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The Other 'F' Word: New Grant Encourages Students to Embrace Failure

Students holds a sign that says "I'm an innovator because I don't shy away from failure or confusion"
Julian Vinueza Bertini '19.

From grades and reviews to honors and recognitions, the college environment celebrates successes, but a new grant from Davidson's Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative shifts that focus to celebrate failure as a springboard for success.

"Most of us are trained to avoid risk, sometimes even the perceived possibility of risk," said Hannah Levinson, director of Davidson's Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative (I&E). "But college is one of the safest places to take smart risks and in doing so learn great lessons in creativity, grit and resilience–all of which set us up for longer-term and larger-scale success."

That's why I&E staff members developed the program's newest grant opportunity, the Failure Fund, which aims to shift students' focus from the end results of their ventures to the processes of developing them -- and, in doing so, alleviate the fear of failure that can hinder innovation.

The college started its I&E program in 2013 to support students, faculty and alumni in applying their liberal arts training to an increasingly entrepreneurial world. The program provides mentorship, project-based courses, access to emerging technology, a sense of community and different levels of funding for innovative ventures.

Funding opportunities range in size and scope and include the Avinger Scholarship, an award of up to $7,500 in seed money to applicants that show demonstrated creativity and commitment to entrepreneurship and innovation; the Venture Fund, which awards up to $50,000 to winners of a pitch competition; and now the Failure Fund, which awards between $500-$1,000 to students to pursue their ideas with no initial requirements for proof of their venture's viability, and no repercussions if a venture does not succeed.

"There's structure built in, but we built the program to have more flexibility than structure, because when a startup is young, things are changing rapidly. A lot of things come up that are unexpected, and we want students to become comfortable with learning to ‘pivot,'" said John-Michael Murphy '16, I&E's digital learning and innovation fellow. "We've minimized requirements that would prohibit creative thought, instead taking each project week by week. Together with students, we define a general starting point, and as we go on we refine."

Support for entrepreneurial students is not solely monetary. I&E staff members work closely with students for the duration of their projects (and often beyond) to examine their processes, guide them through missteps, and support them in moving ahead with confidence and an understanding that failure is a learning experience.

Failure as a Learning Tool

"We encourage students to learn from their mistakes and lean into their failure, because it's through failure that you're able to grow," Murphy said.

Recent fund recipients Grace Leonhardt '18 and Maggie Spiller '18 had one such growth experience.

The roommates used Failure Fund money to launch their late-night pasta delivery service, Pasta Cuz. They bought cooking supplies and ingredients and printed fliers.

Their initial marketing efforts worked better than they expected, and they found themselves in a predicament.

"We thought there was a good chance we would get just a couple of orders from our friends," said Leonhardt, "but we got 40 orders in the first nine minutes, and we didn't have enough pasta. We didn't have the resources prepared mentally, physically or emotionally."

They relied on mentorship and guidance from I&E staff and Davidson's Entrepreneurs-in-Residence to help them push through.

When students apply for the fund, they work with staff to create a schedule and preliminary budget, and then meet with staff weekly or biweekly for the duration of the project.  

"More than anything, we love to walk beside and cheer on students during their entrepreneurial journey," Levinson said. "We take an active role in supporting their venture and helping when issues arise. It's the best part of what we do–being both cheerleader and teammate to students through the ups and downs of startup life."

With help from Levinson and her staff, the Pasta 'Cuz founders learned from their first-week failures and continue to serve late night pasta weekly. They also have been in contact with a legal advisor and are in the process of incorporating, Spiller said.

Failure as a Stepping Stone

While the Failure Fund is not large enough to support a venture long term, it is enough to get one started–that's the point.

"[The Failure Fund] also acts as a catalyst–a starting point to guide students through the rest of the funding opportunities I&E provides," Murphy said.

Tony Solis '19 used the Failure Fund as part of his overall strategy to fund More Than a Figure, a Chicago-based nonprofit that focuses on creating extracurricular opportunities for low-income elementary school students.

"The idea came from my retrospective view on what my educational path has been," Solis said. "I realized that as I went on to different institutions, I became more and more privileged with the amount of resources that I had access to and the people I was surrounded by."

Inspired by personal reflection and an education policy course with Visiting Assistant Professor Mindy Adnot, Solis, a Charles Scholar, decided to use his resources to "pay it forward." As the first recipient of the Failure Fund, Solis used his grant monies to acquire legal advice in filling out paperwork. More Than a Figure is now an officially recognized nonprofit in Chicago. In March, Solis also received the Davis Project for Peace Award to advance More Than a Figure's work.

"A lot of the challenges [for a startup] are just not having ever done this before, testing the waters, [figuring out] what the next step is, who do I contact, where can I get legal counsel to make by-laws. It's a lot of learning as we go," Solis said. "I&E staff members either push you in the right direction themselves or show you who to talk to."

"We strive to be adaptive and responsive–to the student, to the situation, to our own failings and learnings," Levinson said. "It's a balance we're always working to build along the way."

More Information

Students can apply for the Failure Fund, awarded on a rolling basis, here.

Watch a video interview with Grace Leonhardt '18 and Maggie Spiller '18, the minds behind Pasta Cuz. Video by Jacob Hege '18

Story by Sophie McHugh '18
somchugh@davidson.edu