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September 9, 2019

With “This Crazy Entrepreneurial Spirit,” Nishant Aggarwal Relentlessly Explored, Questioned, and Created


The roof of the Harper Center, which houses the Booth School of Business

Courtesy of University of Chicago

Launching a startup company, writing for the campus satirical paper, researching for behavioral science and psychology labs—rising fourth-year student Nishant Aggarwal pursued activities outside of his classes that took him to all corners of campus.

“You could mention him to any group of people on campus and at least one person would have had an interaction with him,” said Rosie Wakely, a rising third-year student who lived in the same house as Aggarwal. “Even though I feel like he was generally a very private person, he really had a huge presence on campus.”

Aggarwal died in late August, about one month before his senior year.

From creating skincare products in his dorm room that he built a business startup around, to convincing a tenured professor he had never done research for to let him start a project in the professor’s lab, Aggarwal went after his interests in ways members of the University community who knew him hadn’t seen from anyone else.

“He had this crazy entrepreneurial spirit,” said Harry Weinstein, a rising second-year student who met Aggarwal through writing for the satirical publication The Shady Dealer. “He really was independent. He pushed back; he was not a conformist.”

When Aggarwal arrived at the University, he was placed in Breckinridge Hall in International House, where he stayed throughout his college career.

Members of the house said that while Aggarwal often kept to himself, in the time that he spent with others, he focused on sharing the interests he was most passionate about.

In his second year, Aggarwal created a club called Arcanus, the Latin word meaning “secret.” Wakely, one of the members, said the club revolved around discussing the origins and social contexts from which conspiracy theories arise and spread.

“He encouraged me to have different kinds of conversations with people that I might not have had conversations with,” she said. “I never thought that as a first-year, I would be meeting in a random room in the Reg with a third-year and a grad student in the Divinity School.”

She added that Aggarwal was also deeply committed to building up the club’s presence on campus.

“One week we had a meeting saying it would be cool if we could have a Facebook page,” she said. “The next time we met, he came in and said he created a whole website for us.”

Though the club later disbanded, Aggarwal’s persistence in attempting to grow and advance the organization foreshadowed his endeavors later on in college.

In his third year, Aggarwal began creating skincare products in his dorm room, members of his house said. His experimentation led him to develop the idea of selling skincare kits, which customers would use to create personalized skincare products. Aggarwal took this idea to the College’s New Venture Challenge, almost reaching the final round of the competition.

While developing the startup, Aggarwal also adamantly sought out research positions.

He had long been wanting to do research in the Center for Decision Research at Booth. Nicholas Epley, a Booth professor and the center’s director, said that Aggarwal had e-mailed him in February 2018, but Epley didn’t have an open position for him then. Aggarwal reached out again in January of this year, and Epley finally agreed to take him on and pair him with a graduate student.

“Our undergraduates are amazing,” Epley said, but Aggarwal stood out among them, displaying “enthusiasm that seemed to go beyond that.”

Epley was struck by the confidence that Aggarwal exhibited, particularly in light of his stutter: “That he just was totally unphased by his stutter and would be happy to reach out to a professor despite an impediment that I think could hold some people back—I just thought that was really courageous.”

As Aggarwal worked through his stutter, Epley said, “I learned to be patient as his tongue caught up with the blistering speed of his mind.”

At around the same time, Aggarwal reached out to another faculty member whose class he had taken, psychology professor Boaz Keysar.

“Nishant had come and proposed a research project, had done a bunch of background research, literature review, and really sold this project,” said Leigh Burnett, a graduate student who works in Keysar’s lab. “I would never go up to a tenured professor and just pitch an idea just as an undergraduate student.”

“[Keysar] is pretty risk averse with taking on undergrads,” she added, noting that undergraduate students typically worked in the lab for at least half a year before being allowed to pursue their own project.

However, he seemed to be immediately interested in taking on Aggarwal. Burnett said that after Aggarwal pitched his idea, Keysar walked up to her desk to ask her if she would be able to help guide Aggarwal in his project.

During Burnett’s time working with Aggarwal as he fiercely pursued his research, acquiring two grants and setting up the research design and pilot program virtually on his own, she said, he didn’t lose sight of connecting with her on a personal level.

Burnett said that once, when talking to Aggarwal about studying abroad in London, “he was far less interested in the university I went to or anything about London; he was very interested in whether or not I had eaten a particular biscuit while I was there,” a biscuit called “hobnobs.”

“The next meeting I had with him,” she continued, “he brought me two rolls of hobnobs to share with everyone, and refused any payment offered since they were a gift to the lab.”

Students who knew Aggarwal in other settings recall similar moments with him. Nik Varley, former co-editor-in-chief of The Shady Dealer, said that in meetings, Aggarwal would constantly pitch bold and controversial story ideas, and after meetings, “he was very sweet.”

“He usually came up to Breck (the other editor-in-chief) and I after the meetings to discuss some ideas or ask a question or run something pass us, and I always found that very touching because it showed how attentive he was,” Varley said. “He always tried to create a personal moment between us.”

Weinstein, a rising second-year who met Aggarwal through The Shady Dealer, bonded with Aggarwal outside of the publication’s meetings as well.

“He was never afraid to start a loud conversation in B-Level of the Reg or a few tables across in Cathey,” Weinstein said. “He was willing to talk about anything, whether political or just something small on The Dealer, and his sense of humor and dry wit would inevitably leave us both riled up and smiling.”

At the same time, Aggarwal would tell him about his latest endeavors, like the skincare startup.

“These just weren’t things people would have thought of, but he applied himself,” Weinstein said.

“He was always wanting to change things, always having a plan,” he continued, “but still always smiling and laughing about what needed to be changed.”

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