Eight years ago, Lou Chen ’19 had a vision. Today, that vision is a reality, and has grown even larger than he had dreamed. For growing his vision, working through several pivots, consistent growth of the idea, and for the impact he has had on others, Chen was recently selected as the 2023 Tiger Entrepreneur Award.
While still a student at Princeton, with the support of the Pace Center for Civic Engagement, Chen created the Trenton Youth Orchestra (TYO). What started off as a small cohort of 6 Trenton violinists and 4 Princeton student volunteers has since grown into a robust program known as Trenton Arts at Princeton (TAP). Chen is not only the Founder and Director of the Trenton Youth Orchestra, but he has also grown his original vision into a much broader artistic program which also includes youth groups focused on theater, dance and singing.
TAP’s Saturday Morning Arts program (SMArts) provides students the opportunity to dance, partake in orchestral work, sing, or engage in theater. With the support of the Department of Music, the Pace Center for Civic Engagement, and the Lewis Center for the Arts (LCA), a group of Princeton staff, faculty, student volunteers, and student leaders host around 70 kids from the Trenton Public Schools for three hours on campus, every weekend, where they focus on the creative arts.
In an interview with the Princeton Entrepreneurship Council, Chen emphasized that TAP is a community effort that ‘relies heavily on the involvement of the Trenton public school system we work with.” He adds, “growth has been hugely dependent on the teachers’ involvement and TAP represents an approach of community entrepreneurship, where entrepreneurship is not centered on one person or protagonist, but draws on the ideas and aspirations of a whole community.”
When asked about his thoughts on how entrepreneurship and the arts intersect, Chen emphasized that there are many similarities between the two.
“Arts and entrepreneurship go together in many ways. An artist is someone who is creative, someone who naturally thinks outside the box, and someone who cares about the community.” “Similarly,” he adds, “a lot of the skills you learn in the arts are transferable to entrepreneurship. Running an effective artistic organization you have to learn product management, people management, pedagogy, and communication.” Working in this intersection is central to Chen’s success which has not only necessitated a communal spirit, but also demanded an innovative approach to performing arts.
The entrepreneurial path was not always direct or obvious. When Chen first started TAP, he explained that there was wariness in Trenton. He described how this project was regarded with skepticism. “It took me a while to make relationships of mutual trust and respect. But by being a regular presence in Trenton, I have been able to convince people of the authenticity and the humility of this work.”
He is also clear that this work is not Princeton “riding into Trenton to rescue a distressed population.” Instead, it is a project where people can engage with a community that is already doing so much.
Chen explains the immense gratification of his work. “In some ways, the recommendation letter I received from a Trenton teacher meant more to me than getting the Tiger Entrepreneur award itself. The letter itself was recognition that we are successfully developing these important relationships,” he surmised.
“The university and this award, celebrating the creation and growth of TAP, recognizes a broader definition of entrepreneurship,” he explains. “I am truly heartened by it.”