If you ask any of the 68 members of the Entrepreneurial Residential Learning Community (ERLC) what the best part of living in Sellery Hall is, you would get a different answer. Some might say it’s the monthly community dinners where students get the chance to network with some of the biggest names in the Madison area entrepreneurship community. Others might say it’s the social events, like all-community trips to Chicago or to first-run movies. But for 11 current residents of the ERLC, the Wisconsin School of Business sponsored program for first year students interested in entrepreneurship, it has been their award of either an ERLC Dream Big Venture or Research Grant that has made all the difference in their UW-Madison experience.
The ERLC’s Dream Big Venture Grants, which can total up to $1,000 per project, are available exclusively to community members with a big idea and the willingness to work hard to bring their ideas to fruition. For interested students, the first step is to fill out a grant proposal that encourages the applicant to really think through not only what problem their company or organization will solve, but to carefully asses their project’s financials. This year’s Dream Big Venture Grants have been awarded to students working on extremely varied projects, from a next generation probe that could more affordably test water quality in developing nations, to a highly portable smartphone battery charger, to a socially-minded t-shirt venture that plans to donate a portion of its profits to make dental care more accessible for disadvantaged youth.
Although students are quite aware of the critical role this funding can play in the success of their ventures, according to ERLC Faculty Director John Surdyk, it is the learning that is the most meaningful part of the grant experience. “Although many of the residents come to campus knowing they have a big idea they would like to dig deep into, most have a lot to learn about navigating the complex world of business, startups in particular,” Surdyk continues, “In the end, it is far less important to the faculty and staff involved with the ERLC that the student’s idea is ‘successful’ by traditional measures. At the end of the day, what’s most important to us is that the student has learned something valuable that will help them out in their next venture.”
The ERLC also gives out grants to students who wish to engage in academic research with a faculty member. Residents have used these research grants to work alongside professors in their labs and in their offices and past awards have often, due to student interest, been concentrated around Wisconsin School of Business research and the sciences. But this year, ERLC member John Moss, a first year computer science major applied for and received a grant to work with Philosophy Professor Harry Brighouse on his current project--a philosophical reflection on the Common Core, a central plank of contemporary education policy in the US. According to Moss, “Being awarded this grant is helping me gain a better understanding of the research process in the Humanities and I am now thinking of pursuing an additional major in Philosophy. I really thank the ERLC for encouraging me to apply for funding that is allowing me to use both my computer and critical thinking skills to help better understand the current state of American K-12 education.”
In the end, this is what the ERLC’s grants are all about---igniting passions and empowering students to bring their big ideas to fruition. The ERLC doesn’t just encourage to Dream Big (the ERLC’s motto). The program gives its residents the tools to achieve big, too.