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Pioneering entrepreneurship

This weekend, from Friday, April 18 to Sunday, April 20 in Younker Lounge, Grinnell will be hosting a three-day event for entrepreneurs and innovators, called Pioneer Weekend. The weekend will provide an opportunity for students of all backgrounds to work in teams within a simulation start-up environment, building off one another’s knowledge and experiences to design a prototype for an idea of their choosing.

The Wilson Program and Grinnell AppDev are co-sponsoring the weekend. It was organized by Maijid Moujaled ’14, Kevin Charette ’15, Nathalie Ford ’15, Lea Marolt Sonnenschein ’15 and Ham Serunjogi ’16 with Doug Caulkins, Anthropology. They hope that by developing a community infused with entrepreneurial spirit, Grinnell will diversify the opportunities that students will have in their future careers.

“One of the important things that [Wilson Program founder] Donald L. Wilson wanted was to make sure that students considered a wider range of career options,” Caulkins said. “Grinnell is very concerned about making innovations that will help change the world for the better, which engages you with the world outside of the Grinnell bubble.”

 

NOT JUST A SOCIAL JUSTICE SCHOOL

Charette noted the importance of teaching entrepreneurial skills to students who may not have considered that path before.

“By building the entrepreneurial community, we want other students to … think of Grinnell as more than just a social justice school,” Charette said. “There’s a lot of push towards graduate school and social justice, and we want students to know that there is an entrepreneurial route, as well, because not all Grinnellians fit into [those] set categories.”

The event was designed to encourage learning from a hands-on approach towards development and creation, teaching students to move from the theoretical to the technical. Pioneers will have the chance to interact and network with their peers, bringing together a group of interested individuals as an incubator for ideas and innovation.

“Events like this are where learning actually takes place, with focuses on learning outside of classrooms, from hackathons to Pioneer Weekend,” Moujaled said. “A couple students come together to organize and build to solve a problem they see for themselves, which is the same reason they go to school for.”

Caulkins described the process of learning through innovation, even if not every project is a success.

“We want to give students an opportunity to innovate, learn from those innovations and to know that inevitably some of those innovations fail,” Caulkins said. “If you haven’t failed, you haven’t tried hard enough. A really important part of the practical education that we can offer to students is the opportunity to participate.”

 

ALUMNI CONNECTIONS

The organizers noted the wide array of potential benefits that the program could have for students and the College, from networking to personal development and the opportunity to see how alums have taken their experiences from Grinnell and wielded them in the post-graduate world.

“A really important part of the design is having alumni as mentors and judges,” Caulkins said. “It brings alumni back on campus and helps to build a denser network of current students and alumni.”

Attendees, in teams of three to six students, will pitch their prototype to a panel of expert judges, composed of Amelia Lobo ’99, Jeff Dickey-Chasins ’81 and Tej Dhawan, a mentor at Startup City Des Moines. The judges come from Iowa and a diverse set of professional backgrounds, ranging from small businesses and nonprofits to publishing and tech incubators.

“Two judges are alums who can advise students who don’t know how to put their ideas into tangible projects,” Marolt Sonnenschein said. “Students from different majors who may not have known each other before can get together to see how their ideas can complement each other’s.”

“You’re exposed to these different ideas and making connections with different people at Grinnell,” Ford said. “It’s a really exciting opportunity to learn and hear about what your classmates are doing.”

The organizers of Pioneer Weekend were inspired by the tenacity and dedication of Grinnellians, which they believe to be lacking from the common backgrounds of the typical entrepreneur or start-up employee.

“Grinnellians will make awesome entrepreneurs,” Moujaled said. “They think holistically, and this event gives them a chance to try it out on a very low-risk level.”

The creators stressed that the event will be open and easily accessible to every student, regardless of major or interest.

“We want this event to be open and welcoming to any major, not just the CS or econ majors,” Ford said. “Everyone can be really innovative and create something amazing.”

Caulkins and Charette emphasized the possibilities of bringing together talented and passionate students with broad experiences in different fields, regardless of where they meet.

“Start-ups have a huge presence in Iowa, and I worked with Max Farrell [’12], pushing entrepreneurship in Arkansas,” Charette said. “It’s not exclusively Bay Area … even in Podunk, Iowa. It can happen in Grinnell College as much as it can happen in Cal or Stanford.”

 

ENTREPRENEURSHIP CONCENTRATION 

UNDER DISCUSSION

Caulkins proclaimed that Iowa is just as fertile a breeding ground for the next “big thing” as anywhere else and encouraged students to be inspired by Grinnell’s location.

“Des Moines is becoming a hub for innovation, alums in Iowa City are doing a lot of innovation in media and film and here we are, sitting right between those two centers of innovation,” Caulkins said. “Grinnell can become a small hub for the region in terms of innovation and development.”

The weekend will also serve as a pilot program to test the waters of entrepreneurship on campus. Students and faculty will be watching closely to determine the viability of a permanent entrepreneurship concentration through the Wilson Program, in addition to the continuation of Pioneer Weekend.

“We’re interested in the possibility of an “Innovation and Entrepreneurship” concentration. Pioneer Weekend will serve as a form of early prototyping: we’ll test it, modify it and then decide whether to go forward or pivot,” Caulkins said. “We’ll be teaching Introduction to Innovation and Entrepreneurship in the fall semester, which will be funded by Wilson Program.”

If the implementation of a new concentration is indeed determined to be viable, Caulkins looks forward to broadening the scope of the innovation and entrepreneurship courses to fit the liberal arts model.

“For the intro course on innovation and entrepreneurship, we want to get other faculty who are not on the Wilson committee involved from all other divisions of the College: arts, literature, science, social science and so on,” Caulkins said. “Drawing on all departments, it gives people a sense that we all participate in technology, all participate in innovation and entrepreneurship.”

On the note of participation, Pioneer Weekend’s organizers were enthusiastic and optimistic about the possibilities and learning opportunities that the event will create.

“Everyone already has the skills to do this, you don’t need to know how to program or have had an internship,” Moujaled said. “Having made it to Grinnell you have the skills … [for] starting something from the ground up to completion and pitching it at the end, you’d be surprised … how far that can take you.”

Students who wish to attend Pioneer Weekend can sign up at www.pioneerweekend.com or just show up on Friday at Younker Lounge at 6 p.m.

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