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Balancing act

Psychology grad student combines academics with entrepreneurship

special feature: Student success

Part of a special feature celebrating the success of Memorial's graduates. This feature coincides with spring convocation 2017.

By Kelly Foss

Ross Connolly leads a double life.

By day the third-year graduate student is working towards a PhD in experimental clinical psychology, researching attention deficit hyperactivity disorder as it relates to substance abuse. However, at night he’s a successful entrepreneur, designing and manufacturing handmade boutique speakers and guitar cabinets.

It takes a bit of coordination to combine a busy academic career with a growing business, but Mr. Connolly says so far it hasn’t been an issue.

“I’ve been making speakers since before I started grad school,” he said. “Before that I was working full-time at Choices for Youth’s outreach program and had the business on the side. I guess I’ve always been doing this balancing act.”

Trial and error

He began building speakers as a hobby in 2006 when he finished his undergraduate psychology degree and moved back to the province. Without a mentor, he learned primarily through trial and error.

“I basically applied my research skills learned from psychology to something different,” said Mr. Connolly. “This is the same kind of skill set as when you are trying to find information – cutting out material and tacking boxes together to see what worked and what didn’t. I’ve made all the possible mistakes. But you refine your technique as you go.”

In 2010 he established Are Audio, and today he has Canada-wide distribution with plans to expand.

“I want to get my speakers into retailers and see what happens,” he said. “But in order to meet that potential demand I need a CNC machine. Essentially, that’s a computerized router table that would do all the cutting and make the panels for me. That would speed up the process and the cuts will be more consistent and accurate. Up until now, it’s been just me doing all the work.”

Entrepreneurial success

As he gets closer to finishing school and defending his dissertation, he recognizes he’s not going to have as much time to dedicate to the business. Eventually Mr. Connolly would like to complete a Master’s degree in Counselling Psychology from the Faculty of Education and work with Eastern Health or privately.

“That way I’ll be able to balance the business and work,” he said. “It would be great. I’d get to help people on one hand, and build stuff on the other. It’s nice to see a product that I’ve built, but it’s also nice to see someone do well after helping them out.

“Provided the sales are there, I could always hire someone and then I could just manage the business and be a little less hands on. But it’s something I’m passionate about and I enjoy doing both.”

His entrepreneurial success has been building in recent months. In addition to finding a national distributor, he has outgrown his previous workspace and begun moving into his own shop.

“I had been sharing with a friend who does kitchens,” he said. “It’s been great working there because he would lend bits of advice, suggesting different tools and techniques. It was fine when all I needed was a little corner to work in. But now I’m encroaching on his space, so I’ve started developing my own workshop.”

Enactus champion

This year he was chosen Enactus Canada’s 2016 Student Entrepreneur Provincial Champion for Newfoundland and Labrador, and won the regional competition in Halifax in February. He was one of only six regional winners competing for the national title earlier this month. A student from the University of British Columbia was named national champ in early May.

“At the regionals there were 16 judges, so it was intimidating to see them lined up in front of me,” he said. “But I made a few bad jokes which kind of broke the ice and then I felt more relaxed for the rest of the presentation.

“I also had the advantage of going last, and as the others presented and answered questions from the judges, I was thinking of how I would answer them if they were my questions. When it was my turn it felt almost like a thesis defense.”

With just over a year left of his PhD program, all that practice will certainly come in handy for his own thesis defense.

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