Raising the Bar: 1789 Venture Lab

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Raising the Bar

Making Things Better at 1789 Venture Lab

By: Tom Griffen

Ever wonder who has the coolest office space on Franklin Street? The website for 1789 Venture Lab—a place where UNC students can seek intentional growth for their startups—suggests it’s them. And they just might be right.

Named for the year UNC Chapel Hill was founded, 1789 Venture Lab sits snugly between Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe and Four Corners Grille. The space was once occupied by 23 Steps—a bar with as many stairs leading to the main room. A stained bartop remains the centerpiece, yet these days, laptops and coffee mugs replace beer cans and shot glasses. A cozy and light-hearted aesthetic balances the room’s entrepreneurial brain power. Natural light shines it up.

Program assistant Stefano Rivera is a UNC alumnus. Journalism, 2011. After graduating, he learned the ropes of business management while running his family’s child care center in Australia. He later diversified his skills with a domestic stint in charge of sales and marketing at Relay Foods. He now helps UNC students identify and harvest their innovative ideas.

Stefano believes that the days of spending an entire career with one company are over and that UNC is on the cutting edge of this phenomenon. Its Center for Entrepreneurial Studies (CES) and Carolina THINK (UNC’s entrepreneurship club) harvest a community of like-minded innovators and include various accelerators and startup labs such as LaUNCh, CUBE, Makerspace, and 1789. Each helps students, graduates, and local business people develop skills necessary to successfully navigate an evolving professional landscape.

The 1789 Venture Lab offers space and support via two tracks for students interested in entrepreneurship: (1) The “member” track is geared toward individuals who want to expand their entrepreneurial mindset and discover the vast resources available in the UNC ecosystem. (2) The “venture” track is designed for students who already have a solid idea yet need help to bring it to fruition. This track is more structured and offers monthly workshops, mentorships, and co-working sessions with other venture teams.

“All we ask is that students’ ideas be something they want to actively work on,” Stefano says.

Stefano believes 1789’s unique location and model is part of what makes it so compelling.

“We are off-campus. A separate space that’s not a library or a dorm,” Stefano says. “We allow loud, interactive meetings, offer immediate access to information, and are open until midnight.”

The result of this synergistic mash-up is conversation and cooperation—two attributes necessary for the development of a strong team, the most basic building block of a successful startup.

Stefano refers to himself as an “organize and execute” sort of person. He doesn’t claim to have any amazing entrepreneurial concepts under wraps. According to him, all of his best ideas are already taken. But he does, however, feel a certain kind joy while working with students who regularly crank out new and interesting notions and designs. He believes people with a knack to do this are a special sort.

“These students look at the world differently,” he says. “Rather than see a problem and give in to it, they think about how to make things better.”

And just 23 steps up from Franklin Street, there’s a room full of young people doing just that—making things better.