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Pioneer Weekend 4.0 continues student entrepreneurship

On Nov. 10, students, mentors and organizers gathered for Pioneer Weekend 4.0, an entrepreneurship program organized by the Wilson Center for Innovation and Leadership. Approximately 20 students participated, according to Professor Monty Roper, anthropology, director of the Wilson Center. Groups made up of three or four students generated ideas for a project and, with the help of mentors, developed their ideas over the course of the three-day competition. 

“There are several things which we hope come out of [Pioneer Weekend],” Roper said. “We hope that it’s fun, we hope that students are being creative, we hope that they are being collaborative, they’re learning to work in teams, they are learning a little bit of what it takes to develop an idea, [and] they are getting the opportunity to practice failure in a safe environment.”

To help achieve these goals, alumni return to serve as mentors for Pioneer Weekend, and they help students first crystalize and then improve their ideas.

“You are really just trying to ask questions and push the thought process. People [might say,] we’re going to build this. … OK, have you thought about what materials you’re going to use, or where you’re getting those materials, or how you’re going to get them?” said Andrés Chang ’05, one of the mentors. 

In this advisory capacity, the mentors helped expand participants’ perspective, and lead them to consider potential problems that might not otherwise be identified.

“[The teams] are changing as they go. Sometimes they take five minutes in between [mentor sessions] and try to think about, ‘what does that mean?’ Sometimes a mentor completely throws a wrench in it, and they realize they need to go in a new direction,” Roper said. “It is so fun to see those ideas develop from day one, when they first have an inkling of an idea. … Things evolve from one moment to the next.”

Past participants noted that Pioneer Weekend was invaluable in helping kickstart an idea. Last April, at Pioneer Weekend 3.0, a team made up of Myles Becker ’19, Nathan Calvin ’18, Nomalanga Shields ’18 and Dylan Ambrosoli ’18 won with a project to fund bail for those incarcerated before trial.

“We came up with the idea for [Pioneer Weekend]. We weren’t going to do it otherwise, … and we got very valuable mentoring,” Becker said. 

“The idea of an incubator is that it gets everyone to buckle down and focus. Without that, I don’t think [our idea] would ever have come to fruition,” Calvin said. 

Pioneer Weekend 4.0 featured several fascinating ideas with real potential for development. The third place winner was Roots, a project by Julia Echikson ’20 and Alden Wahsono ’20 to create a nutritious vegetable bar. Coming in second place was Doorway, a project by Emmet Sandberg ’18, Henry Bolster ’18, and Gracee Wallach ’20 to create an election canvassing app. The first prize winners were Yash Gupta ’20, Nicole Nie ’19 and Paps Ampim-Darko ’19 with their project, DSRPTN.

“The goal of the project was to make creating powerful applications easier and more accessible to people from all walks of life,” wrote Gupta in an email to The S&B. “The hope is to be able to sit anyone down in front of a computer and with minimal explanation on how the interface works, have them creating scale-able feature-rich applications in hours or days.”

DSRPTN worked to create a simple interface which wraps apps from a user-friendly language to behave natively on Android, iOS, Windows and other platforms. Like those that came before, the team relied on help and mentoring along the way.

“The mentors were invaluable, and the whole process made the idea happen. Without the facilities the program provided, there wouldn’t have been … much more than a half-backed idea,” Gupta wrote. 

One of the attractive elements of Pioneer Weekend, though, is that teams can continue their projects well beyond the three-day competition. Ambrosoli, Becker, Calvin and Shields, for instance, conducted research and engaged with community partners to further their idea following the program. DSRPTN is still a new team, so the future is less certain.

“In terms of future development, we’ll have to wait and see,” Gupta wrote.

Regardless of the decisions they make, however, the experiences had at Pioneer Weekend are unlikely to be forgotten soon.

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