Cali Brutz, a lecturer for the Launch Pad First Year Odyssey Seminar class, talks to students about their prospective business ideas. Through the class, students are given the opportunity to brainstorm ideas for their own businesses and present them to the class for their final projects. (Photo/Sherry Liang)

When freshmen walk onto the University of Georgia’s campus for the first time, most of them don’t have their next four years or career aspirations planned out. Riddled with uncertainty, the first year is a chance to explore new opportunities.

However, for the freshmen in Launch Pad, their first year is anything but uncertain.

In just her first semester of college, Abby Davis and her Launch Pad group members developed a business plan for an app called UNIdays for their final project. The app, which consolidates all of the events at UGA in one place, is just one of many ideas fostered in the Launch Pad program.

“I feel like I’m better off if I want to start a business now,” said Davis, an international business and finance major. “There are a lot of people on this campus, and there are a lot of resources that are available to us, so we’ve gotten the chance to learn how to go about that now.”

Housed on the fourth floor of Creswell Hall, the Launch Pad is a “living learning community” for freshmen interested in entrepreneurship, providing the students with educational and experiential opportunities. The inaugural class consists of 26 aspiring entrepreneurs, and they are automatically enrolled into an entrepreneurship First Year Odyssey Seminar led by Donald Chambers and Cali Brutz, lecturers and associate directors of the UGA entrepreneurship program.

Brutz first noticed a demand for an immersive experience for freshmen when upperclassmen in her entrepreneurship certificate program expressed frustration because they were unable to capitalize on the program’s experiential learning component. To address that concern, Brutz and Chambers developed a program which introduces freshmen to these opportunities as soon as they come to UGA.

“We’re trying to capture this energy early on and capture these freshmen when they still have their full four years, possibly more, ahead of them to be able to take full advantage of what we have to offer,” Brutz said.

The students in the program applied to the living learning community last spring after their acceptance to UGA, and while having an existing business is not a prerequisite, Brutz said applicants need to demonstrate a passion for entrepreneurship.

“We’re looking for dedicated students who are interested in being entrepreneurs or in learning about entrepreneurship,” Brutz said. “And that’s the biggest thing — we’re looking for that drive.”

When Haylee Peters, an international business management and Spanish major, first heard about Launch Pad through an email, she immediately saw it aligning with her interests. Working at her local Chick-fil-A since she was 15 years old, she was eventually promoted to become the youngest shift manager at the location, and she has hopes to one day own her own Chick-fil-A franchise.

“I’ve always really been interested in the concept of business,” Peters said. “That’s always been my plan, to own a Chick-fil-A franchise, so I thought getting connected with other entrepreneurs and understanding the highs and lows of entrepreneurship would help me prepare.”

Throughout the program, Peters said the curriculum has not only enhanced her understanding of her own experiences as a shift manager but also expanded her perception of the difficulties of starting a business.

“By being in the Launch Pad, I’ve learned how important even the smallest details are in being a successful entrepreneur,” Peters said.

In addition to the FYOS, students in the program have other benefits, including a membership into the Society of Entrepreneurs, where freshmen are paired with mentors to guide them through their ideas and plans throughout college. Professional entrepreneurs also speak to the students about their experiences and journeys to success.

For Lauren Gower, an intended entertainment and media studies major, the opportunities were what attracted her in the first place.

Unlike many of the other students, Gower is not a business major. However, she saw the program as a chance to branch out without having to double major, potentially starting her own business in the media industry. Through the program, she said she developed critical thinking skills applicable to all aspects of her pursuits.

“Some of the most valuable things I’ve taken from the lectures are learning to critical think (sic) and learning to speak out,” Gower said. “I’d like to learn more key skills in the future to one day run my own business to the point where I’m coming up with the problem and thinking through the ways it can be solved.”

Ultimately, while the Launch Pad is only the beginning for many of these burgeoning entrepreneurs, Peters sees it as a foundation for their future endeavors. Between the lessons and connections gained, these freshmen share a bond with each other and with the entrepreneurship community at UGA for years to come.

“It’s given me a wonderful network of people — people who want to be chemists, people who want to be animal rights activists, all kinds of different things,” Peters said. “And I’ll always be connected to them because I lived with them my freshman year.”

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