Shoemaker Scholars mark 5 years uniting and inspiring student entrepreneurs

As a freshman at Indiana University Bloomington, Casey Curtis still remembers the excitement of suddenly living among other people who shared her passion for business entrepreneurship as a resident of the Brian D. Jellison Living Learning Center.

But like a lot of students their first year in college, she also wasn't always sure how to translate that enthusiasm into action. Until a fellow Jellison LLC resident named Kacey Wood told her about a program that's played an important part in her IU experience ever since: The Shoemaker Scholars.

A group of students and a faculty member stand on the stairs outside Luddy HallView print quality image
The 2021-22 Shoemaker Scholars are, front row from left, Vaishu Meda, Sithara Gajapala and Abigail Wirtz; middle row from left, Brady Anderson, Marisa Patel-O'Connor, Jude Richardson and Casey Curtis; and back row from left, Nicolas Narducci, Sankalp Sharma and Joe Utagawa. At the right is professor Travis Brown. Photo by Tracey Theriault, Indiana University

"Like me, Kacey was super into technology, super into entrepreneurship and also a Kelley student, so she encouraged me to apply," said Curtis, who is now a junior at the IU Kelley School of Business. "Now I've been a part of the program for three years, and I'm one of the ones connecting new students to information."

Established under a gift from John and Donna Shoemaker, the Shoemaker Scholars program marked its fifth year in 2021. The program is composed of a select group of 10 students from schools and majors across the IU Bloomington campus whose mission is to provide their peers with knowledge and experiences that can help them grow as entrepreneurs and innovators. It also includes $3,000 a year in tuition assistance.

The director of the Shoemaker Scholars is Travis J. Brown, senior executive assistant dean of innovation, entrepreneurship and commercialization at the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering.

The initial idea for the Shoemaker Scholars began with a simple question: "Who better to share information with students than the students themselves?" Brown said. "With so many groups on and off campus working to support innovation and entrepreneurship in Bloomington, I didn't want any one school or organization, including myself, to control the flow of information to IU student inventors and entrepreneurs. Rather than trying to break down the silos, I envisioned the group more effectively working with them by communicating directly with their peers and, in turn, building a stronger community."

The result was a student-led organization whose members come from across campus and whose sole mission is the support of any local organization or unit -- IU or non-IU -- whose efforts could enhance the educational experience of students passionate about innovation and entrepreneurship.

"My message to the Shoemaker Scholars has always been that if they're doing their job right, people won't even know they exist," Brown said. "These are ambitious students who are used to competing, but we're not an egocentric endeavor. It's a flat organization; I don't assign job roles or hierarchies. Their job is to work together to facilitate and elevate the work of our partners."

Their main tools for raising this awareness are a website, startupIU; a weekly newsletter; and event planning. Organizations whose activities gain visibility through the scholars' efforts include the IU Kelley School of Business' Johnson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation; IU Jacobs School of Music's Office of Entrepreneurship and Career Development; Ivy Tech's Cook Center for Entrepreneurship; the Bloomington Economic Development Corporation; and Dimension Mill.

For example, the New Venture Support Showcase near the start of the semester introduces these groups to students face to face -- or, more recently, via Zoom -- to raise awareness of their activities and services. Another major event organized by the scholars, the Startup Showcase, lets students show off their work over the past year -- whether a class project or some other entrepreneurial endeavor -- as well as celebrate as a group. The in-person version of these events are hosted in the Shoemaker Innovation Center, a large, modern space on the third floor of Luddy Hall devoted to student entrepreneurial activity.

In fact, another Shoemaker Scholar, Brady Anderson, said the eye-catching center is what first interested him in learning more about the Shoemaker Scholars, after he caught a glimpse of it during a campus tour in high school.

"I got to see the space and talk to some students," said Anderson, who is now a junior majoring in computer science at Luddy. "I was so impressed by IU's support of student entrepreneurs that it really made me interested in the Shoemaker Scholars, and I decided this is where I wanted to go."

He also said that one of his favorite parts of being a Shoemaker Scholar is getting to organize "custom events" based upon student interests. For example, the Shoemaker Scholars recently co-hosted an event with The Media School and the IU Jacobs School of Music's Project Jumpstart featuring Garry Schyman, a composer responsible for the music in several best-selling video games.

The strong sense of community among Shoemaker Scholars is a powerful component of the program, too, according to Curtis.

"I'm still very good friends with all of the former Shoemaker students; we meet and talk weekly, and message each other almost daily," she said. "The program has also impacted me in the sense that I've really gotten to understand how entrepreneurs come from all over campus, in all sorts of ways. Plus, I'm a huge believer in experiential learning, and our events let people access those type of opportunities."

Both Curtis and Anderson also noted that their role as Shoemaker Scholars has helped them strengthen their own entrepreneurial efforts. Curtis is a co-founder of Elevate, which is working to develop a smartphone app that integrates with elevator control systems to reduce long wait times in tall buildings, and Anderson is a co-founder of Prospect VR, a "no-code" VR creation tool to help online sellers easily set up their own virtual storefronts.

Both startups were named winners of the 2021 Cheng Wu Innovation Fellowship, which provides access to 12 weeks of one-on-one mentorship -- as well as $5,000 in cash -- to help students refine and develop their startups. The students said the Shoemaker Scholars program increased their awareness of the opportunity -- as well as many other resources -- all of which have supported and inspired their motivation to pursue entrepreneurship.

"We're always interested in any way we can help students," Anderson said. "We want to know what types of events people want and hear any other ideas about how we can help them execute their ideas."

To learn more about entrepreneurship opportunities and events at IU, students can visit the startupIU website, subscribe to its newsletter or email sscholar@iu.edu.