Rachel Benyola is a lifelong biking enthusiast. As a child, she pedaled to get around, hang out with friends and de-stress.
That passion sowed the seeds for a design and manufacturing venture she began as an MBA student at Drexel's LeBow College of Business. Benyola is the founder and CEO of the acclaimed KOVA Helmets by AnneeLondon, Inc., and she is one of Drexel's 2018 40 Under 40 honorees.
KOVA is a unique safety helmet that's customizable and packable. It features a durable, waterproof shell; boasts a military-grade, safety-foam interior; and — best of all — folds down to about the size of an iPad.
The two-wheeled inventor had her eureka moment after she observed that many of the bikers on Philadelphia's congested streets wore no head protection. They explained that hard-shell helmets were uncomfortable, bulky and inconvenient to carry around. Benyola saw a market opportunity and a design solution.
Drexel was the perfect place for her to incubate her business. The University's pioneering approach to teaching entrepreneurship combines classroom theory with real-world experiential learning and a vibrant culture of individual enterprise.
A disruptive problem-solver gets her start
At Drexel, Benyola took advantage of many opportunities to practice and improve her entrepreneurial chops. A key opportunity was Startup Fest hosted by the Charles D. Close School of Entrepreneurship, the first freestanding school of its kind in the nation. The daylong festival gives students a chance to network and pitch to some of the city's most established entrepreneurs, receive feedback and win prizes.
Several donors who are passionate about entrepreneurial education provide funds for Startup Fest prizes and participate in the day. According to Bob Knorr '83, "My career began with my Drexel education. Now I invest and advise, mentor, and teach entrepreneurship. The model developed by the Close School and Baiada Institute is unique in the nation. I am excited to help stimulate their momentum, serving as an Advisory Board member, donor, Startup Fest judge and mentor."
“I see KOVA as a disruptor. It's something no one imagined could exist.”
In the Startup Fest fast-pitch competition, participants have just 60 seconds to convince the judges of the viability and value of their ideas. The Baiada Institute Business Plan Competition gives winners a year of free working space inside the Institute, where they are surrounded by fellow innovators and supported with in-kind legal, accounting and other services.
When Benyola entered the final round of the Business Plan Competition, she had just 10 minutes to describe her helmet design, business plan, strategy and team. She triumphed. Her second-place finish won her a yearlong residency at Baiada with plenty of startup support.
"Rachel impressed everyone, including myself, by being a problem-solver who puts the customer first," says Charles Sacco, assistant dean of strategic initiatives at the Close School and a Startup Fest judge.
During her year in residence at Baiada, Benyola solidified her business model and prepared for production. Her helmets break the mold in more than design; they are handmade in the U.S. by artisan craftsmen receiving a fair living wage, and are made from locally sourced materials.
Ultimately the KOVA passed rigorous government safety standards, demonstrating that it is twice as safe as a traditional helmet. Benyola says those results, combined with her recognition as one of the 2018 Forbes 30 Under 30, have put her in a good place for entering the market.
"I see KOVA as a disruptor," Benyola says. "It's something no one imagined could exist."