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Student Entrep Group Buds During Sprout San Francisco Trip

It is 9:15 a.m., Monday morning, and a group of Northwestern University undergraduates and I have discovered that charisma is a more powerful stimulant than caffeine. We’ve just arrived at GSVlabs in in Redwood City California, right outside of San Francisco, entrepreneurship’s current North Star. After a brief tour of GSV’s facilities (Concrete! Glass! Inspirational scribblings on walls!), we are listening to NU alums, Li Jiang and Suzee Han, speak about their journeys from uncertain NU graduates to venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. Suzee and Li are smiling, friendly, and clearly excited to have us there. But, it almost doesn’t matter – every word they utter has conviction, passion, and my students seem almost shell-shocked. It’s a lot for any underclassman to take in, these two recent graduates, so close to them in age, doing everything our society warns young people against and being successful because of it rather than in spite of it.

“Did we blow their minds?” Suzee asks me later, a little bit worried. “Yes,” I smile. “It was perfect.”

Sprout, a five-day long crash-course in entrepreneurship for students with no pre-existing exposure to the field, is a brainchild of EPIC, Northwestern University’s largest entrepreneurial student group. Sprout demoed in Fall 2016 as a weekend-long, on-campus workshop, meant to introduce students to the idea and practice of entrepreneurship imagined, developed, and taught by students to students. Sprout 2017 was to be Sprout 2.0, moved from the suburban Evanston, Illinois, to San Francisco, the nexus of entrepreneurship, and to be expanded from workshops and modules of learning exercises to tours of businesses, startup and big alike, alum panels, and the creation and pitching of possible business ideas—all in five days.

The Sprout team worked hard over the past year to evolve and expand their program, creating an application process for interested students, calling companies to set up tours, working with alums and Northwestern University staff to schedule panels and reserve spaces, and collaborating with EPIC’s executive team to determine a working budget and obtain funding. If Sprout 1.0 was a program that required a fair amount of diligence, Sprout 2.0 was a herculean undertaking. Nonetheless, it was one that the Sprout team, led by junior Chris Guo, successfully stewarded to launch. Mike Marasco, Director for the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and EPIC Advisor, and I, Farley Center Senior Program Manager, EPIC Co-Advisor, have supported and advised Chris and the Sprout team through Sprout’s evolution, and were looking forward to seeing where this new Sprout, and its participants, would go. Unexpectedly, some last-minute scheduling conflicts made it impossible for Mike Marasco to be able to attend, and instead of supporting the group from Illinois I too had a plane ticket to San Fran. I was joining the Sprout team on their journey.

The trip was a whirlwind:

Day 1:

Day 2:

Day 3:

Participants had just the prior two days of site visits plus two Day 3 workshops on ideation and pitch presenting under their entrepreneurial belts, so the Startup Challenge was a real test. Had I not accompanied the students throughout their journey the past couple of days, I might have thought it petrifying for them.

Sprout’s participants rose to the Startup Challenge and more—ideating, developing, and pitching their ideas to their judges. Some came with fleshed-out decks, others with actual market research done between workshops that day. All were ready to present, all were motivated by topics and ideas that they were passionate about, and all were fueled by the drive to solve a problem that intimately affects their day-to-day lives.

For these students, the creation, development, and sharing of innovative ideas has become a mechanism they can use to tackle real and deeply personal issues, from the challenges facing high-need students applying to college to understaffed animal shelters. Three days of exposure to corporate/nonprofit work environment alternatives and seeing the difference that their ideas could make within an organization, gave Sprout’s students the ability to ideate, develop, and evolve as creative thinkers and as business-minded achievers. It was amazing to watch the maturation of these students from quiet listeners at GSVlabs on Day 1 to passionate young adults empowered with the “what if” of what they could accomplish.

Click here to view a Facebook photo album created with Ria Hirsch's photos of the trip

Click here to read NU Econ, Math, CS student Chris Guo's article about Sprout San Francisco 2017 

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