Erik Monsen, the Steven Grossman Endowed Chair in Entrepreneurship here at the University of Vermont, joined the Grossman School of Business to not only teach and continue his already extensive research on how and why employees act or don’t act entrepreneurially, but also develop a culture of entrepreneurship among students, and build out a collaborative ecosystem that fosters and assists start-ups and medium-sized firms who want to grow.
So naturally he has been excited to see the growth of Wheeli. While founded in 2011 by an experienced young traveler and entrepreneur, Jean-Pierre Adéchi, the rapid expansion of the start-up locally in the past 12 months, has been primarily UVM business student-led.
Wheeli is a ride-sharing app that in the words of student Dylan Philbrick, a Grossman business school junior working for Wheeli, “has made carpooling a thing at the University of Vermont with more than 20% of the student population now using the service.”
Think of the thing as new age hitchhiking. Wheeli matches college students who are offering a ride to those who need one, with costs being split, new friendships forged and a reduction in everyone’s carbon footprint by filling empty car seats; what’s not to love?
Monsen notes “there were all these university students trying to get places, always looking to make money. It used to be old notice boards where students would pin a message stating a need to get from here to there. Does anyone need a ride sort of thing along with their phone number? Wheeli is taking this old style from point A to B and bringing it online, making it easier, announcing what rides are out there and the integration of the payment, which makes the experience that much better, and you don’t have to go to the physical board.”
Philbrick, who has always been interested in business, came to UVM with the goal of learning more about creating and operating businesses. He sought out entrepreneurial experiences and was quickly introduced to Wheeli via a childhood friend.
“I was quickly hooked on the concept as soon as he pitched it to me and could already see Wheeli’s value for students at UVM” he says. “With only a fraction of students on campus having cars, upper and underclassmen can meet, carpool and save money. It’s more convenient and affordable than all the alternatives, and I began working with Wheeli in the spring of 2015.”
Associate Professor Monsen has been hard at work providing guidance and expertise on a range of business topics, including helping the launch of the UVM Entrepreneurship Club, which is officially now up and running. “People become entrepreneurs because they think they are good at it and are going to be successful, but students don’t always feel that way when they graduate,” says Erik Monsen. “Findings show the need for more goal-specific programs that give students the confidence that founding one’s own firm can be a controllable and potentially successful career. Founding or working in start-ups is one possible solution to keeping our best and brightest here in Vermont. Colleges and universities can play an important role in convincing students that the non-corporate path is a viable option."
“This is just the start” Dylan Philbrick reiterates. “There are plenty of students on campus that have ideas, but don't know how to get them off the ground. Now we have the support to start creating and building these opportunities.”
With Dylan’s hard work it seems the word is getting out. More than 1,000 students used Wheeli this past semester, and the app has seen an average 165% month-over-month growth in passengers transported over the past 3 months, including expanding into neighboring campuses like Champlain College and Saint Michael’s College.
Hitchhiking is back for the digital age; and entrepreneurs like Dylan and his Wheelsters are driving the change.