E-Hall’s collaborative spirit energizes Trinity entrepreneurs
by Jeremy Gerlach
As Nia Clements ’22 boots up Mario Kart on her Nintendo Switch, she invites Gavin Buchanan ’20, her resident assistant, down the hall to play.
“I’ve actually got the race car wheels,” says Clements, pulling out two modified controllers for steering. Buchanan, always up for a game, pulls up a comfy chair.
This may seem like a typical Residential Life setup. But these are no ordinary students, and this is no ordinary living space: Clements is a biochemistry major, cancer researcher, and is also a budding entrepreneur. Buchanan, already runs his own successful medical startup. The pair are among more than 30 Trinity students living in a one-of-a-kind space called Entrepreneurship Hall.
“It’s an ecosystem for entrepreneurs, where we all share this work-hard, play-hard attitude,” Clements says. “But it’s a chill environment—it’s not cutthroat, it’s not uptight at all.”
Known as E-Hall to residents, the space is Trinity’s miniature, dorm-hall-sized take on Silicon Valley. Here, first-year students like Clements play Nintendo with RAs who have their own companies. They brush their teeth next to future business partners. In E-Hall, every door you open has a different future waiting behind it.
Clement’s door, for example, gets plenty of foot traffic.
“There are constantly people knocking—not in a bad way—but because everyone is interested in each other and wants to get to know you,” Clements says. “And that’s what really makes E-Hall a collaborative environment.”
For Clements, finding E-Hall was a happy accident. She chose Trinity partially because of an interest in entrepreneurship, but only found out about E-Hall through a friend while filling out a housing survey. So Clements applied to join the space, then got an email over the summer before her first semester telling her she’d gotten in. And that’s the point where Clements first connected with Buchanan. As an E-Hall RA, Buchanan set up a group chat for Clements and the other incoming first years to get to know each other, as well as to discuss their new living space.
E-Hall is in McLean Hall, home to several of Trinity’s specialized living-learning communities, which includes volunteer-based HOPE Hall, and the substance-free Swashbucklers. And when Nia and her classmates arrived on campus in fall 2018, she says they found the building to be “probably the nicest residence hall for first-years,” with spacious rooms, individual suite bathrooms, and access to a rooftop.
But beyond the inviting physical space, Clements also was surprised by the positive social environment of E-Hall. Rather than meeting a win-at-all-costs group, Clements found students more interested in discovery and collaboration.
“It was actually really comforting to know that people who were in E-Hall weren’t 100 percent sure of what they wanted to be, but that they just wanted to explore entrepreneurship,” Clements says. “I had a preconceived notion that all these people would already have businesses and solid ideas, but that’s definitely not the case. It’s a group of people that want to collaborate.”
That collaboration is a byproduct of E-Hall’s population, which Clements explains is “hugely diverse.” Here, international students live alongside classmates from San Antonio, Houston, or from out of state. In terms of academics, most of Clements’ hallmates are business majors, but there’s also a good dose of communication, pre-med, computer science, and biology sprinkled in.
“Everyone has completely different classes, a completely different set of skills,” says Clements, a biochemistry major. “My roommate goes off to her marketing and management class, I go off to biology, and then in the evenings we come together in an entrepreneurship class. So, in that entrepreneurship class, when we’re brainstorming ideas, everyone is able to bring those different focuses in.”
As Clements has found, these unusual connections are a perfect spark for discovering a new business idea. After meeting hallmate Bradley Sykes ’22, a mathematical finance major, and Chryslyn Perkins ’22, an art major, the trio created a nonprofit startup called heARTful.
This company aims help people with disabilities find new ways to experience art. The group works with local artists to create innovative exhibits, featuring pieces such as a “magnet maze” version of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”
“Really, this is about allowing people with special needs to interact with themselves, and with others, through the art itself,” Clements says. “Now a parent and a child who is non-verbal can communicate in a new way.”
Perkins explains: “Now you have a way for multiple people to experience the art, while working together.”
In just a few months of living on E-Hall, the heARTful trio has already seen their startup take off. The group recently won $5,000 in seed funding for their idea at Trinity’s Stumberg Venture Competition, which comes with a spot in Trinity’s summer accelerator program, as well a place in the fall 2019 Stumberg finals, where the group will compete for a $25,000 grand prize.
While any Trinity student can enter a competition like Stumberg, E-Hall gives Clements one huge benefit: living next to Buchanan, who himself is an established Stumberg veteran.
Buchanan founded medical startup PATCH with Andrew Aertker ’21, and the pair have raised more than $100,000 in pre-seed investment for their company. PATCH, which has created a smart-tech pill bottle designed to prevent overdoses and improve the accuracy of clinical trials, has now grown to the point where the company is now making hires of its own, including one of Clement’s fellow E-Hall residents.
And that’s not even the full circle of Buchanan’s story: he also met his business partner, Aertker, in E-Hall.
“If Andrew and I hadn’t had the chance to meet, to take a class together, none of what PATCH is now would have ever happened,” Buchanan explains. “The ability just to be in that E-Hall space, to think creatively, to be constantly encouraged, even, was really, really powerful.”
And that pair’s former E-Hall RA and mentor, Jacob Hurrell-Zitelman ’20, is also a Stumberg champion.
The PATCH team’s relationship to Hurrell-Zitelman, who founded Quick Sip Coffee, is a testament to this positive atmosphere. Hurrell-Zitelman was actually a competitor for PATCH at the 2018 Stumberg finals, taking the $25,000 grand prize, while PATCH won $10,000 and was branded a co-champion. Even at the height of this competition, the two groups never abandoned the bonds they formed in E-Hall.
“As an RA, I initially had this authority figure relationship with the PATCH guys, but that dissipated to more of a friendship,” Hurrell-Zitelman says. “I actually helped them out with PATCH, but it was also really cool to be able to mentor them when personal things came up with life.”
That dual-purpose relationship between the E-Hall RA and their mentees continues to pay dividends for students like Clements. Since her door is just 20 feet down the hall from Buchanan’s, the PATCH guru has been able to constantly give Clements pointers on how to craft her pitch to the Stumberg judges, as well as teaching her to develop and balance good business practices as an undergraduate.
“When we see Gavin [Buchanan] in the halls, he’ll ask us, ‘Hey, did you use that suggestion I made for your Stumberg pitch?’ And we can just have a conversation right there,” Clements says. “And he has been genuinely interested in heARTful. We can always go to him with formal or informal questions: ‘Hey, do you think [entrepreneurship director] Dr. Luis Martinez would like us to mention ‘this or that’ in our business plan?’”
Plenty of schools give students the chance to meet a Gavin Buchanan in class. But living 20 feet away from an established entrepreneur opens up a whole new world of possibilities for students with budding business ideas.
Gavin organizes a weekly “tea time,” where his hallmates can network and bounce ideas with him. He’s always staying up late and finding ways to open his door.
“I’ve tried to foster that sense of community by doing weekly movie nights, board game nights, networking events, bringing in professionals to talk to the students, trying to encourage them and foster that creative thinking. That brings them together,” Buchanan says. “Along the way, I found that a few of my residents are just turning into superstars.”
“The biggest thing I’ve been able to pass on to Nia,” Buchanan continues, “is that I come from a similar background academically: I also started out with two years of chemical research, and I was involved in the sciences pretty heavily. Getting the chance to walk her through these first few steps and watching her really find her path has been really powerful. And it’s been really encouraging to see her doing so well, when I know that the first few semesters at Trinity can be so hectic and crazy.”
All first-year students face an uphill battle to adjust to college life, but students who also want to start a business in school face even more pressure. That’s why Clements says E-Hall’s inclusive, ‘play-hard’ attitude is just as important as its ‘work-hard’ mentality.
“The night of orientation, there were 15 people who ended up in my room, just hanging out and talking,” Clements says. “And it’s still like that to this day: we’re having fun, getting along, and we all genuinely like each other.”
In the end, E-Hall’s secret entrepreneurial formula isn’t competition, all-nighters, and endless stress.
“It’s the support we have for one another,” Clements says. “No one feels competitive, no one feels afraid to talk about failure. That’s huge, because entrepreneurship should not be an intimidating field for students. It’s always going to be scary because it’s business, and business can be cutthroat. But, ultimately, that’s not how you come up with good ideas. You can’t put someone under pressure and just say ‘Be successful.’ It’s ok to discuss failure with your friends and the people you’re around. Any venture you’re going to be around will have its ups and downs. But our hall shares both sides of that—we all support each other.”
As Clements turns back to her game controller, dropping a blue shell on Buchanan’s vehicle just in time to make a last-minute pass, it’s clear that this is about as cutthroat as the pair is going to get.
“That support, it doesn’t make E-Hall intimidating,” she says, queuing up another race. “That makes it fun.”