“The words “scholarship in action” are powerful words, because they imply that only in action, only in an intense desire, can we grow as individuals. When we enter Syracuse University, we must crave a discovery of new knowledge, our scholarship. When we leave Syracuse University, we must integrate that knowledge in order to have a new understanding for how we can change our world, our action.”
- Angelo Roefaro, Class of 2007
Whitman School Commencement Marshal
As incoming freshmen take their first steps on campus this August, four Syracuse University graduates return for an extra year of school as part of the Kauffman Entrepreneurship Engagement Fellowship (KEEF) program. Fellows participate in local projects or ventures that incorporate the principles of SU’s Scholarship in Action vision, allowing them to explore innovative ways to help create sustainable economic development in Central New York.
KEEF is a step in a new direction for Scholarship in Action, which was developed to create “engines for prosperity and agents of social mobility”according to SU Chancellor Nancy Cantor. Though sponsored by the university, many of its early programs focused on rehabilitating the city through community projects that mostly took place off-campus. The new program, however, gives SU students the unique ability to create their own venture, while engaging with the surrounding community.
KEEF was made possible a five-year, $3 million grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation in 2009. SU Associate Provost for Entrepreneurship & Innovation Bruce Kingma says, “the Engagement Fellows program has provided a great opportunity to showcase our student entrepreneurs. Those that start successful ventures as undergraduates are able to continue the growth of their business, and themselves, by living, working, and contributing to the Central New York economy.” The yearlong Fellows program also has a track for those who are not entrepreneurs, which helps to secure local employment and arranges remitted tuition for all students in courses at graduate courses at the university.
In the fall of 2007, Ryan Dickerson (Economics, ’11), Stephen Fox (Public Relations, ’11), Michael Santaniello (Economics, ’11), and Case Wayne (Entrepreneurship and Emerging Enterprises, ’11) took the same first steps on the hill as today’s freshmen. Four years ago, KEEF did not exist, nor did Rylaxing LLC, and Scholarship in Action was just starting to be discussed on campus.
When Dickerson walked into his dorm room for the first time that fall, he was struck with the realization of how little room he had and could not imagine how he was going to live in such a cramped space for an entire year. He spent months rearranging his heavy furniture in an attempt to create a comfortable space to live in and hang out with new friends. Without luck, he returned home for winter break with back pains from slouching and sitting against the heater on his wall. “There had to be a better way,” he thought.
That was the moment Dickerson first conceived of the Rylaxer, a bolster designed as a backrest, that transforms any bed into a couch. The product promotes lower back health, while allowing a small room to be turned into a social hot spot. After returning to school, he became the only freshman in Flint Hall to actually have a couch in his dorm room. When his friends asked where they could buy one, an entrepreneur was born. To further improve upon the Rylaxer’s dedication to keep its operations local, it is made from eco-friendly foam and is manufactured in Atlanta, GA.
As seniors, Dickerson, Fox, Santaniello, and Wayne found themselves in a similar position as many who had preceded them. They had job offers with guaranteed salaries waiting for them, but they also had a company they had built with their own hands and a product in which they truly believed. Were it not for the generosity of KEEF, these hard working and passionate students would have left the city they had called home for the past four years. Instead, they will stay in the city of Syracuse, try to grow their business, and help boost the economy.
Since 2010, Rylaxing LLC has been named one of Inc Magazine’s coolest college startups, received second place in the Whitman School’s annual Panasci Business Plan Competition, and was placed on the cover of Orange Entrepreneur Magazine last year. This summer, the team joined forces with another group of Syracuse entrepreneurs in Ryan Cuvelier (’08) and Max Kimble (’08), founders of the social media consultation firm Metronome3. “It’s great to be working with fellow SU entrepreneurs,” said Cuvelier. “This is one of the most dedicated and passionate teams that I have had the pleasure of working with.”
Together, the team has created their own path that embodies the principles of Scholarship in Action. The KEEF program has opened a whole new population of committed SU students to the noble objectives of the initiative. The Rylaxing LLC members are excited to be a pioneer company in the program; hoping to clear the path for future entrepreneurs to follow their dreams, while giving back to the city those students will surely fall in love with. Dickerson, who could not stand the thought of sitting behind a computer screen at an entry-level position, said of the program, “the greatest part is that you can make it whatever you want. If you have a dream, you just have to go out and do some work, but SU will give you help every step of the way.”