By Ai-Quynh Bui
In a world of innovation and progress, every organization relies on the dedication and visions of its members to keep the spirit of innovation alive. At the Toaster Innovation Hub, we have been fortunate to have had Erik as our Innovation Outreach and Program Specialist, a dynamic individual who has been at the forefront of the Toaster’s outreach efforts. This post marks a bittersweet goodbye to Erik as he steps down from his Toaster position to transition into the FINNOVATION Fellowship, a program that supports early-stage, impact-driven entrepreneurs in leading and launching their innovative businesses. Right now, we’d like to take a moment to celebrate Erik’s journey with us and wish him the best with the Fellowship.
For the past four years the Toaster has been open, Erik has been an integral part of the Toaster’s growth. As our Innovation Outreach and Program Specialist, he has been instrumental in fostering a culture of creativity, openness, and forward-thinking. Even from the beginning when the Toaster was an empty, liminal space-esque room of books, Erik has pushed our outreach and consistently followed one of the Toaster’s core values: connection.
“He’s [Erik is] a skilled connector; at times when I get narrowly focused, he’s looking broadly to our network of experts for introductions that could lead to fruitful collaborations,” notes Charlie Heinz, our Media Outreach Specialist. “For example, he connected me with Amir Berenjian, a virtual reality entrepreneur who is coming to the Toaster to share his experience and hopefully excite a student interest in this emerging area.”
And there has been a consensus between Toaster staff members, coaches and ambassadors alike, that Erik is especially compassionate and driven. According to our ambassador Lauren Kelly, “He is kind hearted, and a go-with-the-flow type of guy—able to adapt to any craziness the Toaster throws at him!”
Moreover, we notice his compassion shows in his enthusiasm for the space and how it can be a safe space for all ideas. “I’ve seen how much he brightens up the Toaster and highlights the space as a creative outlet for students,” says ambassador Shana Wanjohi. “A lot of people I’ve seen come up to him as a mentor.”
Ava Smith, another Toaster Ambassador corroborates this in noting the space is for everyone, student or otherwise: “Erik is not afraid to approach and interact with users in the space. When doing so, he shows a deep interest in their ideas and will engage with them to foster innovation. And alongside Erik, I will also miss seeing Casper and Wally creating fun things in the Breakerspace!”
His ideas for the Toaster became a vision to establish strong partnerships and create interesting content that the UMN community can benefit from, and he created the Toaster with his drive and passion for connection. Innovation, notably, is about being new and setting an idea apart from the rest of the crowd. For Erik, the Toaster wasn’t just about creating a space and filling it with tables and supplies: it was about being a different space that hosted different ideas and perspectives, all of which came from different students of different majors and colleges. Thinking about other university communities and resources, where else on campus is comparable to the Toaster?
Erik has always been committed to the Toaster, even when its beginning in 2020 was made especially difficult by the pandemic. “The ‘grand opening’ was right before everything shut down for the pandemic, but that didn’t stop Erik from turning the Toaster into a vibrant community hub for entrepreneurs and makers,” notes Ben Guengerich.
Carolyn Bishoff agrees: “…he carried the Toaster through COVID…He was there all the time when no one else was. We closed literally a month after the soft open. And the Toaster didn’t have virtual services like a lot of other places did. He was the thread that held it together and kept us moving forward through the pandemic.”
On the note of moving forward, I recall that Charlie, despite how he’ll miss working with Erik, reminded me that “nothing lasts forever.” As this “forever” wraps up and Erik moves forward in his own entrepreneurial journey, Morgan Kerfield reminds us of how he brought his personal passions into the Toaster, and now beyond it: “Every day when he is in the Toaster he is inspiring students to be innovative and collaborative, so I think it is so fitting that the reason he is leaving is to do exactly what he tells students to do every day: follow their passion and build something.”
We here at the Toaster wish Erik luck with the FINNOVATION Fellowship as he proves to us that innovation is possible with the right ideas, active connections, and drive to create a reality of these ideas. Erik’s journey with his company, Live On Minnesota, focuses on building the first natural organic reduction facility in the state—being the first in the state and with a mission for contributing to sustainability, Live On Minnesota is a first-hand testimony to what innovation can look like. Like Andrea Davila says, we are all “so excited for his next steps—and will be cheering him on from the sidelines!” Even outside the Toaster, we’re proud to see Erik set an example for our core values: connection, ideation, creation, and innovation.