In a test of their newfound business acumen, two dozen Providence-area high school students commanded the Liz Lange Lecture Hall at Brown’s Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship on a mid-November evening. Among them were three East Greenwich High School students: Dean Ganji, Bridget Wexler, and Sam Franz. The students’ collective charge was to pitch their ideas for a successful startup venture to a room of more than 100 members of the Brown and Providence communities — from parents and family members to peers, teachers, college students, industry experts and veteran entrepreneurs.
The culminating Pitch Night event celebrated the newest student cohort to complete the Young Entrepreneurs of Providence program. The semester-long after-school program teaches local teens the fundamentals of entrepreneurship — from identifying problems to solve, to design thinking and research methods, to business models, fundraising and branding. Created and led by Brown undergraduates and supported by the Nelson Center, the bi-annual incubator empowers local high schoolers to develop and test their own pursuits.
Brown undergraduate Lana Nguyen, a member of YEP’s leadership team, said the program is designed to introduce entrepreneurial skills and inspire local students to work toward lives and careers of innovation and impact. Along the way, the ventures conceived in the program are sparking new solutions to challenges such as health care accessibility, affordable housing, substance abuse, pollution and poverty, she said.
“YEP is providing students with that first step,” Nguyen said. “We show representations of women and people of color as entrepreneurs because we want young students to see that it is possible, and that entrepreneurship is a way that people can transform areas of need and use resources available to create a solution to a problem.”
The business ideas presented at this fall’s Pitch Night included seven ventures. Each of them aimed to tackle a community issue — from improving access to public transportation, to addressing food waste reduction and recovery, to creating culturally inclusive, equitable learning environments. EGHS students’ startup was Equality Education, mentored by current Brown student, Kate Segal (shown above).
An introduction to entrepreneurship
Since 2019, the Brown students who run YEP have mentored more than 200 Rhode Island students from more than a dozen Rhode Island public schools. Some alums have gone on to launch their ventures, including a tutoring startup and a cosmetics business, while others are now studying business and entrepreneurship as college students.
And regardless of the commercial successful of their ventures, all YEP participants leave the program with new confidence in themselves and their ideas, and as future entrepreneurs and leaders, attests Anna Deng, an East Greenwich High School student who participated last spring. The high school junior said YEP advanced her interest in business and made her think about her entrepreneurial aspirations not as an elusive idea, but rather an achievable goal.
“During COVID, I found a new passion for business,” Deng said. “I knew I wanted to do it, but I wasn’t sure how to start or go about it. With YEP, they taught us how to build something from the ground up.”
Deng and eight other YEP alums returned this semester to serve as student ambassadors and mentors to the fall cohort, lending to the strong sense of community that the program promotes.
To complement classroom lessons and breakout sessions led by the Brown students who serve as YEP program teachers, the seven-week program features guest speakers, including successful entrepreneurs and local youth program leaders. The high schoolers also learn from Brown student entrepreneurs who have advanced their startup ventures through Nelson Center initiatives like the Breakthrough Lab accelerator program.
This fall, YEP met on Wednesday afternoons through early November, and students were able to participate in other Brown programs and events. Program leaders organized a campus tour for students and their families. This year, YEP leaders included meals, transportation and school supplies as part of the program — for which there is no cost to participants — to better serve students from low-income communities.
Part of the motivation to create YEP was to make Brown more accessible to local high school students, said Will Yang, who led the program for two years and serves now in an advisory role as he prepares to complete his Brown degree in December.
“YEP helps create that bridge for local students to come to campus and learn in our physical space,” Yang said. “We want them to feel that ‘this is my space too.’”
While YEP’s success started in Providence, the program’s founders — Brown Class of 2021 graduates Leah Lam, Audrey Shapiro and Lucia Winton — have now expanded it with new chapters at Yale University and the University of California, Berkeley. Still, YEP leaders at Brown have plans to further grow the program in Rhode Island by increasing outreach to more schools and communities.
“I think most high school students don’t know that they can interact with Brown,” Nguyen said. “We try to put ourselves out there in the community to bridge that gap and ensure students in the area have access to hearing about Brown and the resources that are available to them.”