Nov. 30, 2023
Class of 2023: How a date that ended badly led Jack Oppenheim to a business venture and, ultimately, VCU’s da Vinci Center
Master of Product Innovation student is taking Tow Ninja to new markets.
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Call it a goodnight kiss-off. Jack Oppenheim’s car was towed during a date.
It’s fair to say he rebounded quickly. Then a junior at James Madison University, majoring in history, Oppenheim found inspiration in the moment and started Tow Ninja, a company that eases some strain of the experience by connecting vehicle owners with tow companies. The moment also set him on the road to Virginia Commonwealth University’s da Vinci Center for Innovation.
“I thought that it was a really cool space to be in, making some of the world’s latest and greatest products and services,” the Master of Product Innovation student said of the entrepreneurial ecosystem. “There is no other program like the da Vinci Center.”
As an undergraduate, Oppenheim had won $5,000 for Tow Ninja in JMU’s Bluestone Seed Fund competition in 2021. At VCU and da Vinci, he has been able to nurture its growth.
“I have had tons of support from the faculty and staff here at VCU that has slingshot our trajectory as a business,” he said. “Before coming to VCU we were only in one market, while at VCU, we have expanded into three more. With my skills and knowledge from VCU, and now the time, I can take Tow Ninja across the country.”
Bolstering his optimism, Oppenheim won first place — and $10,000 — at this year’s Demo Day competition, hosted by the da Vinci Center and Shift Retail Lab and sponsored by Capital One.
The MPI program is grueling, he said, but with great reward.
“The combination of experiential and experimental learning was appealing to me because it meant ‘on-the-job training’ in a controlled environment,” he said, noting that he enjoyed personal growth and networking opportunities with large companies such as Capital One, Dominion Energy and CarMax.
Oppenheim cited several courses in his da Vinci program that were particularly influential. A team-project class taught by Allison Schumacher allowed him to work on a Dominion Energy plan for implementing electric vehicles in Richmond as part of grid stabilization during periods of heavy energy use. Schumacher was also his professor for a study abroad course in Portugal where students attended the European Innovation Academy.
And Oppenheim noted the strong impact of Conscious Capitalism, a course that explores how fundamentals of capitalism can be realigned to support not just shareholders but a broader set of stakeholders.
“It proposed the idea of paradigms and how benefit corporations with corporate purposes greater than money alone can drastically change business in the future,” he said. “We worked directly with THC, The Human Connection, and had an ensemble cast of professors from different fields come and work with us.”
After completing his degree this semester, Oppenheim will continue building Tow Ninja. His plans include developing an app that could text vehicle owners of a tow risk, highlight areas where towing occurs most frequently and offer a reduced-cost option for a tow truck to “drop” a car.
And he’ll remain grateful for his da Vinci Center experience.
“What kept me motivated and energized was seeing the excellence, brilliance and uniqueness of each of my classmates every day,” Oppenheim said. “We had a collective energy that was intoxicating to be around, and in that, I learned to love learning again.”
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