Smart Learning at University of Rochester

By Lisa Campbell Warren

Dream it, do it!

KEY Program Jumpstarts Enterprising Students

“If you can dream it, you can do it,” Walt Disney said famously. What he said next is worth noting too: “Always remember this whole thing was started by a mouse.” Substitute “an undergraduate student with a great idea” for “a mouse” to describe the principle behind the University of Rochester’s Kauffman Entrepreneurial Year program. Within a supportive framework that provides expert advising, skill-and-knowledge-building course work, and up to a year of tuition-free enrollment, KEY (or “Kauffman”) scholars pursue the transformation of their dreams.  For example:


ArtAwake was born of the combined passion of a group of students for urban exploring, community, and the arts.  Working with the university’s student activity office to get approval and support, the group started an above-board* UE club, with an architectural photography bent. [*Above-board means members request permission to explore private property.] The club quickly became popular, and its founders “wanted to do something bigger that would involve and touch more people,” explained Zach Kozick, physics major and co-founder of ArtAwake. Thus, the idea was born to create a student-run arts-and-music festival, housed in an abandoned urban space in downtown Rochester. Acceptance to the KEY program allowed the founding partners to work together to achieve their dream of annually transforming a different space into a gallery and music/performance venue. The project successfully united the university community with the general public, while creating the foundation, structure, and organizational model to continue and improve the festival year after year.

Our Trash is UR Treasure

 With her “Our Trash is UR Treasure” project, Katie Maloney is developing a safe, clean, efficient method of making liquid soap from the by-products of environmentally friendly biodiesel fuel formulation. Said Katie, “I had been thinking about working on soap production during my undergrad, but I never had enough time to devote to the project, so KEY was the perfect chance to do it.”  Working independently, Katie keeps in contact with a biodiesel team on campus and a chemical engineering senior design team that is pursuing a similar project.  “It’s encouraging to see how active entrepreneurship is on this campus,” she said.  The biomedical engineering student plans to enroll in grad school next fall.  “I’m not sure if entrepreneurship will directly be incorporated into my plans,” she said, “but I will definitely use the skills I have learned to my advantage.”

Creating value

 The process of developing entrepreneurial ideas into “for-profit” or “not-for-profit” ventures that will create economic, social or intellectual value is what it’s all about, according to Professor Robert Tobin, associate director of the UR Center for Entrepreneurship. Being a business major is NOT required for admission to the program, established in 2004 with a grant from the Kauffman Foundation. Most KEY students form teams to launch a social enterprise or business, but the multi-disciplinary program also welcomes applications from individual student-entrepreneurs and those who wish to intern at a local startup, research various facets of entrepreneurship, or analyze how culture and public policy influence entrepreneurial activity.The KEY program is modeled after University of Rochester’s competitive yet popular “Take 5” program, which allows scholars to apply for a 5th year on campus, tuition free, to pursue additional areas of study they were unable to fit into their first four years.  What makes the KEY program so unique is that it is both academic and experiential, and it is driven by the students’ own plans to initiate [entrepreneurial projects].

Risking failure

Tobin, who is also the university’s entrepreneur-in-residence and faculty adviser to KEY scholars, said his role is to help students make connections on campus and in the Greater Rochester community, assist them in overcoming obstacles, and support them in successfully completing their projects—or learning in failure. In addition to having the passion to pursue his or her idea, the successful KEY scholar “needs to be self-directed and willing to take on a project that could fail,” Tobin said. Whether their projects ultimately succeed or fail, Kauffman scholars gain the skills, knowledge, experience, and confidence to undertake future ventures.

As far as you can take it

In an entrepreneurship lab course, ArtAwake co-founders Zach, Jordan Parker, and Carlin Gettliffe were tasked with “taking an original idea as far as you can, including raising the funding/investment capital.”  Zach found Jordan’s idea for a visual computing application so intriguing he had to ask, “Could we do this for real?  Why don’t we?” Everything the three had learned about hard work and teamwork through their ArtAwake venture made it possible to launch Omniar, Inc., said Zach.  “While the enterprises are entirely different, we could not have successfully launched Omniar without the experience we gained through that KEY period of developing ArtAwake,” he said.  Incorporated in July 2009, Omniar was one of 11 new startup companies chosen from more than 700 applicants for the TechStars class of 2010, in Boulder, Colorado—a unique opportunity to  receive start-up tutoring, mentoring and access to a rich network of professional connections and investors. Omniar was one of three companies filmed for the TechStars Founders Series, so that interested visitors (like us!) could follow their progress online.  Isn’t it amazing how far the determined, educated pursuit of a dream can lead?

So, here’s a question to ask when you’re visiting colleges:  Will I find support here if I want to work toward transforming my dreams into reality?

A researcher, writer, and editor with a special interest in education, Lisa Warren is a featured contributor to SmartCollegeVisit.

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