Pioneer Weekend encourages student innovation

By Zane Silk

silkzane@grinnell.edu

Last weekend, Grinnell College hosted the third iteration of Pioneer Weekend, which is an innovation competition that seeks to build entrepreneurship and leadership skills among students. This year’s nine teams, consisting of 33 students, in total competed for a top prize of $2,000 and a scholarship for the University of Iowa-sponsored Venture School program. The event was sponsored by the Wilson Center for Innovation and Leadership and organized by Mark Schwabacher ‘17 and Ajuna Kyaruzi ‘17, along with Katie Herbert ‘20 and Jeman Park ‘20.

“Students in teams of two to five work towards turning an idea that they pitch on Friday into a final presentation that they present on Sunday. So Friday they meet up, people give ideas, Saturday they get mentored by some alumni and professors, and then they work on it all day Saturday, they do some research. Then on Sunday they present it and prizes are won,” Kyaruzi said.

This year, the judges for the event were Pete Brownell, the CEO of the Poweshiek County-based Brownells, which manufactures gun parts and accessories; Dave Tominsky, the manager of the Iowa Startup Accelerator and Diane Marty ’92 who owns a social enterprise consulting firm in Kansas City, Missouri.

The winning idea the judges chose was The Bail Abolition Network, a consultancy firm that would address the issue of high bail costs by helping communities create local bail funds and advocate for bail policy reform. Dylan Ambrosoli ’18, Nathan Calvin ’18, Nomalanga Shields ’18 and Myles Becker ’19 comprised the team. Second place, which came with a $1,000 check, went to We-Tinerary, a trip-sharing platform for connecting students travelling to the same location and thereby reducing their costs. Finally, third place and $500 was awarded to Why Eye Care, a proposed a business built around leasing lasers to opticians performing cataract surgeries in an effort to make the procedure more affordable.

The first Pioneer Weekend was organized in 2014, but the event was not hosted again the following year. Then, in 2016, Kyaruzi sought to revive the event, and she brought Schwabacher and two other students on board to help put it on. Now in its second year since being revived, Kyaruzi and Schwabacher are hoping that Pioneer Weekend becomes an established event that takes place annually for years to come.

“We want to promote the idea that when you leave Grinnell you don’t necessarily have to join something that someone else has started, you can go out there into the world and start it on your own. And one of the really positive effects of this is that it connects people to resources that we have right here in Iowa, such as the Iowa Startup Accelerator,” Schwabacher said.

The Bail Abolition Network would provide bail support for communities.

“A really unique aspect of the event is the Wilson Leadership Council, which is a bunch of alumni that are meeting during that weekend, come in and act as mentors with the groups … They are alums who come back who are working in venture capital, or own their own companies, and each of them will meet every team and share their opinions,” Schwabacher said.

Unlike purely networking events, Pioneer Weekend was a chance to meet people in an environment that is much less contrived.

“It’s really natural with alumni and with the judges, because you’re there and you’re there for a reason… you’re there to sell something that you’re passionate about and that you spent all weekend working on, so they’re a lot of great dynamics,” Schwabacher explained.

Next year, Herbert and Park will hopefully take the reins and Pioneer Weekend will shift to the fall so that it can be incorporated into a course on entrepreneurship and also so that the organizers can follow up with the teams throughout the year and connect them with resources.