For the last decade, the Department of Engineering and Society has been steadily building one of the most innovative programs for student entrepreneurship in the country. Under the leadership of Elizabeth Pyle, associate director for technology entrepreneurship, and Alexander Zorychta, coordinator for student entrepreneurs, it has pioneered a community-based approach to entrepreneurship education.

Although the department offers a host of courses for budding entrepreneurs, Pyle and Zorychta have found that fostering a vital entrepreneurial community outside the classroom has been essential to the success of the program. “Students are more likely to devote the time and effort needed to create new ventures when they are part of a supportive community of practice that includes entrepreneurs at every stage of development,” Pyle said.

Nadia Jean Charles leads the Women Entrepreneurship Week program

Nadia Jean Charles, a Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative visiting fellow hosted by the Department of Engineering and Society in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, starts the Women Entrepreneurship Week program at UVA. Photos courtesy of Presidential Precinct.

In addition to creating UVA’s peer-driven Works in Progress community, Pyle and Zorychta also mentor students, help prepare them for local and national competitions and organize events that give young entrepreneurs the opportunity to exchange views on the challenges they face.

This fall, Pyle and Zorychta had the opportunity to share their approach to building entrepreneurial communities with Nadia Jean Charles, a Haitian engineer and entrepreneur who came to Charlottesville as a fellow in the Department of State’s Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative, abbreviated as YLAI. Jean Charles is the cofounder of Haiti Femmes & TIC, a nonprofit that supports a multifaceted group of programs to encourage Haitian women to choose careers in information technology and communication.

“I was already a member of the YLAI network,” Jean Charles said. “When I learned about the fellowship program, I realized that this would be a great opportunity to help our association.”

The Young Leaders initiative provides innovative business and social entrepreneurs from Latin America and the Caribbean with the training, tools, networks and resources they need to contribute more fully to economic development in their communities. One of Jean Charles’ goals for the initiative’s four-week professional development program was to encourage the development of a more entrepreneurial culture among women.

“Haiti Femmes & TIC focuses on education, providing scholarships and hosting workshops, seminars and competitions to encourage more women to enter the profession,” Jean Charles said. “We wanted to take the next step and help women apply these skills by encouraging entrepreneurship.”

The Department of Engineering and Society, in conjunction with Presidential Precinct, a Charlottesville nonprofit that supports the development of emerging global leaders, hosted Jean Charles for the Young Leaders initiative. She shadowed Pyle and Zorychta to gain an understanding of elements needed to foster entrepreneurship successfully, while working with Judy Nguyen, the webmaster of the UVA Society of Women Engineers, to present a Charlottesville forum for Women Entrepreneurship Week.

“One of the things that the State Department liked about our proposal to host Nadia was that the forum was an event that she could start and finish during her four weeks in Charlottesville and that she would own,” Pyle said.

Jean Charles plans to replicate it in Haiti in 2019

The event took the form of two panels ― one composed of women Young Leaders fellows hosted by Presidential Precinct and one of local business owners. “It was great,” Jean Charles said. “The environment was lively and light, and the students were participating.”

While in Charlottesville, Jean Charles also worked on her own entrepreneurship and networking skills. She attended classes that Pyle and Zorychta offer on various aspects of entrepreneurship, attended meetings of the Charlottesville Business Innovation Council, networked with local entrepreneurs and made a well-received presentation about Haiti Femmes & TIC at be.Camp Charlottesville.

“It was very satisfying to find that people from another culture appreciated the work we are doing,” she said.

In addition, Pyle and Zorychta helped Jean Charles prepare for the presentation she made at the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative Closing Forum in Washington, a conference and networking event bringing together all 250 YLAI fellows with top U.S. government officials as well as global public, private and nonprofit leaders.

“There is a lot of focus on entrepreneurship in Charlottesville,” Jean Charles said. “I learned a lot that I can take back to Haiti and that would help me strengthen the environment for women in information technology and communications.”