The recently constructed $5 million house on Oak Lane, originally intended for the Sigma Phi Epslion fraternity, has been designated a new purpose as of this semester.
This semester marks the beginning of a two-year pilot program for Innovate, a new living-learning community that has been given access to the house after Sig Ep lost its charter last year due to misconduct and failure to meet national expectations.
Innovate is a residential community with an entrepreneurial concentration where 35 first-year students of different majors will work together to ideate and launch student-led business ventures.
The community-specific course in entrepreneurship is being taught by assistant professor in Pamplin College of Business Department of Management, Marc Junkunc.
“My immediate reaction was ‘this is outstanding, a great opportunity for the students… for the university,'” said Junkunc. “I felt this was something that really was going to be impactful.”
The idea for Innovate stemmed from the collaborative efforts of the provost’s office, the Division of Student Affairs, Pamplin College of Business and the department of Housing and Residence Life.
“In terms of entrepreneurship education and living-learning communities, those are two separate phenomena that are occurring now at universities and this is bringing [those] together,” Junkunc said.
Two staff members of Housing and Residence Life reside in the house with the students in the program including residential learning coordinator for fraternity and sorority life, Chad Mandala, along with the resident community fellow, Drew Stegmaier, a graduate of Virginia Tech class of 2013 and CEO of Drink it Up.
Stegmaier calls his situation a “win-win.”
“I’m learning a lot from the students,” said Stegmaier. “They’re so much further ahead of where I was when I was a freshman… some of them already have patents, some of them already have started companies.”
According to Junkunc, most students get involved with entrepreneurship in their junior or senior years, while one of the benefits of the Innovate community is encouraging students to pursue their ideas early on.
“If we can get students engaged in those activities earlier it gives them a much greater opportunity to develop those aspirations and capabilities throughout their whole college experience,” Junkunc said.
Freshman apparel, housing and resource management major, Caroline Johnson, is a member of Innovate this year and has always had dreams of opening her own clothing store.
“I feel like overall we’re going to become a family,” said Johnson. “It’s going to be really cool to bounce ideas off each other and learn what everyone’s different talents are and be able to build something.”
Students in Innovate will learn to network and create business models, among other useful skills.
“One of the first things we’re doing is demystifying it, showing the kids that this is possible,” said Stegmaier. “[If] you think you can’t, you’re the biggest barrier to your own success.”
One concern that has been mentioned about the location of Innovate is that it may be too far from campus for the students to be engaged in the Virginia Tech community as a whole.
“I don’t feel connected to the campus just because I’m so far away from everything, but everyone in my classes are making me feel welcome and they don’t treat me [differently],” Johnson said.
However, Junkunc says this barrier shouldn’t last long into the school year, especially with a Hokie Express bus stop located very close to the house.
“I don’t think there’s any reason they should miss out on anything,” said Junkunc. “It’s an interdisciplinary program… We have a cross-section of many different cultures and majors. I think it’s a way for them to have a lot of like-minded housemates, but at the same time they’ll be able to plug into many different aspects of what’s going on on campus.”
Johnson says she feels very fortunate to live and learn as a member of Innovate.
The future of the community is uncertain at this point, but Junkunc predicts that the results of this pilot program for Innovate will be positive and the community will evolve and grow in time.
“Right now we’re just focused on doing the best Innovate program we can,” said Junkunc. “I think it’s poised to be one of the best programs of its kind in the country.”