Katya Sapozhnina ’16 arrived at Wesleyan wanting to create something. She looked for a club that catered to students with a specific idea they wanted to develop or an interest in business, but when none of the existing student groups on campus seemed to meet her needs, she decided to create her own. Sapozhnina founded the Wesleyan Entrepreneurship Society (WES2) in February. She describes it as a hub for ideas.
“It’s a place where I’m the medium between the resources of Wesleyan and people who have ideas or a plan they want to take to the next level,” she said. “Or if they just want to discuss The Economist, or really just talk about money, which is kind of taboo at Wesleyan.”
Most of the current members have expressed interest in doing projects and making a profit. WES2 is also competing in an online game called Ace Manager. Three-person teams from around the world respond to virtual business scenarios and challenges, and the winning team receives prize money and a trip to Paris.
At the next meeting, WES2 members will give two-minute pitches for their start-up ideas and vote on which projects they want to tackle as a group. Subgroups may continue to work on the pitches that are not chosen. Sapozhnina believes that pitching is an important skill to learn because representing oneself well is an integral part of marketing and sales.
“If we can convince the people in our group, we can convince the rest of the world,” she said.
Sapozhnina wants group members to be effective public speakers. A non-native English speaker, Sapozhnina taught sex education classes in high school to develop her confidence in speaking to a room full of people.
“It’s why some people do debate or mock trial,” she said.
Wesleyan is the perfect place for a club like WES2, according to Sapozhnina, because the student body is so passionate about such diverse things.
“Wesleyan students care about the world, and we care about change, and a lot of us are leaders because to go to a great school like this; a lot of us had to be leaders in high school,” she said. “Part of Wesleyan is finding what you’re interested in and figuring out how to bring that into the real world.”
Sapozhnina explained that Wesleyan’s environment is one that fosters making money not for the sake of making money but for the sake of making change. For this reason, too, she believes the club stands a good chance of succeeding.
“We have a lot of people who aren’t there for the money,” she said. “They’re there because they really care. If I had this club anywhere else, it might just be a lot of people who want to make money. Here, people are actually really passionate and care about the world and want to give back. They’re not money-driven, and I think it’s very refreshing.”
Sapozhnina hopes that WES2 will bring more alumni to campus, possibly putting Wesleyan students in touch with alumni who are in or have graduated from business school so that students can learn about what that transition is like. While there are already plenty of events at which students can meet alumni, student attendance is often not very substantial.
“There were 20 alumni on campus last Saturday willing to talk to whomever, and only, like, 40 [students] came,” Sapozhnina said. “I went and I talked to them and made myself known.”
Sapozhnina does worry that Wesleyan is not currently viewed as a springboard for success in the business world. Alumni who have gone into business may not attribute their success to their liberal arts experience, and she would like to change that.
“Yes, we are a liberal arts school, but we should see that as an advantage because of how we view the world, how much we care about it, how much we give back to it, and how diverse we are in our interests and experiences,” she said. “If we worked together, we could definitely have as much success as a school like MIT. I just don’t see us being given the chance…yet.”
The Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship has definitely made strides in that direction, she noted, and it has only been around a couple of years.
“A lot of people on campus don’t know about the Patricelli Center, and that’s a shame because so many people care about and rant about so many social issues here but don’t know how to do anything about it,” Sapozhnina said. “But it does say a lot about Wesleyan that we place social entrepreneurship ahead of for-profits.”
She cites Director of the Patricelli Center Makaela Kingsley ’98 as instrumental in getting WES2 off the ground. Kingsley expressed her excitement about the student group.
“The Patricelli Center is really looking forward to collaborating with WES2,” Kingsley said. “Katya is very dedicated and comes to a lot of events. She’s added a lot to the community, and the existence of a group like WES2 is fantastic.”
Jason Brandner ’16, a founding member of the club, emphasized the importance of collaboration in working toward WES2’s goals.
“The goals of the group are very nebulous,” Brandner said. “It’s more about helping facilitate connections between entrepreneurial students and other students, the administration, and the Patricelli Center.”
WES2 is not the first club of its kind, but many of the others have expired upon their founders’ graduation. Sapozhnina hopes that WES2 will stick around. She hopes to keep it going for the next four years and start a mentorship program so that no one has to start again from square one.
The group wants its resources to be available to everyone on campus and does not want to exclude anyone who is genuinely interested in contributing to its mission. At the same time, though, Sapozhnina feels that there are inherent risks in proposing a business idea to a room full of eager, budding entrepreneurs. This is why anyone interested in joining has to meet with her one-on-one first so that she can gauge their interest level and see what he or she might bring to the table.
“Every single person brings their own interest into the game, which is really exciting,” Sapozhnina said.
Ideally, WES2 will serve as a network of people so that students can better find other students and alumni with complementary interests. One of the club’s main objectives is to collaborate more with other groups.
Ultimately, the goal of WES2 is to offer interested students the opportunity to learn more about and gain experience in entrepreneurship.
“We’re committed to helping students achieve their business goals,” Brandner said. “The world is our oyster.”