Van Wickle Ventures gives student entrepreneurs an investor’s perspective on startups

The student-founded, alumni-funded venture capital group based at the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship gives students firsthand experience making investments in Brown- and RISD-affiliated startups.

Van Wickle Venture Student Associates
Van Wickle Ventures Student Associates (left to right): Kanika Gupta, Class of 2020; Sophie Starck, Class of 2020, and Ved Narayan, Class of 2021. Photo: Nick Dentamaro

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — By the time Rhaime Kim was a junior at Brown, she had already interned at four startups, developed a financial technology venture of her own, and participated in B-Lab — an accelerator program based at the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship.

But the computer science concentrator felt there was something missing from her entrepreneurial training.

“With these experiences, I was able to see what entrepreneurship looked like from the point of view of the startup,” said Kim, now a senior. “What I didn’t know was what it’s like on the side of the investor.”

Enter Van Wickle Ventures. Founded in 2018 through a gift from Robert and Erna Place, Brown classes of 1975 and 1976 respectively, Van Wickle Ventures is a student-led venture capital group that invests real money in startups founded by members of the Brown and Rhode Island School of Design communities. In December, the group announced that its first investment would be in 305 Fitness, a dance-inspired fitness venture founded by Sadie Kurzban, a Class of 2012 graduate.

To prepare to make investment decisions, student associates spend a semester learning the fundamentals of venture capital in a weekly, student-run seminar. After completing this seminar, they become part of the all-student venture capital team that drives the investment decisions of Van Wickle Ventures.

As a member of this team, Kim has learned firsthand what investors value as they choose which businesses to fund.

“I think when you’re on the startup side, it’s kind of opaque what venture capitalists really value when deciding which businesses to invest in financially,” Kim said. “If I were to join or create my own startup now, I would have a much better idea of the kind of startup I would want it to be.”

At Brown, you find a lot of people who are self-motivated and curious about a wide range of topics. That is a natural fit for a program whose members are approaching founders each week to learn more about what makes their businesses exciting.

John Diorio, Class of 2020 Co-director of Van Wickle Ventures

Kim is not the only one who sees the benefits of this experience in venture capitalism. In its first year, Van Wickle Ventures received over 80 applications for seven student associate spots; this year, the total grew to 104 applicants for nine openings.

“We could refill each cohort with great people many times over,” said John Diorio, a senior computer science concentrator who co-founded and co-directs Van Wickle Ventures with fellow senior Sophie Starck. “At Brown, you find a lot of people who are self-motivated and curious about a wide range of topics. That is a natural fit for a program whose members are approaching founders each week to learn more about what makes their businesses exciting.”

Shared interest in a great idea

The goal of Van Wickle Ventures — to provide students with hands-on venture capital experience — has always been clear to its student founders. The path to achieving it, however, was cleared through research, planning and a bit of luck.

When Diorio and Starck arrived at Brown in 2016, the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship had just launched, bringing with it a bevy of resources inside the classroom and beyond, all aimed at students looking to found their own businesses. Even as they immersed themselves in this burgeoning landscape for student entrepreneurs, Diorio and Starck found themselves asking what investors see that startup founders might not.

But “there were no curricular or extracurricular resources at the time for students who wanted to learn like this,” Starck said.

Van Wickle Venture Student Associates
Van Wickle Ventures Student Associates (from left to right): Asif Khan, Class of 2021; John Diorio, Class of 2020, and Rhaime Kim, Class of 2020. Photo: Nick Dentamaro

So she and Diorio decided to create their own. Inspired by Diorio’s research on student-run venture capital groups at top U.S. business schools, the two pitched their idea to the Nelson Center. The response, while positive, was also practical: For their idea to take off, they would need money to invest — funds they would be more likely to secure if they could demonstrate that other students on campus shared their interest in gaining firsthand venture capitalist experience.

The two set to work. With Jonas Clark, associate director of the Nelson Center, serving as their faculty sponsor, Diorio and Starck developed and ran a semester-long group independent study project, which provided students pursuing diverse fields of study with the business background necessary to make successful investments. This independent seminar would become the basis of the semester-long training that new student associates complete when they join Van Wickle Ventures.

They also launched “Funding the Future,” a popular speaker series that brings alumni to campus to speak about their experiences as successful venture capitalists.

Meanwhile, Robert Place and his wife, Erna, had reached out to Clark to explore the possibility of facilitating hands-on investment experiences for students.

“I’ve always found that the best way to focus a person’s attention on making investments is if they have their own money to invest,” Robert Place said. “We wanted to give students the opportunity to teach themselves the principles of early-stage investing by giving them capital that they were actually responsible for.”

For Clark, Place’s idea had a familiar ring.

“He basically gave me the same pitch that Sophie and John had the year before,” Clark said. “It was exactly the right opportunity to get this great idea running.”

The Places’ gift was used to establish Van Wickle Ventures as an evergreen fund. This ensures that returns on the group’s investments will be reinvested into the fund, giving Van Wickle Ventures the potential to remain a self-sustaining, and ever-growing, entity. The approach has also appealed to the Brown- and RISD-based entrepreneurs the group seeks to finance.

“The fact that all of the returns on these investments will ultimately support future startup founders from Brown and RISD has really resonated with the founders we’ve approached,” Diorio said.

Alumni investments

Van Wickle Ventures has also created opportunities for alumni founders and venture capitalists to share their insights with current undergraduates interested in entrepreneurship.

Sadie Kurzban of 305 Fitness
Sadie Kurzban, Class of 2012 graduate and founder of 305 Fitness, a dance-inspired fitness venture funded by Van Wickle Ventures in December of 2019. Photo: Caroline Cuse.

When Van Wickle Ventures decided to fund 305 Fitness in December, company founder and Brown alumna Sadie Kurzban saw an occasion to give back to undergraduates at Brown. During a January visit to campus, she led one of her signature fitness classes before giving a public talk at the Nelson Center focused on the emotional skills — such as confidence and resilience — that make startup founders successful.

“You learn a lot about the business skills behind being an entrepreneur,” she said. “But 70% of the skill set is emotional. It’s about how you keep going when you don’t know what comes next.”

This investment in sharing experiences with Brown undergrads has been echoed by other founders that Van Wickle Ventures has approached.

“The entrepreneurs from the Brown community have shown an amazing amount of interest in working with students,” Place said. “We’ve had alums and community members being involved as both entrepreneurs and teachers, and I think it’s awesome.”

Student associates in Van Wickle Ventures also benefit from the insights of alumni venture capitalists. When the gift from the Places established the program, an investment committee was formed as well. Composed of four Brown alumni (including Place) — all with vast venture capital experience — and Jane Dietze, Brown’s chief investment officer, the committee offers final approval of the group’s investments and mentors its student associates as they identify, research and pitch potential investment opportunities.

For Kim, getting to see up-close how seasoned venture capitalists approach investment opportunities has been one of the most valuable aspects of her involvement with Van Wickle Ventures.

“At the end of the day, there are strategies to investing, but no one can predict the future,” she said. “So it’s been really interesting both to rigorously research these companies while also learning from the investment committee when you can be flexible and trust your gut.”

Members of the committee have also taken time to advise her on her career goals beyond Brown, Kim said.

“They have been extremely generous with their time,” she said. “When I’ve gone to them for advice about my post-graduate plans, they’ve shared details about their own lives and how they got to where they are today. It’s the kind of unique experience that you really only get at Brown.”