A Home for Ideas

Derek Wautlet (left), Nick Peterson, and Ben Hermann
Derek Wautlet (left; B.S. ’21), Nick Peterson (B.S ’20), and Ben Hermann (B.S. ’21) work together in the StartUp learning community “den” at Sellery Hall.

Business partnerships can be created in all sorts of ways. There might be shared interests, shared goals, or shared backgrounds. At least one business partnership, however, was created because of a shared bathroom.

The inefficiency of a hand dryer setup sparked a conversation between students that became a friendship and then a startup because they were all living together in a learning community dedicated to entrepreneurship. While the startup won’t solve the hand dryer problem, the mutual irritation of what wasn’t working helped provide the seed from which their partnership sprouted.

“It only took me three days to think, ‘We have to start something,’” says Nick Peterson (B.S. ’20), a computer science major, after meeting fellow resident Ben Hermann (B.S. ’21), an engineering student, and his new neighbor Derek Wautlet (B.S. ’21), also a computer science major. “We would have been crazy not to.”

For 10 years, connections have been made in a community full of people with a creative spirit in common. StartUp, formerly known as the Entrepreneurial Residential Learning Community, brings together students with a variety of interests and majors.

“We celebrate ideas,” says Sari Judge, StartUp’s program coordinator. “You have to start with an idea and a good idea can come from anywhere. We want to give students the confidence, knowledge, and connections to help them take an idea to the next level.”

We want to give students the confidence, knowledge, and connections to help them take an idea to the next level.

Sari Judge,
StartUp program coordinator

Sixty-four students, usually freshmen and sophomores, live together in Sellery Hall. They attend monthly dinners with area entrepreneurs and business leaders, go to résumé and elevator pitch workshops, and get a chance to earn a Dream Big Grant, typically $1,000, to give their startup a boost.

Students also can enroll in a three-credit class designed specifically for StartUp residents.

“It doesn’t require a student to have a startup when they come and they don’t need to launch one when they leave,” says John Surdyk (MBA ’03), StartUp’s faculty director and director of the Initiative for Studies in Transformational Entrepreneurship (INSITE). “In the meantime they meet area entrepreneurs and researchers on campus. They build strong relationships with the people they lived with in the learning community—a professional network they carry forward.”

StartUp is part of a broader platform of entrepreneurial initiatives at WSB, funded by donors who see the value of entrepreneurship on campus and beyond. It’s such a priority that the School has launched the Entrepreneurship Forward Fund to boost efforts in that area, including coursework, experiential learning programs, and cross-disciplinary programming.

Peterson, Hermann, and Wautlet didn’t have a startup idea, but brainstormed to get one. They made time every day in September to talk about ideas with a goal of starting a month later. They looked at 30 industries and considered their future. They whittled 103 ideas down to one—Parfaitt, a remote team collaboration tool. The trio also were awarded a Dream Big Grant.

“It’s in our hands,” Peterson says. “Either we make it or we don’t. Everyone is giving us the opportunity.”

StartUp has had success from the start. An alumna from its first year, Xiaohoa Michelle Ching (BFA ’12) last year was named a Forbes 30 Under 30 for her startup that created a literacy assessment tool, Literator.

Binu Ponugoti
I wanted to focus on an idea. I wanted to think about real problems people face and if there was an innovative solution I could offer.

Binnu Ponugoti,
A resident of the StartUp learning community

Ching came to campus as an art student, not wanting to major in business but wanting to be around idea people. She earned a Dream Big Grant and launched a photo business.

“Entrepreneurship is a lot about figuring out what’s important to you and hustling to make yourself successful,” Ching says. “And the learning community was about providing you the resources.”

That’s what Binnu Ponugoti (B.S. ’20) sought for her college experience. Her mother is an entrepreneur and she had been surrounded by that her whole life.

“I wanted to focus on an idea,” says Ponugoti, a computer science major whose startup idea is a photo recognition cybersecurity program. “I wanted to think about real problems people face and if there was an innovative solution I could offer.”

The learning community was part of the vision of deans from WSB and other schools throughout campus who wanted to make entrepreneurship accessible to a variety of disciplines. In its 10 years, StartUp has had residents from more than 70 majors. About half each year are either direct admits to WSB or students in the process of applying to it.

The community provides a welcoming space for students to fearlessly exchange ideas and gain confidence.

“People with great ideas and passion and energy should be meeting each other and thinking about what is possible,” Ching says. “It’s powerful to think it’s a bunch of college kids sitting together saying, ‘I’m going to do this, and you’re going to do this, and it would be so cool if we could do it together.’”

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