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Rebecca Brown is a 3rd-year student at Vanderbilt University, studying human organizational development and gender and sexuality studies with a minor in business. Rebecca is the incoming President of the Vanderbilt Innovation and Entrepreneurship Society (VINES). VINES provides students at Vanderbilt with the resources, programming, and opportunities to start businesses. I talked with Rebecca about what programs they run, what they’re working on to improve the organization, how to get involved, and more.
Kieran: Hi Rebecca, thanks for joining me today. Do you want to introduce yourself?
Rebecca: My name is Rebecca Brown. I’m a junior at Vanderbilt University, double majoring in human organizational development and gender and sexuality studies, and a business minor. I’m the incoming President of the Vanderbilt Innovation and Entrepreneurship Society or VINES.
Kieran: How did you first learn about the org on campus?
Rebecca: When I was a freshman walking around campus, I saw a poster for an entrepreneurship organization. I went to the information session and heard about Cohort, a six-week accelerator and entrepreneurship program taught by students, and I applied and joined through that.
Kieran: I was reading through the website before this call, and I saw that the organization was formed in 2013, and it said on the website you had around 400 members. I don’t know if that is still the case, but is there any other background information you think is important to share with the audience before we dive into questions?
Rebecca: So, VINES was founded in 2013 by a student initially interested in tech entrepreneurship. He went to a professor and asked if we had anything on campus related to this, and the professor said no, but I’d love to help you start one. I think it’s really cool to see how much VINES has developed since then. It began with tech entrepreneurship and now encapsulates almost every industry and type of entrepreneurship you can think of.
Kieran: VINES runs several programs, including Innovation Cohort, 1000 Pitches, a Speaker/Workshop Series, Startups & Slice, and more. Which ones are you running today? Can you give an overview of the programming?
Rebecca: First, our Innovation and Entrepreneurship Cohort is a six-week accelerator led by upper-level students in VINES. One of the themes of VINES is the internal membership, which is really highlighted within this program. People form such strong connections within the organization. We take a class of 25 students per semester. You don’t need any previous background experience in entrepreneurship. We’re really looking for innovators who want to make an impact and create a startup. We also have a speaker series, which we now encapsulate in our professional development program. I’m heading that committee this semester. It’s been a great time helping students beef up their LinkedIn profiles to ensure they can connect with other entrepreneurs in the area. We’ve had panels where upper-level students talk about their startups. We also have more casual things put on by our social committee, like Startups & Slices.
Kieran: For the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Cohort, what types of startups are people building? Are these traditional tech startups where they want to raise venture capital, small businesses, nonprofits, or what are people working on?
Rebecca: What’s great about Cohort is it is all of the above. Two of my favorite examples include a company started by the previous President of VINES and a good friend of mine, Sam. He created a nonprofit called Chicago Beach Cleanup. He’s from Chicago and grew up there. He loves the beaches there and just wanted to make a social impact, so he started Chicago Beach Cleanup. Companies can sign up through his programming to help clean up the beaches there. On the other side, I have a friend named Rishi who has a startup called Easy Read. It’s like SparkNotes for textbooks. He utilizes artificial intelligence to go through textbooks, and he’ll post those online for people, and it’s subscription-based.
Kieran: For the speaker series, who are some of the people you brought in to talk to the club?
Rebecca: It’s always been different in the past. We just had a friend of Sam’s come in from Chicago who is involved in venture capital. We’re looking now into inviting local entrepreneurs. So, it is primarily people from the Nashville area, but if one of the executive board members has a connection from the organization, we will bring them in. Also, we’ve had some of the Wondery staff — the Wondery is Vanderbilt’s Innovation Center. It’s the combination of the words wonder and foundry. The staff here is so knowledgeable about so many things, and it’s the building I am in right now. We’ll often have staff come in and talk to our organization about what they’re working on and how they’re helping students create startups.
Kieran: How does a student at Vanderbilt join VINES? Is there an application process?
Rebecca: The only thing you need to apply for would be the Cohort program. We would love to make it available to everyone, but as of right now, we don’t have the capacity to make our class size over 25 people. Otherwise, you can join on Anchor Link, Vanderbilt’s portal, or join our GroupMe via posters all over campus. What’s great about VINES is anyone can join at any time.
Kieran: Can graduate students also join this club?
Rebecca: Graduate students can join the club. What graduate students tend to do is compete in our pitch competitions. Our usual programming, like Startups & Slice, is primarily targeted at undergrads, but our pitch competitions are targeted toward the entire student body on campus.
Kieran: You mentioned an application for the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Cohort. What are you looking for when selecting students for the program?
Rebecca: We’re just looking for innovative, creative thinkers and people willing to take risks. So, our application process looks like a plain written application with a few questions where we ask them why they are interested in entrepreneurship or innovation and things like that. For our second round interview, we had all of the students who applied come into a room together, and we split them up into groups of five. Then, we gave them a prompt — there are X, Y, and Z problems on campus; together, can you devise an innovative solution to fix it? It can look like anything you want it to be. We gave them ten minutes and got to see them work as a group, see who was coming up with creative ideas and who was contributing.
Kieran: What do you see as the biggest opportunities to improve VINES?
Rebecca: This year, a big goal of mine as incoming President is to increase the size of our pitch competitions. So, 1,000 pitches is our virtual pitch competition. We just hosted that, and it went really well. We had 35 submissions. That’s completely virtual with a very low barrier to entry — it’s only one-minute submission videos. 48-Hour Launch is our pitch competition in the Spring. It’s a two-day pitch competition that takes up the whole weekend. There is a lot of hype and excitement around it. We have workshops, speakers, judges, and companies sponsoring great prizes. It’s only been open to Vanderbilt in the past, but I really want to get us involved in the innovation ecosystem in Nashville. I’d love to open that up to other schools.
Kieran: What’s the best way to plug in for people who watch this video but aren’t students at Vanderbilt? Is it through the speaker series, sponsoring the pitch competitions, or how do you work with external partners?
Rebecca: Both options you just said are fantastic ways to get involved. Also, just follow us on Instagram (@vines.vu). We post a lot of our awesome programming, what we need help with, and upcoming events. You can connect with us on LinkedIn as well.
Kieran: For students who may be interested in joining the internal team and organizing something similar to the capacity you’re in, how do they get involved that way? Do you recruit internally from the organization?
Rebecca: Our executive board of six just helps with the programming and events. We look and see who’s been super involved, consistently attending events and helping and mentoring other students. Otherwise, anyone is welcome to join VINES. Regarding Cohort, we’re just looking for those creative, innovative thinkers who want to take risks and start something new.
Kieran: Is there anything I didn’t ask about that you think is important to know for a student considering VINES?
Rebecca: VINES is constantly growing, and in the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship, we’re absolutely open to new ideas. As I mentioned at the beginning of the call, VINES looks nothing like it did ten years ago. We are increasing our programming every year and trying out new things. So, if someone is interested in joining VINES and you have ideas about how we can grow this organization, we’re open to them and would love to hear them.