YEP!: How three women are opening Brown’s doors and bringing new voices to entrepreneurship

While the term “entrepreneurship” has long been associated with the Mark Zuckerbergs and Bill Gates of the world, three women at Brown are empowering new voices to enter the field. Last Spring, Audrey Shapiro ‘21, Lucia Winton ‘21, and Lea Lam ‘21 came together to form the Young Entrepreneurs of Providence program, otherwise known as YEP!. The program creates the opportunity for highschool students to develop their entrepreneurial skills and creativity through a 7-week incubator. Last week, the program culminated in a pitch night, at which I had the chance to speak with Audrey and Lucia to learn a bit more.

How did YEP! get started?

Audrey Shapiro (AS): I had the idea for YEP! from a women’s entrepreneurship incubator I was in at Brown, and if you told me going into Brown that I was gonna be in any entrepreneurship incubator, I would absolutely have laughed in your face. I didn’t really have any ideas going into it, but I was like this sounds cool, I’m free on Tuesday nights, let’s do it! I quickly realized what an awesome opportunity this was for voices that aren’t normally included in entrepreneurship and I absolutely loved it, so it got me thinking about YEP! And that’s the idea I ended up pitching [in Spring 2019].

It’s kind of like the genie. If you are asking a genie for wishes, you’re always supposed to say for your last wish “I want a million more.” it’s kind of like what I did in the entrepreneurship incubator —instead of pitching an idea, I was like, let me pitch a million more!

Lucia Winton (LW): Audrey reached out to me and asked if I wanted to get in on this idea with her. We did a bunch of things before we actually started. We met with different people in different student groups that knew about local highschools, we met with people who do BEAM [Brown Elementary After-school Mentoring] to talk about how to coordinate with kids, and we decided to do a test run of YEP! last spring, which was the day-long conference that we had. We had a bunch of students come and be really excited about it, so we figured that this proved we could make a longer program out of it, and so this fall we started the 7-week-long incubator.

How would you describe the mission of YEP!?

LW: The mission of YEP! is to bring entrepreneurship to voices that are often left out, whether that means age-wise –young students often aren’t taught these subjects because it’s not part of the core curriculum of any highschool– and also we focus only on public highschools because, again, these voices are otherwise excluded from entrepreneurship. We bring entrepreneurial topics to them, and that means teaching a way to solve problems and think creatively and use the resources that you have to be autonomous and in charge of your own studies, job, ideas, whatever. 

AS: Not only do I think that entrepreneurship is something that can make you feel incredibly inspired and build confidence, but I also think that there’s a necessity for these voices. It’s been really exciting to work with them and see them create, ideate, and fail and then get up again.

I think the thing that’s very cool about it is that we’re a start-up too, and I think that’s an eye-opener for the highschoolers, too. We’re still trying to figure out what we are. We know what we stand for, but we don’t exactly know what form that’s going to take, and now that we’re actually doing it we’re starting to see that more, so I think we’re just trying to be able to adapt. 

So now, students will present their ideas at pitch night. What happens to the ideas afterward?

LW: Realistically, I don’t know if anyone is going to pursue these ideas and actually launch their start-up or business, although that would be awesome if they did. But that’s not really what we intended or expect — it’s really meant to be a learning exercise to get to the point where you have, not just an idea, but all the details of it worked out, including a visual prototype of it, a plan for going to market, or a plan for expanding in the future, and thinking through all these things is the most important part and actually doing it is less important. So it’s purely an educational exercise—but we will pair them with an advisor or one of the speakers who have already offered to help in any way, and just say, “if you did want to continue this, this person would work with you on it.” So after we end, we’re still gonna try to keep the doors open to Brown and to the professors and guest speakers who have come.

Lastly, do you envision this program extending beyond Brown, and if so, how would that growth happen?

AS: So this semester we were focused on launching the program. Next semester we wanna be focused on sustainability at Brown and how we can set up a foundation at Brown for YEP! to last after we leave, and then I think the following semester we will try to grow this to other universities in the area.

We’ve toyed with a lot of different models, and the best work has come when it’s just been a student-centered program and that’s what we’re hoping to continue with as we expand. We want to make sure that the heart stays with the college and highschool students. 

LW: Audrey’s already thinking about how to reform the title, because it’s ‘Young Entrepreneurs of Providence’ and so she’s like, “how do we write it outside of Providence?!” And she came up with the ‘Young Entrepreneurship Program’ which works I guess—but that’s only one of many steps we need to make before getting there! 

Audrey and Lucia are going abroad next semester and will be handing over the reins for a few months, but the third founder, Lea Lam, will stick around to keep the program running and the ideas flowing. Keep up with the latest news on YEP! at http://brownentrepreneurship.com/yep.