In fall 2020, amid the COVID–19 pandemic, co–presidents Kunal Abichandani (E ’22) and Avni Ahuja (E ’22) opened a chapter of Sigma Eta Pi (SEP) to form a co–ed community of diverse Penn students with a shared love for innovation and creativity. Founded in 2010, SEP has maintained a national presence in colleges across the country, including campuses like Stanford, the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of California at Berkley. As of now, Penn’s chapter of SEP is not technically a fraternity, but rather a colony—at least until it finishes initiating its first class in May. By the summer, it will be Penn’s first (and only) entrepreneurship fraternity.
When asked what inspired them to bring SEP to Penn, the co–presidents say their reason was simple: They felt there was a need. “In terms of grants, professors, alumni, clubs, and programs, there's just so much opportunity [at Penn] for people to be able to work on their companies and really explore. But what we found missing was a social community where people of all backgrounds and experiences could go to figure out what they were interested in and find a support network of peers that would encourage them to pursue whatever they were interested in,” Kunal says.
Kunal adds that being an entrepreneur can be lonely. “In an environment where there's a lot of professional focus, it can be isolating to want to do something different. We were like, ‘Why isn't there a more social community that's focused on meeting new people across different majors?’”
In response to this question, Kunal and Avni decided to start SEP and foster a space on campus where they could create a collaborative bound together by a shared passion for entrepreneurship.
“As of right now, SEP represents over ten different majors and multiple different programs like uncoordinated and coordinated dual degrees. Our goal was to create as many intersections of different disciplines and interests as possible so that you come across people you don't otherwise meet on campus,” Kunal says. “Now, I'm friends with people that are studying [Life Sciences and Management], Spanish, art history, and chemistry. As a computer science and design major, I would have never met these people.”
Penn is home to many different viewpoints, perspectives, and interests. Logically, this is because the student body is the combination of an engineering school, a nursing school, a business school, and the College. However, there's often a lack of intersection between these areas.
“There's just a lot of siloing at Penn where students in one school will mostly interact with people in that school, which has its benefits for personal use, like in a business school where a business network is really helpful,” Avni says. “But with entrepreneurship, where you want to know as many people as possible across a lot of different areas of the school, how can we bring together places that had previously been very stringently siloed?”
This year was not only SEP’s first year of recruiting members but also a strange year for recruitment across all of Greek life due to the pandemic. Uncertainty clouded how recruitment would run. However, Kunal and Avni were both amazed by their pledges' ability to actively engage in the process.
“It was hard over Zoom to create a culture of having fun, especially with the random people that you've just met. But entrepreneurship is inherently collaborative,” Kunal says. “Even though everything is online, we've somehow managed to create this culture where we're all willing to be genuine and open about our opinions. I think that's opened up to being very vulnerable.”
But Avni explains that they were nervous about recruitment, knowing that as the first SEP class, their pledges would set the tone for the rest of SEP's time at Penn. “Our criteria was, ‘Will they make a great friend now and a great founder later?’ I think we did a great job of recruiting exactly those types of people,” she says.
In order to see the creative side of the applicants, one of the activities that the prospective SEP pledges had to complete was an entrepreneurship challenge where they had to come up with 100 ideas to produce a product or company that centered around a collection of 10,000 paperclips.
“We got to see how they work in a team and how they come up with ideas, because a big focus of ours is that we're putting together really cool people who are really passionate, creative, and imaginative,” Avni says. “It is less about prior experience and more about if you have that kind of can–do attitude, or if we see you becoming a really great founder one day.”
While some fraternities and sororities recruit people based on how they will fit into the particular reputation of each individual organization, SEP leaves room for experimentation and does not look for a specific type of character. Avni jokes that she was probably the first person to drop Greek rush in her year since she only rushed for five hours before coming to the realization that she wanted to be part of an organization that prioritized individuality.
Because SEP is new and exists without restricting structures, it "[creates] a culture where you can mold whatever version of the frat you want it to be,” Kunal says. “We encourage everyone to take initiative and really be a leader in creating an experience for other people.”
By cultivating a supportive environment that transcends the entrepreneurial focus of the frat, SEP delves into personal connections between its members. Avni says that their creative members have “a lot of pluck, initiative, and commitment to the organization.”
Unlike other entrepreneurship clubs that already exist at Penn, SEP works to establish a strong community by emphasizing fun social events alongside pre–professional experiences. “I'd love to see SEP create a culture that disrupts the status quo and makes it exciting and a desirable thing to be an entrepreneur and to take risks to do something different outside of a set structure,” he says.
Although this is just the beginning of SEP’s presence on campus, Kunal and Avni look toward the future with high hopes for their fraternity.
“I think there [are] a lot of students on campus that have these amazing ideas, skills, and interests, but might be scared to take the next step,” Kunal says. “I really hope that SEP turns out to be the community that encourages and pushes people to actually take the next step and make a bigger impact than they could have imagined.”