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Engineering grads find a niche selling ugly Christmas sweaters

Education in problem-solving helps threesome launch entrepreneurial projects
December 17, 2014
Kyle Fitzgerald and two other Schulich School of Engineering grads formed a business called Holiday Rejects, which sells ugly Christmas sweaters. The entrepreneurs were featured on Dragons' Den to secure funding for their startup. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Kyle Fitzgerald and two other Schulich School of Engineering grads formed a business called Holiday Rejects, which sells ugly Christmas sweaters. The entrepreneurs were featured on Dragons' Den to secure funding for their startup. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

He learned a lot about the beauty of polymers, but it’s ugly polyester that’s keeping Kyle Fitzgerald busy these days. The chemical engineering graduate is one of three former students from the Schulich School of Engineering who are behind an ugly Christmas sweater store, Holiday Rejects.

Fitzgerald, Adil Hooda and Chris Cheng — all 2009 alumni — came up with the idea after being disappointed in the quality of sweaters their friends wore to an “ugly sweater party” over the holidays in 2011. They all had a hard time finding really bad Christmas sweaters, so the next December, the three decided to start their own online store, holidayrejects.ca.  

“But the online thing didn’t work,” explains Fitzgerald. “People wanted to try them on. So we went on Dragons' Den and got funding for a kiosk, and we opened two last year and it was really successful.”

This year, you can find Holiday Rejects in seven locations across Calgary, Edmonton and Toronto. Hooda is in Toronto running the stores in that city. Cheng, meanwhile, has left entrepreneurship for an engineering job.

Tutors, zombies and puzzles

The three started their first business, a tutoring company for high school and university students, while they were still at Schulich. Since graduating, they started Holiday Rejects and a couple of other companies with different partners — an adventure race called Zombie Survivor, “a five-kilometre obstacle run through the apocalypse,” and TheLockedRoom.ca, an interactive gaming website.

After the ugly sweater season, Fitzgerald and Hooda will get busy growing TheLockedRoom.ca and organizing the summer’s Zombie Survivor. While they’re focusing on the companies they already have, they may still start more. “We have this wall of ideas where we have 20 or 30 ideas,” says Fitzgerald. “Most of them will never see the light of day but if we think something is really good we kind of just jump on it I guess.”

While turning ideas into viable businesses wasn’t something they were taught specifically at Schulich, they did learn how to deliver solutions. “You definitely have to know where to search and come up with something because a lot of our tests were only two or three questions long and they were very open-ended real-life questions,” says Fitzgerald. “So you have to figure out how to get from A to B to C and solve that problem.”

Including, where to find ugly sweaters to wear to a Christmas party.