Written by Sarah Gliech, Photographed by Caleb Kenna
(This article first appeared in the Winter 2017-2018 edition of Vermont Life magazine.)
A 2008 graduate of Middlebury College, Heather Neuwirth returned to Middlebury in 2011 to work at the college and today serves as the director of programs at the school’s Center for Creativity, Innovation, and Social Entrepreneurship. The center provides resources for students in the areas of funding, space, and mentorship, and Neuwirth, 32, is particularly passionate about helping young people remain in Vermont after graduation and seize the advantages the state has to offer.
VL: Can you describe how the center works?
HN: We have a suite of 16 programs. The programs expose students to creative skills and mindsets, and a few of the programs also have them work through the process of building up an enterprise or a social enterprise. Students can get credit for an idea through coursework, or they can find the resources they need to take their ideas to the next level. Or if they’re interested, they can be student leaders in a lot of our programs. Even if you do not self-identify as an entrepreneur, there are still plenty of opportunities to get involved with the programs we run.
VL: How does Middlebury College fit into Vermont’s landscape of innovation and entrepreneurship?
HN: We are geographically in a fairly rural county, but we’re only an hour away from Burlington, and with the amount of support and startups located in our county, we have been creating phenomenal channels to connect our students — through internships and other opportunities — with mentors around the state. There is a connective tissue of design and creative industries, tech platforms, and startups in Vermont; we highlight those opportunities for our students because they’re not necessarily obvious.
VL: What brought you back to Vermont?
HN: This job. Like a lot of people who graduated in 2008, I spent a lot of time after my undergrad doing temporary interim positions, moving around, trying to figure things out. I was working at a nonprofit in Rhode Island and, through several coincidences, found out about the Center for Social Entrepreneurship [later merged into the current center] that was opening at Middlebury College. A lot of my peers thought I was crazy to move to Vermont. They were asking me what I was going to do up here. I was so pleasantly surprised by the community of young professionals that sticks together and supports each other up here. I felt more immediately tied into my Middlebury community after a few weeks than I did after living for a year in Rhode Island or living in my hometown outside of Milwaukee after college. The closeness is not for everyone, but I love going to the post office and grocery store and knowing half of the people I see.
VL: Where do your students go after graduation?
HN: One of our program goals is to try to convince young people that Vermont is a great place to live. We’re not just keeping students in Middlebury; they’re feeling really comfortable going beyond to Burlington and elsewhere in Vermont. It’s really powerful to see students’ inclination to say, “Hey, living in Vermont is an option.” And I have seen that young people who really love the values and sense of community in Vermont care a lot about cultivating young professional networks so that more young people want to stick around.
VL: Do you have any advice for budding student entrepreneurs?
HN: The day-to-day may not be perfectly tied up in a bow. The process is messy. But look around and you’ll see people 10, 20 years older than you who are taking a risk and trying something new. You can plug in and be an intern with them, or apply to work with them on breaks or after graduation. Or you can start your own thing. There are resources available in Vermont, whether it’s through incubators or funds.
VL: What do you do for fun?
HN: I hike every minute that I can. I also like to try different restaurants, and any new breweries or cideries that open up. We also have events at Middlebury that bring in people I find so interesting that I think I would attend even if it wasn’t part of my job. I feel like I must be doing something right when work doesn’t feel like work.