Arvind Sridhar is a 4th-year student at Brown University studying Computer Science and Economics. He is the Co-President of the Brown Entrepreneurship Program (Brown EP). Brown EP is the largest student entrepreneurship club on campus. I talked with Arvind about how students can get involved, how the grant funding works, what programming they offer, and more.
- There is an application process to get into Brown EP, but the club prides itself on being as open as possible. Arvind shared, "Anybody who wants exposure and access to entrepreneurship should be able to cultivate it in some form." They also make it a point to keep their events and grants open to any students, regardless of whether they are in the club.
- The size of the grants is allocated based on the team's progress on the idea and their needs. They try to give at least a little money to every startup that makes it into their funnel, and they typically distribute anywhere from $100 - $10,000.
- All students at Brown University, including graduate and PhD students, are eligible to apply for grant funding. They also consider startups from the nearby Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).
Kieran: Thanks, Arvind, for joining me today. To start, do you want to introduce yourself?
Arvind: Thank you so much, Kieran. My name is Arvind Sridhar. I'm a senior here at Brown University, concentrating in Computer Science and Economics. I am one of the two student leads of the Brown Entrepreneurship Program, the largest student entrepreneurship club at Brown University. We have over 120 members and are one of the largest funded clubs on campus and an entrepreneurial hub housed directly under the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship, the new entrepreneurial hub at the university level for entrepreneurship here at Brown University. So, I'm excited to chat today. Hopefully, I have some insights to share. After graduation, I'll start as a Product Manager at Adobe, working on video, cloud, and generative AI and the intersection of those three topics, beginning in August 2024. If we touch on that, I'm happy to talk about it, but in general, I'm thrilled with the work done here at Brown and excited to get into details.
Kieran: How did you first learn about the Brown Entrepreneurship Program?
Arvind: So I had a unique background in where I went to high school before coming to Brown University. I went to a high school in Providence. As a student who dabbled with the idea of entrepreneurship, it was exciting for me to bring an idea to fruition and create something new and innovative. Many other places, except for Brown University, did not address those concepts in the area. So, as a high school student, I often dropped by, for example, some of the Founder Friday Talks that the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship would host, which would be here on Brown University's campus. They would often bring in either alums who had founded companies or perhaps community members from the area who had founded larger small businesses and have them in to speak. I think that gave me a cool and unique perspective on how entrepreneurship was being highlighted and invested in by the university, both in terms of the people they were bringing in and the funding going into entrepreneurship. In 2016, the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship opened up a new $25 million building on Thayer Street, which runs directly through campus. By that point, I had my eyes set on Brown as a place that I wanted to go due to the small cohort of entrepreneurship that was present. Hence, it's not overwhelming because not everyone works on a startup. There was still a lot of opportunity to dive in as a student and gain exposure to the entrepreneurship network at Brown pretty fast. They have the funding and opportunities that mirror some of the country's larger schools and entrepreneurship programs. There seemed to be a really beautiful intersection there. I was excited to apply to Brown and get involved with EP eventually.
Kieran: You mentioned some things when you gave your overview of the org. You mentioned that Brown EP is housed under the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship and is one of the most well-funded organizations on campus. How would you describe the relationship with the Nelson Center, and how are you funded?
Arvind: The Entrepreneurship Program is a club that sits outside the traditional club structure at Brown University. We have 200+ student organizations that are all part of the university community student groups. The Brown Entrepreneurship Program is treated separately from the student organizations with the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship. The Nelson Center is a separate division of the university in and of itself at the administrative level. The Brown Entrepreneurship Program is the student branch of the Nelson Center. Although it is a student club and recognized as such, we have more autonomy in terms of, you know, for example, every other club on campus is often not funded by departments or various sub-sectors of the administration, but rather a large community pool of funding allotted for student activities that filter down through the student clubs. We get funded directly by the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship, which I mentioned before, endowed with a lot of alumni and university funds since the university is investing heavily in cultivating entrepreneurship on campus. As a result, the club has quite a bit of autonomy regarding how it operates and access to capital. A large portion of which we fund startups and give grants to ideas. Even if it's very early, we want to incentivize students to start doing market research, even if surveying on campus, to begin validating their ideas. We want them to give them that push, even if it's micro-grants scaling up to more significant equity-free investments. The club uses its funding to invest in startups and cultivate ideas on campus.
Kieran: How does a student get into this club? Is there some application process? Could you walk me through that?
Arvind: There is an application process. Brown EP is one of the most applied to campus clubs, which is exciting. The club has gained quite a bit of traction over the last eight years with the opening of the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship's new building, faculty, resources, and everything along those lines. We have an application process. We try to make EP as open as possible because we've heard the horror stories of clubs at other universities with 5% or 10% acceptance rates. We're not applying again to college here. There's no reason to go through that level of filtering. The idea is that anybody who wants exposure and access to entrepreneurship should be able to cultivate it in some form. So, students apply to the club, and we take pretty literally as many people. We can take people who demonstrate an interest in some capacity. Let's say they come to the meetings ahead of time or come to a good bit of the info sessions and talk to the team leads; there are pretty high success rates for students who demonstrate interest, and we also meet within the Nelson Center which has a lot of capacity and a lecture hall that we're able to use to create more space in our club. Also, we make a point that students who are not in the club, whether they didn't get accepted or never applied in the first place, still have access to all of the events that EP puts on and access to the grants and funding. We don't exclusively fund EP startups. It is open to all Brown students, including undergraduates, graduates, and PhD students, and the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) students. It's one of the top design schools, if not the top design school in the entire country. If you talk about entrepreneurship as creativity, there are very few college campuses that are more creative than RISD, and we try to harness the talent that's there in terms of pushing toward entrepreneurship and showing that it is a viable path for students who are in design school, especially one of that caliber. We fund startups and ideas from RISD if they approach us. So they can access our resources even if they are not in the club.
Kieran: When I looked at your website before this call, I saw some of your programs: Innovation Dojo, Freshman Immersion, and the Women's Empowerment Conference (We@Brown). You also mentioned a couple of other things, like Friday Founder Talks. Can you talk about your programs and how people are getting involved?
Arvind: So, the entire theme of the club, and this has shifted from previous years where it was very much networking and connecting to Brown professionals, is active entrepreneurship. We're in college. There really is no downside to trying something. It's not a class. If you fail a startup, you don't hurt your future prospects. If anything, it helps. It shows that you tried something and took the initiative. There really is no downside. We absolutely try to push to active entrepreneurship. I want to highlight one of the programs you mentioned, Innovation Dojo, an incubator program we have within Brown EP. Every semester, traditionally, this has been limited to first and second-year students who may not have much exposure to entrepreneurship. They might have an idea but don't know how to push it forward. We take 30 to 40 students in an incubator program that meets for two and a half hours weekly with guest speakers, resources, and workshops to take an idea from zero to one. So, it's the first step in our pipeline. After you have a team, a fleshed-out idea, a concept based on bottom-up research, and you find some sense of product market fit, we're able to help you further. We can help with grants, networking with alumni, and other resources. We try to make it as easy as possible to start. You don't have to have anything. You don't need to come to us with a pitch deck or a team. You come to us with a thought. Maybe I have been trying something, and I feel like there is something wrong here that maybe there's a better solution for this problem. We start at that level, and we'll take it from there. We want to provide as much push to active entrepreneurship as possible.
Kieran: What's the application process for the grants? What size of grants are you giving out?
Arvind: So, the grants' sizes depend on the idea's progress. We try to give some money to every startup that gets into our funnel. It's very based on what would help them at this moment. For example, suppose a student comes to us with a rough idea of what they're working on and doesn't have a team, a deck, or anything that constitutes readiness to raise money. In that case, the step we take with them is to say, what do you need to get to the point that the idea is validated based on evidence? That might mean we fund a collection of surveys or the development of an early-stage prototype or MVP. I think at Brown or with any college student, even three-digit sums go a long way. Suppose you need two-week server credits to test a product, see if it works, and build some MVP that goes a long way. At that level, we find around the three-digit level works well for the early-stage ideas that need validation. Then, we provide grants at the four-digit level for much more fleshed-out ideas with a track and plan of how they will use the money for a few months. What sort of initiatives would that money be used for? Again, everything is equity free. The club operates at even five digits if they're really compelling and the product is on the cusp of breaking through. We never want entrepreneurship and financial accessibility to oppose each other. There are absolutely students coming in with a background of needing financial aid. Entrepreneurship is daunting because it's taking a risk, which can be difficult monetarily. We try to eliminate all of those problems in the short term. In the long term, we won't be able to provide salaries. But while you're a student, we want to ensure you can pursue this without breaking your bank account.
Kieran: What are the biggest opportunities to improve how Brown EP supports student entrepreneurship on campus?
Arvind: I would love to see Brown EP continue to go in the direction of branching out in the community. For example, Providence is a city home to quite a bit of gentrification, even regarding high school placement. I was lucky to hear the word entrepreneurship in high school, which sparked something in me. You will find schools across the street with low graduation rates where students are not encouraged to have a creative spark or pursue something the same way. I think Brown University and Brown EP can play a considerable role in branching that divide. For example, as a high school student, especially if you're a student at a school that doesn't have a traditional pipeline of sending students to a school like Brown, there's a lot of authority that can come from students at this university coming to your school or class and telling you your idea is a good idea. There is a lot of power in words in that sense. Ultimately, we are students. We are just college students. It's easy to think we have a considerable say in the world. Often, that has to be tempered down slightly in terms of seeing there's a long way to go. But absolutely, I remember when I was in high school and understood the power of words that a college student and their encouragement could give me. Providing that to students in the community is a direction that EP can and should go in. I hope to branch funding to the community and encourage more high school startups.
Kieran: Yeah, that encouragement can go a long way for students or young people. What's the best way for people to get involved and help Brown students?
Arvind: If you are a professional who feels that you can offer advice to startups, I'm very happy and proud to say that Brown is a creative institution, and some of the ideas that we have coming out of here don't follow the molds of traditional entrepreneurship, and that can be very exciting as a mentor. You're welcome to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and say I believe my skills could be of value to your startups. We have an excellent mentor-matching program with startups. This semester, we've matched more than 20 startups with various mentors that have helped them tremendously. We'd love to get as many people in that network as possible. If you're at the student level and looking for access to more opportunities, quite a few of our teams operate remotely. We would love to get you involved, whether that's in the form of an internship or anything along those lines. Suppose any idea resonates with you, or you'd like to connect with Brown or RISD students. In that case, that's a connection we could potentially facilitate and provide some internship or part-time working opportunities on behalf of many of these startups here to get involved.
Kieran: Is there anything I didn't ask about that you think is important to know about Brown EP?
Arvind: I want to highlight that Brown EP is a very dynamic club. For example, half of our new club membership this semester consists of newly admitted first-year students and perhaps a few second-year students. This is a club that is very with the times. There's a lot of change happening even in how students of our age think about entrepreneurship pre and post covid. In my conversations with even first-year students, I've noticed a tremendous difference in my preconceived notions of how I approach entrepreneurship versus a student who was virtual for two years of high school starting in 10th grade, right? There are different beliefs about what a successful business means. There's a lot of creative ideas. It's rotating year over year, and it's a fantastic network to plug into that is brimming with creativity if that's something of interest.