The magazine for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at
Iowa State University

Changing it up with CYstarters

After finishing college in a pandemic and graduating from Iowa State University this spring, Jo Allen, Jacob Schmieder and Mason Weh all deserved a little summer break to celebrate achieving something momentous in the midst of so much change.

But instead of slowing down, these three new LAS graduates each chose to speed up—and create positive change for their communities along the way.

The Summer 2021 CYstarters cohort at Iowa State.
The Summer 2021 CYstarters cohort at Iowa State.
(Submitted photo)

With the support of the ISU Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship’s CYstarters program, an 11-week accelerator that supports and funds student innovators, Allen, Schmieder and Weh each spent their summer after graduation hustling, connecting, designing and tinkering to advance their big ideas.

From inventing electrifying band equipment, to creating a more inclusive approach to professional photography, to launching a mentoring program, these young Cyclone innovators are changing things up.

Jacob Schmieder, Varsity Instrument Lights

Jacob Schmieder.
Jacob Schmieder.
(Alyson O'Hara/Iowa State University)

When Jacob Schmieder (’21 biochemistry) was at Iowa State’s annual Band Extravaganza during his sophomore year, the drum line’s performance struck a chord with him.

“The drum line rose up out of the orchestra pit and had sound-activated lights, so every time they hit their drums, the drums lit up and everyone went nuts,” he said. “I was like—that would be really cool to be able to put that on my trumpet.”

Schmieder, an Iowa State University Cyclone Football “Varsity” Marching Band drum major, spent the summer developing his prototype for Varsity Instrument Lights. The sound-activated lights include a tiny computer, 9-volt battery, microphone and light strip that can be attached to any instrument. Schmieder has programmed musical notes to coordinate with certain colors, so each time a musician plays the musical note B-flat, for example, a green light flashes.

Schmieder's summer prototype for Varsity Instrument Lights.
(Alyson O'Hara/Iowa State University)

It’s more than a flashy idea. Schmieder’s product could improve band education, with the lights acting as a tuner for young musicians who are training their ears. They may even entice young kids to stick with band a little longer.

“Knowing you get to put lights on your instrument for one rehearsal a week, or you get to use them in a performance can be something that will engage students enough to keep them around the arts longer,” he said.

When Schmieder came to Iowa State four years ago, he never imagined becoming an entrepreneur, but he’s grateful he saw the light.

“Being in the marching band, that is the best thing I’ve done at Iowa State, hands down,” he said.

Jo Allen, Jovisuals

Jo Allen.
Jo Allen.
(Submitted photo)

Every teenager wants to look good in their high school senior photos. But for some LGBTQIA+ students, finding a photographer with whom they feel safe and free to be their authentic selves is an even bigger concern.

“I want the photos to be photos that they can take and pass down for generations. It all comes back to that representation and visibility."

This need clicked with Jo Allen (’21 journalism), who is responding with Jovisuals, their innovative photography service that creates safe spaces for LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) community members to feel visible, accepted and loved for who they are.

“Growing up, I didn’t read about biracial, non-binary queer people,” Allen said. “I didn’t see those people in movies. That absence of knowledge and exposure ignited a fire in me to find ways to bring better visibility to the communities I come from.”

Allen’s photography business has been around for about five years. But between school, an internship and co-founding Ames BLM (Black Lives Matter), they haven’t had time to focus on their dream of connecting with and serving specific communities.

Last summer, they began launching new events for the LGBTQIA+ community, like a high school senior photo giveaway, Pride pop-up photo booth and a Skate with Pride Night.

“I want the photos to be photos that they can take and pass down for generations,” they said. “It all comes back to that representation and visibility. To look at a photo and say ‘That’s my gay aunt Carol,’ and to see that and be visible. That’s beautiful.”

In the end, entrepreneurship, Allen said, is about solving problems.

“It’s me seeing that this community needs someone they can trust to work with,” they said.

Mason Weh, Mentoring For Change

Mason Weh.
Mason Weh.
(Alyson O'Hara/Iowa State University)

Mason Weh (’21 liberal studies) has endured plenty of twists and turns in his life journey.

“I came to Iowa State to figure out my purpose or my ‘why?,’” Weh said. “I surely found my ‘why?’ through my classes, the track team and especially my involvement in CYstarters, which has helped me turn a bunch of ideas into a business.”

This summer, Weh founded Mentoring For Change, a nonprofit connecting Ames youth with volunteer mentors who are community leaders, business owners and coaches. He hopes to recreate the kinds of mentorship opportunities that are so beautifully woven into the fabric of his own life story.

“I was born in Liberia into extreme poverty and my first mentor was my mother, a single mother who always found a way to provide,” Weh said. “By watching her work hard to put food on the table, I learned at a very young age that hard work can make a difference and make life better for others.”

"I want to create a journey for young people to help them understand that anyone can write their own story."

Weh’s mother later arranged for him to live with relatives in Philadelphia. Compassionate mentors—from first grade PE teachers to high school track and field coaches—helped him adjust and excel.

Today, Weh’s vision for Mentoring For Change has evolved far beyond his initial ideas to include career development education and job shadowing with local businesses.

“I want to create a journey for young people to help them understand that anyone can write their own story,” Weh said. “Mentorship has the power to redefine the next generation and I know that I would not be where I am today without my mentors.”

This story is excerpted from a summer LAS CYstarters feature story series. If you enjoyed learning about these LAS innovators, check out their features to read more about their personal stories and entrepreneurial adventures:

Jo Allen: Bringing a dream into focus, by Stacey Maifeld
Jacob Schmieder: Let there be light, by Paula Van Brocklin
Mason Weh: The road to Mentoring for Change, by Angie Hagerty