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A new program to support student entrepreneurs

This summer, Tor Viren ’21 had a chance to apply his physics degree to the real world through a partnership with Aero1217. The company is working to start a flight school, and through the St. Olaf Entrepreneurial Scholars Program, Viren worked to make that vision a reality. 

Among Viren’s biggest projects was prototyping a tug to move the company’s gyroplanes from location to location. For this, he researched patents, created and revised prototypes, and interviewed airport employees. Originally driven by a chance to apply his skills to the real world, Viren was surprised at how much he enjoyed working for a company and turning what he knew into a marketable product. 

“I know a lot more about what goes into starting a business, and I almost feel like I could plan one myself now,” he says.

Viren was one of 10 St. Olaf students who spent the summer creating and innovating in St. Olaf College’s new Entrepreneurial Scholars Program. This 8-10 week program provided students with a unique opportunity to apply what they had learned on campus to the business world, even before graduation, through partnerships with innovative companies.

The 2019 Entrepreneurial Scholars include (front row, from left) Gabrielle Lattery ’20, Aziza Banna ’21, Abigail Hansen ’21, Sydney Wagner ’21, Claire Walsh ’21, (back row, from left) Matt Whear ’20, Tor Viren ’20, Jack Buendorf ’21, David Kunau ’21, and George Arbanas ’20.

Kirsten Cahoon ’98, a senior associate director in St. Olaf’s Piper Center for Vocation Career, oversaw the program in its inaugural year and received positive feedback from mentors and students alike. She and Margaret Bransford, the associate director of entrepreneurship and outreach in the Piper Center, worked together to establish partnerships with entrepreneurs, including some alumni, from all over Minnesota.

Reaching out to startups and entrepreneurial hubs, they found mentors who were passionate about advancing students’ futures, and they worked together with the companies to create robust programs where students had the chance to experience a breadth of responsibilities. Cahoon believes this is “one of the assets of working in a startup space” and largely credits the “all hands on deck” approach of startup companies for giving students a chance to make a meaningful contribution in a variety of areas.

“This was not just getting coffee,” says Bransford. “[Students] really felt like they had the opportunity to make an impact on the everyday work.”

This sort of experience is exactly what Cahoon and Bransford hoped for while creating this new program. Still, it’s not just students who are reaping the benefits of this partnership. Not only did every company express interest in remaining a partner for next summer, but each agreed to participate closely with the Piper Center’s entrepreneurial programs during the academic year to continue building relationships with St. Olaf and St. Olaf students.

Cahoon and Bransford developed the Entrepreneurial Scholar Program at St. Olaf to foster such relationships. “It’s just so natural for our students to thrive in that environment because they’ve had experience with the liberal arts and with critical thinking and interdisciplinary thinking,” says Bransford.

It’s just so natural for our students to thrive in that environment because they’ve had experience with the liberal arts and with critical thinking and interdisciplinary thinking.associate director of entrepreneurship and outreach Margaret Bransford

Both she and Cahoon see entrepreneurship as the obvious extension to the liberal arts curriculum and are certain that students already have the skills to be at home in the entrepreneurial realm. The two are also aware of the potential roadblocks to students who feel pressure to save during the summers by working traditional jobs. A gift from alumni Steve ’61 and Billie Slethaug Moksnes ’61 enabled the Piper Center to provide students with funding so that the program is accessible to students from all backgrounds.

For students looking for a future in entrepreneurship, this program could really make a difference. “I think it fits really well with the [Piper Center’s] mission in that we want to build out opportunities and access to opportunities that really differentiate St. Olaf students from anyone else coming out of college with undergraduate degrees,” Cahoon says.

Capita3, a venture capital fund, employed Sydney Wagner ’21 and Matt Whear ’20 to help advance the company’s mission of gender equality in healthcare funding. Both students were drawn to the company in their exploration of finance careers and because of their coursework in economics, and they found a vibrant work culture with plenty of opportunities to hone their skills.

I think that St. Olaf prepared me well to dive into a really new concept and figure it out quickly.Matt Whear ’20

“I think that St. Olaf prepared me well to dive into a really new concept and figure it out quickly,” says Wagner, crediting St. Olaf’s liberal arts curriculum with helping her think creatively in new environments. Whear notes, “You learn how to learn things that are outside your comfort zone.”

St. Olaf students have always represented a balance between academic excellence and creative thinking, a combination perfect for starting a business. Now, with a program this strong and successful, Oles have even more opportunities to gain skills and make connections in the field of entrepreneurship.