Caption: Sina Zhaleh (left) poses with Wade Bitaraf, founder of Plug and Play Tech Center’s Energy and Sustainability sector, at a Persian Tech Network event.

At the University of California, Irvine (UC Irvine), the Division of Undergraduate Education comprises several units that all have the goal of empowering undergraduate students and supporting their academic and future success. The UCI ANTrepreneur Center is one of these units, and the goal of the Center is to encourage innovation and help students explore the process of entrepreneurship. With this in mind, the ANTrepreneur Center serves as a hub where student entrepreneurs can develop the skills necessary to start, operate, or grow their own businesses. Since its establishment in 2014, the ANTrepreneur Center has offered access to resources, events, programs, and services to promote innovative thinking and foster the entrepreneurial spirit of UC Irvine’s student body. 

One of the guiding principles of the Center is the belief that all students, regardless of background or business experience, have the ability to find success in the entrepreneurial world. Many students who have visited the Center out of curiosity have emerged as confident “ANTrepreneurs,” ready to make a positive difference with their novel business ideas.

This was the case for Sina Zhaleh, who came to UC Irvine from Iran as a first-generation student to study Business Administration. To share how the ANTrepreneur Center transformed his educational and entrepreneurial journey, Sina recently sat down with Ryand Foland, Director of the ANTrepreneur Center, for an interview.

Ryan: Ahoy Sina; thank you for meeting with me today! To get us started, can tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey to UC Irvine?

Sina: Happy to be here, Ryan. To start, I came to UC Irvine a little over two years ago, and it was my first time coming to the United States. So far, it has been an amazing experience. During my first few quarters as a Business Administration student, I learned just how passionate I was about my academic major. I’ve been studying for a few years, and am still eager to take as many business and management-related courses as possible. I love my academic life and community at UCI because I have met so many smart and amazing individuals. I look forward to continuing my studies and growing my network!

Outside of school, I’ve been very busy working on my startup company as well as my other business-related projects. For instance, I’ve been working with the Persian Tech Network, an organization aimed to empower, unite, and educate the Iranian community within the realms of innovation and entrepreneurship. I’ve been a board member and have served as an event organizer for the organization since we started it more than a year ago. I have a lot on my plate right now, and I’m trying my best to balance my academics and career.

Ryan: It’s great to hear that you’re doing so well! You mentioned coming to UC Irvine and the U.S. for the first time just a few years ago. When you first arrived, did anything surprise you as a first-gen student in a new country?

Sina: I would say the overall structure of the university surprised me at first. Since I also got started a quarter late at UC Irvine, I didn’t go through the regular orientation process. I didn’t even know that I had to pick and enroll in classes! I was shocked when I heard my friends talking about choosing classes or when I was asked if my enrollment window had opened yet. It took a while to get more familiar and comfortable with the whole higher education system and the basics of being a UC Irvine student.

Even recently, trying to balance academics, my professional responsibilities, and my social life has been something I’ve struggled with. I was constantly under pressure and found myself mismanaging the balance between school, my off-campus professional activities, and also my personal life. But I’m happy to say that I’ve gotten better at this over time, and I would say I’ve successfully managed to be a full-time student as well as a leader in my startup.

On a more positive note, one welcome surprise was the beauty, cleanness, and greenery of UC Irvine’s campus. I love to walk around campus and in the middle of Aldrich Park, no matter the weather. UC Irvine is a beautiful and lovely campus, and it is truly home for me. Whenever I’m here, I see smiling faces and open arms, and the culture of the people here in Orange County makes it a perfect place for work and collaboration as well!

Ryan: Speaking of your professional work and your startup, can you tell us more about it?

Sina: Definitely! The name of my startup is StarFin Ventures. This company is an evolution of my previous business called SpaceFlare. StarFin Ventures helps commercial property owners rent out their unused spaces to energy companies that will then use this space to deploy clean energy technologies. The property owner benefits from this arrangement because the energy company is responsible for the cost of setting up and operating the technologies—solar panels, battery storage, or EV charging systems—and is also responsible for paying rent to the property owner. 

Currently, I’m working with a team of other UC Irvine students to expand the business by supporting the fundraising and ventures side of commercial clean energy projects. We’re striving to create a functional, all-inclusive solution for commercial property owners.

Ryan: That’s such a great idea, and I know business is going well. Would you say that the ANTrepreneur Center has supported your startup’s success?

Sina: The ANTrepreneur Center has been a very crucial part of my journey and any bit of success I’ve had so far. The first time I went to the Center, it was for a Taco Mixer because I just wanted to try tacos for the first time and learn about a community that could help me with my career. The moment I walked into the Center, I just knew that this was the place for me. I’d wanted to be an entrepreneur since I was 12, and I immediately knew that the Center offered the right community and people for me. I had a few raw ideas that could be something, and I was very eager to pursue this journey and to make progress. 

At the mixer, I met a few other students who were working for the Center, and they told me that they were going to help me bring my business and ideas to life and that they had every resource required to help me along this admittedly tough journey. I remember I immediately called my father and told him about the Center and the resources they were offering to help me become a successful entrepreneur. I came back to the Center a few weeks later with a pitch deck about my first idea, and everything else started from there. 

Aside from the great entrepreneurial resources the Center has provided, they have also helped me in my academic career as well. They have also helped me make life-changing connections. Through the Center, I’ve been able to take trips and attend conferences to raise awareness for my business, and they’ve even helped me secure funding.

Ryan: I’m so happy that we’ve been able to play such a major role in your journey.

Sina: I really want to thank you for that. I also want to thank the community and the people that make the Center so special. The ANTrepreneur staff are amazing, and I want to recognize everyone who has helped me grow as a student, and more importantly, as a person and as a leader in business. Through the Center, I have had the chance to meet so many inspiring people, and I’m honored to be part of a community that prioritizes support and excellence.

Ryan: This feels like a full circle moment because now you’re the one inspiring other students and bringing them into the ANTrepreneur community. What does being an ANTrepreneur mean to you?

Sina: It means listening to the inspiration within myself, thinking outside the box, and moving outside the box to be an innovator and create new solutions. To me, it means being a free thinker who has a vision in life and works hard to achieve it. 

ANTrepreneurs are always ready to try new things, to take risks that not everyone is willing to take, and most importantly, to work tirelessly and cleverly to make their dreams come true. ANTrepreneurs believe in themselves and work hard to see success in their businesses and teams. ANTrepreneurs are really incredible, and I’m proud to call myself one.

Want to learn more about inspiring student entrepreneurs like Sina? Then check out the ANTrepreneur Center’s “Interview with ANTrepreneurs” article series. Visit the ANTrepreneur Center website to learn more about programming, speaker series, Micro-Internships, funding, and more. Keep up with the Center’s latest news by following them on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Threads.