It’s amazing what a flash of inspiration can produce. For communication major Nicole Birnbaum, such a moment took place her first year at the College. It was an epiphany that led to her successful venture, FlipRings, and to winning Student Entrepreneur of the Year for 2021–22.

In the fall of 2019, when CofC was shuttered due to Hurricane Dorian, Birnbaum spent a week at home in New Jersey. Her father happened to have a black silicone ring that he used in place of his wedding band when working out. The younger Birnbaum wondered if rings like that were available in other colors.  

“I went online to find ones in various colors, but there wasn’t anything,” she recalls. “I started thinking, What if you had rings with fun, expressive words on them like those bracelets that used to be popular a few years ago? That’s where it all started.”

When Birnbaum refers to “it all,” she’s being modest. Launched in the winter of 2020, FlipRings steadily gained popularity. By December 2021, FlipRings had exceeded $500,000 in gross sales. 

“Our first model had the word coffee engraved on the outside and tequila on the inside,” she explains. “Flip rings, right? You can reverse them inside or out. I love graphic design and designing things in general, so I found a supplier and ordered some samples. I showed those to my roommates, and they instantly loved the concept. It just took off after that.”

From the outset, Birnbaum made great use of social media – primarily Instagram – to promote FlipRings. Now, she has over 37,000 followers on that platform and 30-plus student ambassadors at universities across the U.S. 

“Initially, I wanted to create a kind of community around FlipRings,” she says, “and I wanted to convey that the person behind this was 19. By design, our outreach speaks in the right tone to people my age. Essentially, what we’re offering is about self-expression and having fun, and I think that resonates.”

To augment her business skills and pursue a minor in entrepreneurship, Birnbaum enrolled in Introduction to Entrepreneurship. In that class, she grew to know the professor – David Wyman – fairly well. He recommended she apply for the College’s Student Entrepreneur of the Year competition.

“I was very nervous,” she recalls. “When he told me I would have to present in front of judges and 100 other people, I didn’t want to do it. I have anxiety around public speaking but eventually decided that this was an experience and opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”

Ultimately, Birnbaum, now a senior, competed and won top honors and the $1,000 prize. But more valuable, she says, are the lessons gleaned in the process. 

“I’ve learned a lot by running my own business and finding ways to promote it,” she says. “The contest was another aspect of that journey. Being an entrepreneur is risky, but there’s also a tremendous upside to it. I can do whatever I want with this enterprise. That’s what I love about it.” 

Featured image by Mike Ledford