean: And on the fun side of things, I think you might be the first engineering ambassador. We've had some line ambassadors, but I don't think we've had any engineering ambassadors on the show. So probably pretty self explanatory. But just for giggles, why don't you tell us what that role was on campus?
[00:11:53] Paul: Yeah. So two things, really. So one is, I think everyone the first career decision that you have to make is, do I or do I not want to be a doctor?
Everyone knows what a doctor is, or most people know what a lawyer is. So there's these careers that, as you grow up, you're just very familiar with, and you just know that it's an option where engineering isn't really like that. What does an engineer do? Why is it awesome? Why should you care about it? How do you make it interesting? So one important aspect of engineering ambassadors is going to high schools and middle schools and just talking about engineering. Try to be entertaining. Try to talk about why you're saving the world, why you're a superhero. What does it really mean? And just get kids interested in it. So that was a really fun aspect of the job. The second one was just giving tours to prospective students. So you're a potential student, you're thinking about engineering. I'll give you a tour of different classrooms or talk about the curriculum program and convince prospective students to choose Penn State, especially within engineering.
[00:12:52] Sean: And just to your first point, if you're an engineering student and you want to hear some other engineers as well as Paul, when you're done listening to this episode, go back to our back catalog. We've got engineers who are doing engineering and engineers who've gone into other routes, like real estate, for example, or marketing. So check those out. And I'm glad I asked Paul, because I wouldn't have guessed the first part about the high school visit. So smart to get out there early and help clarify some of these things. I think that's a really good point, because engineering, you can do a lot of things with an engineering skill set.
[00:13:20] Paul: Totally.
[00:13:21] Sean: Now, you've been pretty successful, and that had to have started on campus, but you did have to balance Apollo, your classes, your research commitments, and I'm sure you had a social life, too. So how did you balance all of these things and do them so well? And particularly the strategies and maybe something that students can pull from it as they try to balance their competing demands?
[00:13:42] Paul: Yeah, I think this is a classic example of a time where I can try to make up an answer, but the honest truth was it was kind of hard, but I enjoyed the crap out of it. It was just a lot of fun. I think at that time you're working so much, but your whole life is kind of infused together where there's not really a separation of church and state kind of doing work. And then that leads into doing work for Apollo, which leads into engineering ambassadors, which leads into lab work. And you're kind of just sometimes there are great weeks and sometimes there are weeks where you're overwhelmed. But I think it was mainly just in every aspect of my experience, across different clubs, different organizations, just really enjoyed the people I was with. So even though I was working a lot or putting a lot of effort in and not just sitting around doing nothing, it didn't feel too overwhelming because I just enjoyed it. But over time, that was definitely a unique experience to being in university. Being at Penn State, I definitely now have much better strategies with dealing with overwhelming work. But at that time, I was just working as hard as I could and kind of dealing with it well.
[00:14:42] Sean: You are a company founder, and especially in those early days, having talked to some other ones, you are responsible for anything and everything, and you're kind of always working, and it's probably the closest experience to being a university student in the real world. What are some of those strategies that you've developed since that maybe a student could translate to their current time on campus.
[00:15:01] Paul: I think when you're overwhelmed with a lot of work, it's really easy to constantly lose the forest through the trees. And it takes a lot of effort to consistently remind yourself and think about what's most important and why. And so going in two weeks or even at the end of the day or at the beginning of the day, trying to force myself to really think about priorities and what are the most important items to get done and constantly revisiting that I find to be super helpful. Two other things that I tend to do is I try to time block at times where you really give yourself, I have 2 hours or 3 hours or 30 minutes to do this specific thing. And if you're not putting some arbitrary or hard constraints on yourself, oftentimes your workload has a tendency to balloon to however long you allow it to. And then I think things definitely start to change as you become a leader of the team or you have people reporting to you. You have to kind of shift your mentality from how do I solve a problem to what are the most important problems to work on? So I spent a lot of time thinking about that, of trying to prevent myself from my natural tendency of getting to the weeds, coming up with solutions, and just making sure that I'm thinking about the right problems or right things that we need to be focused on and then having the right people focus on those items.
[00:16:17] Sean: I would highly recommend that you listening. Go back, grab a pencil, rewind like the last two minutes or however long that was of Paul's answer. That was some really, really good advice, not only for you as a student, but once you're out as an alum in the working world, time blocking, like you said, work will fill the time available. So set some boundaries. And the rest of that was all really good advice, Paul, and it's probably also good advice for completing your thesis. So Paul, I'm not going to steal any of your thunder, mostly because I didn't totally understand it. Tell us about your thesis experience.
[00:16:46] Paul: Happy to.
So what I remember from my experience, I approached it a little bit in a unique way. I think my mentality was I wanted to find a professor or a lab where I just really clicked with that professor. And the actual topic of what I worked on in particular was less important. So I was looking around trying to find a Penn State professor or chemical engineering professor and ended up finding my eventual honors advisor and my thesis advisor, Dr. Velagal. And he had actually published a book that was on education, so it wasn't even related to chemical engineering. It was his views on how things could change. And I really clicked with that kind of unique perspective. So that's how I initially came to him into his lab. And then from there, because he had these unique ideas, I was able to just ask questions about those things, kind of dive into this new area that he was thinking about, and eventually the thesis topic became Connecting Game Theory to Engineering. So kind of random, very new. I don't think many people have thought about this before, but essentially it's how do you think about complex decisions through the lens of engineering? And are there any engineering, especially chemical engineering principles that you can use to analyze these game theory type situations to provide a unique lens on potential outcomes or how this can lead to just more creative ideas?
[00:18:14] Sean: That is a really interesting combination. My background was in social science, so I was familiar with game theory, but then applying the engineering principles, that is a really interesting combination there. Paul, do you use any of the insights that you gleaned from that in your work with Revel?
[00:18:30] Paul: I do. I think one thing that you often hear about potentially going into engineering is that it teaches you how to think. And I think that's true to some extent, but it's definitely true of sort of how I approach the thesis topic and then how it bleeds into how I think now, which is basically anything that you're doing. You can think about it in a systems approach where it's what are the inputs, what are the processes in this kind of black box, and then what are the outputs that you want. And then if you think about it from a process standpoint of how do I change the inputs, how do I change the temperature and pressure, how does that change the concentration of outputs and just sort of having that process flow type of mentality? I think I naturally think in that way, and I'm not positive if that's just kind of my natural tendency or it was definitely improved or enhanced by going through engineering, going through the thesis process, but it definitely influences how I approach problems now.
[00:19:21] Sean: Excellent. And you didn't go to grad school and you still used your thesis, so I think that is awesome to hear. I think that's a common misconception with our students. So good to know that you took something really strong there into your career. And speaking of your career, we're going to transition from time on campus to your career through internships. So how did you go about seeking internships as a chem major? Because I've got to imagine that, like you said, it's a more broad type of engineering, so lots of opportunities. How did you settle on a path for internships and into your entry level roles?
[00:19:54] Paul: My mentality was definitely get experience, so I tried not to overcomplicate things where it was. I definitely want to do X, Y, and Z because I was honest with myself where I really had no idea. So Penn State definitely has a great career fair where you just have a lot of employers coming in, you have a lot of people to talk to. So really just initially kind of pounding the pavement there, not ruling out any opportunity. Going talking to recruiters. I think there's lunches or dinners that happen. And so was able to find my first internship at Merck, a pharmaceutical company, in that way.
[00:20:29] Sean: And so you were in pharmaceuticals for internship, but you had shared your resume, and you then went to oil with ExxonMobil. So how did that come about? And was there any advice that you have for scholars from the job searching process in addition to what you just shared about being open to anything? But if they want to look for something particular or they have skill sets that fit a certain type of role, how would you offer them advice? Especially landing that first dig.
[00:20:55] Paul: Yeah. So I'll start with your second question first. I think one thing that Penn State teaches you is there's so much opportunity, but you have to seize it. So there's so many clubs, there's so many professors, there's so many classes, there's a lot of employers, but it's not gong to just fall into your lap. So you have to put yourself out there. You have to ask a stupid question. You have to talk to advisors, you have to talk to recruiters, you have to go to lunches. And I think it's just being willing to do the networking and try your best to form relationships, and you just don't know where those relationships will form. So I think you got to put the effort in when it comes to networking. And then for me making the shift from pharmaceuticals to oil in that internship experience, I just learned that I didn't want to be in pharmaceuticals, so that was it. Okay. Did that experience. Didn't really like it. Wasn't a fan of the industry, just wasn't super excited about it. So wanted to try something else. So it was really simple as that. Wanted to try something else. Had a good opportunity with ExxonMobil. Really fascinated by oil and gas, by the energy industry in particular. And I thought that was a good opportunity for me to scratch that edge and see what I thought.
[00:22:01] Sean: I think that's a common thing that's come up at least a few times and maybe is overlooked in the value of an internship. I think a lot of times students say, hey, maybe this will lead to a job, but often cases it can teach you something you don't want to go into for a career and invest a good chunk of your life into. So I think that's helpful to know. Paul, you're very successful, and you learn quickly. That was not an area you wanted to go into. So no surprise you went into energy know, given your work with Revel. And we'll get to that just in a moment here, but for the regular, you I do this questionnaire, and one of the questions I always ask ahead of time is briefly describe your career path. And you said it was diverse, and I would definitely agree with that given the different industries you've worked in. But this one kind of caught me off guard. How did you decide to pivot from your first roles at Exxon in oil and Gas to the next step between that and what you're doing now at Revel?
[00:22:52] Paul: Sure. Yeah. So I'll just describe that role for a second, and then I'll talk about how I got there. That role was based in New York City and kind of a unique job. The company itself functions primarily as an expert network. So you're an institutional investor, you're a hedge fund, you're venture capital investor, and you're trying to get really smart on a particular topic. Instead of googling around for that, this company would connect you to the right person, former executive, former industry consultant, whoever it was that would get you up to speed really quickly. What we actually did, my small team, is we would run small, roundtables webinars seminars where we would connect industry experts to investors that were focused on anything related to energy and industrials. So really interesting job, a lot of networking. Had the opportunity to moderate some really interesting conversations with really smart people. So definitely an interesting job. The way that I got there, I was actually based in Baton Rouge at the time, still with ExxonMobil, working at a refinery. Really liked the industry, liked the people, was having fun being somewhere unique and different. But I was a little bit of a pinball in a big company. I'm just kind of anxious where I'm trying to make change happen. I'm asking people what's next, and it's almost like people are just telling me to calm down. So I think just the big corporate structure did not really match with my personality. But at that time, I was a little bit worried and making a change too quickly. I didn't want to be seen as someone that was job hopping all the time, trying to look for this quote, unquote, perfect career that's hard to come by. But the way that it happened is I had a good buddy of mine that actually was Penn State alumni as well. Was working for a company in New York, had a recruiter reach out to him, said he wasn't interested in the job, but he had a friend in Louisiana that might be interested. So that's how the initial connection was made. So I took that call. Being from Pennsylvania, having friends in New York. My brother was at New York at the time. I knew I was getting kind of anxious being at ExxonMobil, looking for something a little bit smaller, something unique. And then I learned about this unique job of being able to really host conversations with really smart people on sort of the future of energy and transportation. And where investment is flowing. Didn't really know what I was getting into, but for some reason I said yes. And I made the move from Louisiana where I had a massive apartment, to New York City where I had a six story walk up. There was mice in my apartment the first day I got there. I didn't have air conditioning. It was a very unique, different, abrupt life change, but I loved it.
[00:25:13] Sean: Well, I'm going to guess it worked out pretty well for you here. And we're going to pivot now to your current company and probably what many of you are listening really curious about. So if you read the show notes, you'll know Paul, obviously you are the CEO or COO, I'm sorry, and co founder of Revel. So tell us about your company and let's start with the inspiration for your company's mission and your inspiration for taking the plunge to go from corporate life to startup.
[00:25:40] Paul: Sure. So I'll start now what the company is doing now and then I'll back up a little bit to give you a little bit of maybe the origin story. So right now Revel So, we're based in New York and our overarching mission is to enable EV adoption in dense urban areas. So everything that we do, every product line, every decision that we make ladders up to that core mission. And in particular, right now, we're really focused on electrifying rideshare to do that. That involves two things operating our own all electric rideshare service, so similar to say, Uber and Lyft, but with all electric cars and employee drivers instead of independent contractors. And then we also build and operate fast charging infrastructure. So that's where we are today. Where we started was really, I think, like most companies, it starts from personal experience. And that personal experience was living in New York, having to travel around to different neighborhoods. And my co founder. And I just thinking about the ways in which we get around the city, whether it's Bike Share and City Bike a subway, and then also having this sort of personal connection to a Vespa or Moped and how that's the primary way to get around in any city that you travel to throughout the world. So it was, how do we bring that way of getting around to New York? And that was the initial idea. So we kind of went from that of we want to bring this method of transportation in full force to the US. And then over time, as we just really focus on mobility in major urban markets, you're eating, sleeping, breathing in every single day. You start to see how the company can grow, how it can evolve, other problems that you can resolve. And that evolution is how we've gotten to the core focus of where we are today.
[00:27:16] Sean: So this probably started as a side thing for you and your co founder. Walk us through when you knew it was time to hang up the day job and make this your sole focus.
[00:27:27] Paul: We moved quickly. So the way that it worked, so maybe some background too, the two of us. So he had just applied to my co founder, frank had applied to get his MBA. I had applied actually to go back to school to get a PhD. The initial time that we talked about the idea was January of 2018 and we were actually getting a drink to celebrate both getting into grad school. That's when he initially brought me the idea. And we went from idea talking about it for the first time in January to quitting our jobs in March and deciding to forego grad school. Instead of spending all the money on grad school, let's just spend it on ourselves, invest pretty much all the money that we had into the company, quit the job by March and then we had mopeds on the street by July of that year.
[00:28:12] Sean: That is a pretty quick timeline there there Paul.
So you've mentioned your co founder, Frank. Not all, but many a startup.
Are you even a startup anymore? I think you're maybe in the kind of moving past that phase, but many startups have co founders. So how did you approach setting expectations for when your company hit it big and became successful and to make sure that you two would not clash or grow apart, which can often unfortunately be the case as you move from small family startup to corporate?
[00:28:45] Paul: Behemoth sure, it's a good question and I think in some ways my answer might not be satisfying because honestly, it's a lot of luck. So there's a couple of ways that you can approach it. One is I think because Frank and I see the world in a very similar way, we have a very similar sense of humor. And so I think because of that we almost tend to get along even better in the tough times. So through the almost six years that we've been doing this now, I'd say we're closer than ever and definitely very fortunate that that has been the case and feel lucky because of it. So I think some of it is just the fact that we have complementary skill sets that I think really work pretty well together. And so in that way we're able to complement each other, not really clash, and we have a really high functioning trustworthy relationship. You can try your best at the very beginning to try to think through every scenario, this happens, who makes the decision on that and then try to just overanalyze it. But at the end of the day, it's so hard to predict where the company is going to go that if you just don't have a really strong element of trust and belief in one another and really strong communication, there's no way that you're going to be able to think of all those scenarios. So I think that is more important than trying to overanalyze or overdefined roles and responsibilities too early.
[00:30:02] Sean: That is really good insight there, Paul. Now, going back, one question. You talked about how from January to July you went from celebrating admission to grad school to you had some mopeds on the street. So can you give us a little bit more detail of what that 1st January through the next January was like in your first year? Because that's often make or break for a lot of startups.
[00:30:24] Paul: I mean, first of all, it was a lot of fun. I think I will always look back on that time period with fond memories because just had a lot of fun doing it, had a lot of help from families and friends. Frank and I are not former co founders, so in both of us, he's a former professional chef. I'm coming from an engineering background, so we have no idea how to raise money. I don't even know where to open a bank account. So we literally just Googled Bank and then walked to bank of America, which was close to where we were working at the time, and just set up a bank account. And then from there, we have no idea how to raise money, how do we incorporate a company? So it was like asking very, very basic questions, but just working through all of those answers really methodically and moving quickly. It's a pretty chaotic time of incorporating the company, coming with company name, and then just figuring out how to raise enough capital to launch an initial pilot that would allow us to raise more money. So that was a lot of talking to friends, family, friends of friends, friends of friends of friends, and just trying to bring in enough money to buy enough mopeds to kind of prove this out. So I think a lot of it was fundraising and then a lot of it was running the initial small scale operations, hiring a small team, and then just trying to figure out what the heck we needed to prove that would allow us to grow. And that's sort of the first year.
[00:31:38] Sean: This is a plug for invent Penn State. If you are looking for those answers and you are a current Penn State student, either at University Park or one of the launch boxes across the Commonwealth for our students at a campus other than you park, check those out. Those folks are primed to help you with those questions of how do you incorporate a business, how do you know, how do you start with the funding and the banking and all those things? So Paul, you were trying to figure that out. That is one thing we can definitely help you with here at Penn State. Now, you mentioned this and I also had read it, kind of researching your company a little bit, Paul, and you started with the mopeds, but obviously you've moved into three different product lines. You also have the rideshare and the charging hubs. So walk us through. Was that something that you planned to do or was that an opportunity where you saw there was an organic sense of, hey, this would make sense if we branch out into these as well?
[00:32:30] Paul: Definitely an evolution. I think that's probably one of the mistakes that I myself make a decent amount. And it's been a great experience through revel where oftentimes you're kind of waiting for the perfect product or the perfect solution. But it's much easier to improve a not perfect product than it is to improve a perfect product that doesn't exist. So I say definitely don't wait to just move. And you'd be surprised by just how momentum and movement just leads to changes and you start to see things that you wouldn't see if you hadn't just gone out there and done something. So for us to run our shared electric Moped fleet, it required finding warehouses in cities like New York, San Francisco, DC, where we would have the real estate to fix Mopeds, do light mechanical work, and then also enough electrical power to charge our batteries. And just finding enough power to charge this kind of small load was very difficult. And so that was kind of eye opening, whereas, all right, we say we're going to electrify transportation, but I can hardly find enough power to charge some Moped batteries. How is this going to happen? So that was kind of the initial. Maybe there's something here where there's an opportunity to be someone that can be a first mover, that can really find access to power in the grid, to build the type of charging infrastructure that the cities need to electrify, and having a huge advantage if we're a first mover to do it.
[00:33:55] Sean: Awesome. Now, from an outside angle, for a layperson like myself, you could probably be classified as an EV or a sustainability company, but you're also a rideshare company, as you've mentioned. How did you go know once you decided to get into the rideshare part of things? How did you go about setting your company apart from the biggest players like Uber and Lyft or even kind of your traditional taxi options, especially in a city like New York?
[00:34:21] Paul: I think one thing that you're saying there is definitely interesting, too, is the fact that going through Mopeds now, building charging, building rideshare, we've almost had the experience of starting three companies in one. Because you launch a product, you have customers that use it, you scale that up, and then all of a sudden, you start from zero again. Where it's? Okay. Now, how do we build this? Rideshare experience. Most people, when you think about rideshare or ridehail, however you want to call it, think about the rider side. So the Uber experience, the Lyft experience, and what that's like? One of the things that we tried to do was really create a unique value proposition to drivers, because without drivers, the experience doesn't exist. So how do you provide valuable experience to drivers and then how does that translate to customers? The very unique thing that we do is we actually employ all of our drivers. So instead of being independent contractors, they're w two rebel employees. I think it's a unique value proposition that is very much in line with how drivers actually work in major cities where they're driving full time, stable, consistent week over week hours. And we can sort of slide in and provide an option that's very much in line with how drivers are already driving, which is a little bit different than, say, maybe in state college where you have maybe on game day weekends or you have people that are collecting some income on the side, but it isn't really an employment type setting. So I think that was one of the major things that we kind of talked about, was how do we provide this option to drivers? And because they're employees, that gives us much more control around training, around performance management, around relocating vehicles, making sure that certain ride requests are actually being accepted, and all those things of having employees allows us to provide a really unique experience on the customer side as well.
[00:36:05] Sean: And similar to that you mentioned, or maybe you did, or just from reading about it, you also own all of your vehicles. Correct. You're not using privately owned in the way know in State College, Uber and Lyft work because somebody maybe it's a side gig on the weekend, like you said, for a football game weekend when there's a need for that. But in a city like New York, where there's constantly need for the millions of people there, you own the fleet of cars, correct?
[00:36:29] Paul: We do. So we own the vast majority of our fleet. But I think it gets into one of the reasons that we're doing this is if you electrify one rideshare vehicle, especially in a place like New York, you get the emissions benefits of electrifying four consumer EVs because the amount of mileage that rideshare drivers are putting on their vehicles is just so much higher than what the average Joe or Jane would use. So there's a huge policy reason or just general reason why you would want to electrify rideshare, but then you think about, how does this actually happen? And that's where your lofty goals and PR statements start to really break down. So from a driver's perspective, you have to carry so much about just reliability and cost. And if I have to choose between getting a gas car for 30,000 or an EV for 55,000, I'm going to get the gas car every single time because I don't want to stomach that upfront cost. So one thing that we're able to do because we operate a fleet is we're able to, as a company, take on that upfront cost and then really take advantage of lower operating costs over time, really utilize vehicles and we're able to make that sort of total cost of ownership decision. So that's one of the reasons why we went that way. We also partner with other fleet operators as well. So we operate a fleet. We have locations where we rent out cars to drivers, drivers show up and complete a shift and then we also have partners as well that will operate fleets and then our employee drivers will go to those partners.
[00:37:49] Sean: That's really cool. Paul and you talked about the benefits of having employees as opposed to gig workers and some level of control. I imagine the same is true for your cars in the fleet of having a certain minimum of maintenance expectations, sanitation expectations of the inside, going back to the rider experience. Is that a fair guess on my part?
[00:38:09] Paul: Exactly. And we also have all of our vehicles are outfitted with telematics devices and we actually give our drivers a safety score. So at the end of every shift, at the end of every week, you will get performance feedback around harsh acceleration, braking, running stop signs, running the red lights and then connecting that to pay as well. And that's the sort of unique experience that we can have to really just increase the experience, increase the safety of our fleet and ultimately decrease costs as well.
[00:38:34] Sean: That is really helpful and I'm sure your investors love to hear reducing costs because you definitely need investors because a fleet of electric vehicles is certainly a capital intensive any startup needs funding, but certainly one like yours that has all of this infrastructure, both the chargers and the cars and everything in between. And you've mentioned hiring teams. So in terms of securing that, you've gotten private funding from what I've read, and you've also gotten public grants from the state of New York. What are the similarities and differences in securing the support and stewarding your backers for students who are maybe thinking about their own startup in the future?
[00:39:09] Paul: I think the core skill set is the same and then how it plays out in reality is what's a little bit different. So the core skill set is you have to be able to tell a compelling story and vision. And so it's very important that you kind of get that pitch down of how do I explain what this company is? How does it exist, what we're working on? And you just want to make sure that whoever you're talking to, they can attach themselves to that vision. They can understand it, they can understand why it's important, they can understand what you're doing and why it's unique. And then being able to show some progress. I think no matter what you're doing, the more that you're able to say that, hey, we've deployed X, Y and Z. We've done this, we've made progress. It's just progress begets progress. It's much more important than just having a PowerPoint slide that's always hard to do. But I think that's super important as best as you can. And then from a timing perspective, I think when you're working with government agencies or anything of that nature, things just take longer. So it just takes an element of patience having those conversations, not expecting things to play out right away, being persistent, having follow up conversations, talking to other people or maybe when you're raising private capital everything is just a little bit more compressed. Maybe you're running a process, things take three months instead of two years and just the time frame of how quickly you need to respond and the momentum of how fast things can get done is a little bit different.
[00:40:33] Sean: That's really helpful. And another question on behalf of any scholar, current or alum who is thinking about starting their own business, what is something that you're really proud of that worked really well and then maybe what's a mistake that you made that another entrepreneur should try to avoid that you're willing to share?
[00:40:51] Paul: Yeah, this isn't like trying to think of one thing, it's just trying to think of the thing from all the mistakes. I think that I'm always someone that whenever I'm thinking about something that I'm proud of, I tend to think less about we accomplished X, or we raised this much money, or we had this many rides, or I constantly just think about people. And I think the people that we've been able to hire, the culture that we've been able to build, I think the majority of people come to rebel every day and kind of enjoy the people that they work with and have a good time and work really hard. And I think that's super important to me. I think from a mistake standpoint, I think like a lot of startups, you try to grow quickly and I think there's a reason for that. And sometimes when you're growing quickly that's the kind of best way to learn and evolve and do all the things that I mentioned previously. But with that just come natural growing pains. And probably a way that I could have solved that is just trying to get a mentor or network a little bit more quickly. And it's not necessarily that that mentor or someone is going to tell you how to solve the problems, but it's just helpful to have someone that's not in your day to day, that's not within the company, that doesn't really have a stake in it, that can just act as a sounding board. And sometimes when you're talking things through with someone that has a fresh perspective, you're able to see unique solutions that you might not see if you were just in your own head talking to people that are in the company. So I think that's something that I've changed over time that's been helpful.
[00:42:21] Sean: Absolutely. And that goes for any job too. Really getting somebody who you can run by that does not have a vested stake. I think that's really helpful.
[00:42:28] Paul: Paul.
[00:42:29] Sean: So fun question for you here. So in addition to EVs and rideshare, you also shared that you co founded an entirely separate family business, in addition in an entirely different industry. Can you tell us about this, how it came about and how it's both similar and completely different from a VC backed operation like Revel?
[00:42:50] Paul: Yeah. So this is family grandmother's pepper recipe. So Suhey Peppers is the name of it. The history there is as a family growing up, we would instate college, we would get a bushel of peppers from the local farmers market. And then we had my grandmother's recipe when we can these Hungarian banana wax peppers in olive oil, apple cider vinegar, some garlic and some spices and classic example of family recipe. We eat it all the time. You guys should commercialize this. Used to sell it. No one has the time, the brain space, the desire to really do it eventually got to the point where I think it kind of comes from maybe my natural DNA of wanting to start something. And I just really enjoyed that experience of going from zero to one. So at that time into my kind of freshman year in college, worked with my family on commercializing that recipe, going to different manufacturers, getting it FDA approved, then ultimately going into some stores. When I was with ExxonMobil, I was also doing that a little bit on the side. So in Texas, going to hot sauce type festivals, going to grocery stores, getting the peppers in. So it was always just a general hobby of mine. I think the good and bad thing about that at the time is we were able to grow it really slowly and kind of just invest some of our personal money in at the side and no one's livelihood was really depending on it. So that's kind of a good and bad thing, kind of letting it grow organically. It's more of like a fun side project. You're designing the label, designing the website, all those things that go along with it. But then my kind of career just kind of took me elsewhere, got maybe more interested in other things outside of the food space. But actually, my sister and brother in law have recently quit their full time jobs to focus doing this full time. So it's survived the test of time. It kind of bled along for a while, and now it has a couple people that are really trying to make it work and excited to see where it goes.
[00:44:38] Sean: Well, I think that's a nice compliment to Revel. You shared you and your co founder Frank Dove in. Pretty know, you said from January to July and you're up and know, versus this other business, it's taken more than a decade presumably for someone to really take that plunge. So if you're feeling discouraged, sometimes things work like Revel and sometimes things work like your Suhey peppers. So take a lesson from that now. Paul we're towards the tail end of our chat here. And I'm not an engineer, I'm not a startup founder, I didn't run any thon groups. What kind of questions about any of these experiences on campus at Exxon with Revel in the EV space should I have asked about but just didn't come up organically in any of the questions that I did ask? Or maybe another way of putting this is what questions do you get from students or other real journalists that interview you for trade publications?
[00:45:33] Paul: No, those are the boring questions.
Good question. Maybe I think just in general, thinking about potential audience for this podcast, I think there's a big tendency these days is to put a lot of pressure on yourself as it relates to your career. It is intimidating. You move into it, you're like, Holy crap, this is what I have to do for the rest of my life now. And then you're thinking about where do I live and the jobs that I have? And do I really like this? And am I passionate about it? And where is this gong? And I think there is a tendency to just overthink things and I'm definitely naturally someone that will overthink things. I think it's just really important as you're doing anything, whether it's in school or your first job, is you kind of do two things. You give yourself the time and space to you put genuine effort into what you're doing because I think the more that you kind of perform well with whatever you're doing, that naturally leads to other opportunities that you can't predict. And so if you're constantly just worried about the future and not focused on the present, then you'll have less opportunities in the future. So it's a little bit counterintuitive. The second thing is just recognizing that it's never going to be perfect. And so if you're always just constantly trying to think about the end result and you're not just treating people the right way, having some fun, trying to enjoy the process, then when you get to the end result, you'll kind of miss out on what the general process was. So I think kind of focusing on the present and then recognizing that the end state is always going to be different than what you expected and being okay with that is important.
[00:47:04] Sean: I would definitely echo all of that. Paul now, just some reflection questions here at the end for you. What would you say is your biggest success to date? Knowing that there's probably still plenty ahead for you?
[00:47:14] Paul: Relationships, 100%? Just people that I've gotten to know, relationships that have formed professionally and personally and that's what I'm most proud of.
[00:47:23] Sean: On the flip side, you can echo what you said a few moments ago, but what would you say is the biggest transformational learning moment that you've had in your career, whether it was in college, at Revel or somewhere in between.
[00:47:35] Paul: So there was this pandemic that happened. So that was a huge thing for us. I think that was at a point in the company where we were growing. You're dealing with capital issues, you're dealing with internal issues. So having to work through that, how that kind of impacted the company, and being able to survive through it was definitely a crucible of being a big learning moment in a couple of different ways.
[00:47:57] Sean: Was there any particular challenges? Obviously the pandemic caused a lot of challenges in many industries, but was there something that particularly stuck out for transportation in general?
[00:48:07] Paul: You go from everyone moving around, everyone commuting to the office and you're a transportation business and all of a sudden no one's doing it. So you're kind of like, holy crap, what now? But I think there's a lot that went into just that whole experience. But maybe one of the most important things is, especially when you're at a company, of just being able to go through ups and downs. I think when you're new and you're a startup, it's easy to get caught up in the hype and the momentum and just everything is all bright eyes and bushy tails. But what happens when things aren't like that? How do you communicate with a company? How do you provide a sense of stability and calmness and positivity? How do you be transparent? What level of transparency do you provide? How often do you communicate? All of those are just like small things that we had to test and learn.
[00:48:53] Sean: Well, obviously, starting any company is a challenge and navigating it through a global pandemic in its infancy as you grow, because every company, every thon group and everything in between, there's growing pains as you change in scale and you go from that family, the small group of founders, to you have employees and teams and bureaucracy and red tapes. So kudos to you for navigating through that. You mentioned mentorship a bit ago. How do you find mentors and what advice would you give students as they try to find those independent voices to help them along the way?
[00:49:23] Paul: I think in general, I'm just not afraid to reach out to someone and try to make a connection. And you'd be surprised by the percentage of the time that someone's willing to have a conversation. Like there's people, like, talking about their career, like talking about their experiences and are almost always willing to help in some way. So I kind of approach it from that perspective. I don't necessarily say, hey, will you be my mentor? I don't think a kind of fake strict relationship like that is really the way to go. It's more just reaching out, trying to establish some middle ground of where you're coming from. You went to Penn State or you're interested in this, you'd love to learn about their experiences and from there, the initial conversation you can learn pretty quickly. Is it someone that you. Mesh with. There are different people that you can talk to that they might know and just going from there. So it's really just not being afraid to reach out and think from there, you, over time start to naturally find the type of mentor type of experience that you can really benefit from.
[00:50:19] Sean: And to prove your point, I've made a whole podcast out of your first point of people love to talk about their stories.
[00:50:25] Paul: There you go.
[00:50:26] Sean: So point proven there. Paul, are there any professors or friends from your scholar days that you want to give a shout out to that you haven't already mentioned or maybe the ones that you already have?
[00:50:36] Paul: Yeah, maybe there's a bunch of people I could love to give a shout out to, but if I were to choose one, definitely my honors professor, Professor Daryl Velagal. I think just the experience that I had was really great. And that was one of the first times where I can remember talking about my thesis in chemical engineering game theory. I can remember being in his lab and having conversation and him really treating me like a peer where I'm like this, I don't know, 19 year old kid and we're talking about this complicated topic and he's like really looking to me for these unique ideas. And I think it was really great to have that experience, to try to be forced to think highly of yourself or try to push yourself to come up with these new creative ideas in that sort of unique way. And that was a great experience that I'm grateful for.
[00:51:23] Sean: I love to hear it. And you mentioned that way back at the beginning of our conversation. You sought him out like you had a class with him and you made that connection. So don't be afraid to go to those office hours. Send an email to your professor, build those connections. You don't know what kind of opportunities that will lead even for, say, a letter of rec for an internship for thon captain or grad school. So, Paul, as we're wrapping up our time, is there a final piece of advice for students that you have to make the most of their time at Penn State and early in their know? You've done a lot of cool things in your career so far, taking a company and growing it and doing some really cool things, what's a final piece of advice that you would leave our students with?
[00:52:01] Paul: I'd say have fun and put yourself out there. I think when you want to be someone where it doesn't matter if you're in an Ochem lab or you're at a Penn State game, whatever the sport may be, or you want to bring a sense of energy and excitement, and I think that naturally leads to forming relationships with people, more opportunities. And just trying to bring a little bit of fun to life, I think is super important. And then put yourself out there. I think that's for Penn State there's just so many opportunities and there's a lot of clubs to try. There's a lot of places to go or just things to do. I think it's always worthwhile to just try, especially at that stage when you're at university, it's kind of a low risk. If it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out. You learn from it. So just try, try new things and put yourself out there.
[00:52:47] Sean: That is excellent advice that pretty much every past guest of our show would agree with. So I would definitely echo that. Paul, if a scholar wanted to reach out and connect with you, what is the best way that they can do that?
[00:52:58] Paul: Paul best way would be through.
[00:53:01] Sean: And finally, you know, you're a state college native, you grew up here. You're familiar with the creamery. So I'm sure you have a great answer for this. If you were a flavor of Berkeley creamery ice cream and you have a process engineering thought on how you came up with your answer, which would you be and most importantly, why as a scholar alum would you be that flavor?
[00:53:21] Paul: I would be chocolate chip cookie dough because you kind of know what you're going to get. It's like old reliable. It's just good. You just know what you're going to get. I have this experience where I used to go when I was little, get ice cream a lot with one of my aunts that's local state college and I just always used to get chocolate chip cookie dough. So I kind of think of that experience. So I have a little bit of a nostalgia for that as well.
[00:53:45] Sean: That is great. We'll chalk up another flavor for Team Rest of the Menu. One of my personal favorites, chocolate chip cookie Dough, has not gotten enough love on the show. So I'm glad to hear it. Paul Suhey, you're doing really cool things with revel in the EV ride share sustainability. There's a whole bunch of industries that you cross sect and it's a really good example of what the Honors College can do. Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule joining us virtually from Brooklyn today. I really appreciate it. I hope you listening also appreciate it. You heard how to get in touch with him. Please do so if you want to keep the conversation going.
[00:54:18] Paul: So.
[00:54:18] Sean: Thank you, Paul.
[00:54:19] Paul: Thanks again.
*GONG SOUND EFFECT*
[00:54:27] Sean: Thank you Scholars for listening and learning with us today. We hope you will take something with you that will contribute to how you shape the world. This show proudly supports the Schreyer Honors College Emergency Fund, benefiting Scholars experiencing unexpected financial hardship. You can make a difference at raise.psu.edu/schreyer. Please be sure to hit the relevant subscribe, like, or follow button on whichever platform you are engaging with us on today. You can follow the College on Instagram and LinkedIn to stay up to date on news, events, and deadlines. If you have questions about the show or are a Scholar Alum who'd like to join us as a guest here on Following the Gong, please connect with me at [email protected]
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