By Nadine Kavanaugh
The Venture Initiation Program, fondly known as VIP here on the 4th floor of Vance Hall, is one of the programs Wharton Entrepreneurship is proudest of, and with good reason. VIP is an educational incubator, with the emphasis on educational. As with incubators elsewhere, early-stage businesses apply to join and, once admitted, receive certain advantages that help them move their ventures forward, such as membership in an entrepreneurial community and office space. What sets VIP apart is that we also offer educational programming and advising, and because we’re at Wharton, the instructors leading the workshops, holding the information sessions, and answering the questions are the top in their fields.
Twice a year, student entrepreneurs from every school at Penn apply to join VIP, once in the fall, for membership over the academic year, and once in the spring, for summer membership. The application process is intensive, requiring a detailed description of the business, the team, progress to date and even a video pitch. Businesses that make it through the first round then pitch live and answer questions from the VIP advisors, Patrick Fitzgerald and Jeffrey Babin, in front of an audience of W.E. staff and other aspiring teams.
Last week I sat in on these pitch sessions, and I came away hugely impressed. The teams pitching were terrific, with innovative, well-researched business ideas and huge potential. I sort of expected that, however. After all, this is Wharton: we have amazing entrepreneurial students, and of course the applicants for our incubator will be stellar.
The true revelation was the advisors. Jeffrey and Patrick are entrepreneurs and educators; both have built companies, and they are currently offering their extensive industry experience to Penn students by teaching classes in entrepreneurship. They did what great educators do: they gave their unflagging attention to each and every applicant, hour after hour. After a two minute pitch from the team, Jeffrey and Patrick had two minutes that they used to ask piercing questions designed to winnow out flaws or to push the thinking of the team. I was floored by the breadth of knowledge they demonstrated in field after field and the depth of understanding they clearly had for what it really takes to start a business, and succeed.
But it was only after the pitching was done, when the students were gone and the debate began, that I truly grasped the genius of their methods. Jeffrey and Patrick are the VIP advisors. They engage with the students one on one, teaching them how to build their companies from the ground up. All those probing questions were designed not only to find out if the students knew their stuff, but to discover how these budding entrepreneurs respond when challenged. Jeffrey and Patrick were looking, most of all, for learners.
They wanted to admit teams who would gain the most from the experience of VIP, who would take advantage of the resources, who would ask the most questions. In other words, what they were looking for was students to teach. They were looking for intelligent, enthusiastic people who would bug them constantly and ask a million questions and change and grow from the experience.
This is what makes VIP an educational incubator. Wharton Entrepreneurship and VIP are here to educate: to put the research, resources, and experience of our dedicated faculty and staff at the disposal of entrepreneurs who want to learn. It enable students to complete their course of study while at the same time developing and beginning to implement their venture ideas. Wharton Entrepreneurship is an educational partner with these students, and as such we do not take an equity position in any of the companies. To the contrary, we even award some grants, such as the Snider Seed Award and the Woods Award, that promising ventures use to forward their plans.
Out of a pool of 60 applicants, 40 ventures were invited to pitch in person, plus another 5 pitches done via video conference from WhartonǀSan Francisco. At the end of two days of intensive pitching, 17 east coast and 3 west coast companies have been invited to join VIP, bringing the total current members to 36. (See the complete list here!) We’re truly excited to welcome them. Others exited: having learned all they could from VIP, they’re heading out into the marketplace to test the mettle of their ventures.
I look forward to a wonderful year with these 36 ventures: I know they’ll be popping in to the shared office space to work and roaming the hallways looking for inspiration and, occasionally, solace. I watched the new ventures pitch, and I’m excited to see their businesses grow. I know that they’ll take every advantage of the many resources available at Wharton Entrepreneurship, even beyond VIP. I know this because they’re learners, and that’s the best predictor of success.