Seniors in the inaugural cohort of the Keller Center’s new certificate Program in Entrepreneurship stood before their professors and peers and pitched their plans for a smartphone app for science education, a non-profit called “Jews for Animals,” and an investment and trading tool for people who are not expert investors, along with eight other potential ventures.
Not one of them drew on traditional business models.
Instead, the 11 students presenting at the certificate program’s symposium May 10 used a different set of criteria to determine a startup’s worth, one referred to several times during the day as “entrepreneurship the Princeton way.”
What is that, exactly?
It means something more than just high-tech, for-profit startups, said Mung Chiang, outgoing director of Princeton’s Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education. Instead, it equates to risk-taking actions and value-creating organizations, Chiang explained. Requisites for the certificate program include mastery of design and creativity methodologies through coursework, workshops, a learn-by-doing practicum and a shared-experience colloquium. Students from any degree field are welcome to apply to the program.
“The common threads through the certificate program for me are what I call the three S’s: Significance, Skills and Sense of Self,” said senior Rebeca De La Espriella, whose presentation focused on how she found ways to help students learn about themselves for a more fulfilling college experience. “Every course I took not only taught us the skills to create a tangible impact on campus or beyond, but actually gave us the room to work on real projects that would benefit society,” she said. “This was the educational, professional, and interpersonal highlight of my Princeton experience.”
De La Espriella, who is majoring in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs said the program’s grounding in ethnography, synthesis, ideation and prototyping techniques comprise a new approach to social innovation. And the “soft skills” she developed, such as learning how to work with difficult personalities and how to facilitate meetings, have already been valuable in helping her distinguish herself from other candidates for post-college work.
At the symposium, students shared what they had learned in the process of creating new ventures and innovations. As a capstone to the new certificate program, students put their in-class learning into practice by working on a venture or using design thinking to create a meaningful innovation.
Brooks Powell, a senior pursuing a degree in religion, gave his presentation on Thrive+, a powdered formula that is added to water to speed recovery from the effects of alcohol.
“Do I think the requisites of the certificate program aided, supported, and drove forward Thrive+? Absolutely,” said Powell, who plans to market his product after graduation. “Even taking the course Special Topics: Venture Capital Enabling Innovation was amazing, because not more than two months after that class ended I was sitting in front of investors and talking in terms of six-digit investments.”
The participation of guest entrepreneurs who shared their “battle stories” was also a key component of the program’s appeal for Powell. These real-life role models spoke about how they faced difficult business challenges and pushed themselves to find solutions, which Powell found inspiring.
Yet another student underscored the value of finding receptive customers or users for a startup-even if it does not pan out the way one supposed it would. Yossi Quint, whose non-profit Jews for Animals did not yield the response he was hoping for, said the certificate program, its process and his own misconceptions nevertheless taught him a great deal. While his non-profit idea was encouraged, the demand for it ultimately was not there, he said. His non-profit originally had four goals, but was scaled back to two: reducing animal product consumption by the Jewish community, and creating a community of people around a common activist stance.
“One of the things I learned is that there is not much connectivity between animal welfare and being Jewish. I should have tested my assumptions,” said Quint. Activism on behalf of animals is well-covered societally, but not necessarily through faith-based organizations. Quint also learned that, for animal advocacy, the best route is through “interactivity” of individuals rather than digital platforms, he said.
Senior Timothy Lau, whose final entrepreneurship project stemmed from his work with Tiger Challenge, the Keller Center’s new social innovation program, said simply, “Failing is okay, even encouraged, as long as you learn something.”
The Keller Center lists three objectives for the certificate program: to create focused pathways for students to supplement the courses of their major with courses and practice that yield a coherent study of entrepreneurship; to expand and enhance liberal arts offerings to accommodate entrepreneurial study; and to create an interdisciplinary community that values and contributes to the program.
The recent symposium was the first step in that direction, said Chiang, who is leaving Princeton at the end of the school year to become dean of engineering at Purdue University. “One of the best days of my 14 years at Princeton has been the opportunity to listen to you,” he told the cohort of presenters. The symposium was held at the Princeton Entrepreneurial Hub at 34 Chambers Street.
Other speakers at the afternoon symposium, which had several faculty members and program administrators in attendance, included Vivek Dinodia on the startup project Hubble, an app that helps friends pinpoint each other’s locations on campus through a series of colored pins; Kevin Huang on the startup THIX, mobile apps that help kids enjoy science and technology; Megan Tung on the startup No Chill, which sells Princeton-related tongue-in-cheek stickers, T-shirts and merchandise; Max Greenwald on IgniteSTEM, an educational tech organization for K-12 project-based learning; Andreas Dias and Jennifer Lee on the startup Cartful, a fashion discovery engine; and Joshua Collins on the startup Slope, an algorithm-based investment and trading platform for the “average” person.
Cornelia Huellstrunk, executive director of the Keller Center, put the successes of the first cohort squarely in the hands of Princeton students.
“The symposium, which showcased the final presentations of the initial cohort of graduating seniors, is a real testament to the persistent interest and passion on the part of our students in this area,” said Huellstrunk. “It is a thrill to finally make this opportunity a reality, and to equip our students with both the intellectual basis and the practical experiences to connect their aspirations to real, meaningful impact.”
Asked if the program would be refined or tweaked after this, its pilot year, Huellstrunk replied, “Yes! In a typical entrepreneurial fashion, we are always learning, adapting and iterating.”