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Van Wickle Ventures enables student investing

Student-run venture fund offers hands-on investment education, alum guidance

The soft launch of Van Wickle Ventures, a new student-run venture fund that invests in Brown- and Rhode Island School of Design-affiliated companies, is currently underway, according to Co-founders Sophie Starck ’20 and John Diorio ’20. The fund partners with the Jonathan M. Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship to bring students a unique and practical education by providing an opportunity to invest in companies.

Investments are “theoretically around the size of $25,000, which, in terms of venture, is not very large” and are made “to companies where the founder is either a student, an alum or a faculty or staff member of Brown and/or RISD,” Starck said. Through case studies, guest lectures and workshops, students are taught how to reach out to companies and decide whether or not they are a good fit for investment.

The group strives to educate students who may not have prior knowledge on investment. “I feel like there’s this big misconception (about investing) that maybe comes from ‘Shark Tank,’” Diorio said, speaking on the widely held idea that investors are often receiving hundreds of pitches from hopeful companies. “In reality, it’s usually the opposite.”

Jonas Clark, who works within the Nelson Center and is a key contact for the program, echoed the importance of education within the fund. The main focus is ensuring that “students come away with a knowledge and understanding of how this works,” he said. “The goal is not just to invest for the sake of writing checks but to do it responsibly and wisely.”

Though the fund is student-run, Starck and Diorio have also recruited a board of alums experienced in venture, called an Investment Committee, to help guide students’ decisions. The board will help students make “go, no-go” decisions on whether or not ideas or ventures should be funded, Starck added.

Clark said he serves mostly as “administrative support” and reinforced the idea that students will drive the fund. Though the Investment Committee is a resource for students, Clark added that “if the students end up doing more of that role, so much the better.”

Starck and Diorio have been working on the launch of VWV for nearly nine months now; the group was born out of a desire to learn useful skills outside of the Brown curriculum and to bring that knowledge to other students.

The fund is defined as an “evergreen fund,” meaning that all returns on investments are reinvested back into new Brown- or RISD-affiliated companies. VWV is meant to continue as a self-sustaining system, with each generation of students building on what previous students have accomplished. In addition, there is a longer timeline for investments in the kind of companies that VWV is interested in, so students may not make a return on investments until “anywhere from five to 10 years” later, Starck noted.

Diorio also commented on the privilege of this unique opportunity. Though there are a few other schools with similar programs, VWV is “the first student-run fund by undergraduate students,” he said. “There’s nothing else right now that’s giving this much responsibility to students in this space.”

VWV is looking to go live Jan. 23, after fall applications and interviews to assemble a student cohort have concluded.


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