From B-School to C-Corp

Is entrepreneurship broken on the university level? Maybe. Is there room for improvement? Certainly.

Startups are hard. Teaching college students the ropes of entrepreneurship while fostering a community that leads to successful companies being built must also be a challenge. What are colleges doing correct, what problems are left, and how can universities inspire more students to create great ventures?

The Good

  • The networking effects inherently found on many college campuses leads to a great environment to market a new idea. There’s usually a large group of similar people in a confined geographical space. Leveraging this can make user acquisition and guerilla marketing easier than it would be in a larger, more diverse population. The tipping point to make many mobile and social apps useful is also lower in a college environment because potential users already have something in common with each other.
  • There are potential developers with time and energy. They live in the computer science department. They are generally less expensive than graduates and some will work for equity. They are not perfect, computer science curriculum can’t keep up with the pace of Silicon Valley (…or can it/should it?) . Some might even steal an idea and run with it. But that’s ok. Ideas are cheap, great people are rare. Within a computer science department you’re bound to find some great people. People who can solve tough technical problems like scalability and performance. People who have no problem learning a new development language for a project. Passionate, talented people.
  • College students want to change the world. This might sound idealistic, but it’s true. My generation is yearning for a way to make their time matter. To solve real problems for the betterment of society. Entrepreneurship is a great way to manifest these desires. When an investor or naysayer strikes down an idea, many students would be stubborn, naive, and passionate enough to pursue it anyways. I think this unique attitude needs to be cultivated. Not every college student possesses it, but those who do have a powerful motivator at their disposal.

The Bad

  • Matching ideas with technical talent is hard. This is not a problem uniquely found on college campuses, but I think the challenge here is different. There is plenty of technical talent on college campuses. A lot of times, would-be developers don’t realize how valuable they are to the idea guys and gals. Students who come up with great ideas don’t know how much technical talent is at their disposal, right on their very campus. There’s a gap, and a bridge needs to be built.
  • Students are “busy”. The vast majority of college students won’t drop out of school to develop a new business. And a lot of students feel they do not have the time necessary to pursue a startup. However, a great team of students who commit 10 hours a week to a new idea can create successful businesses that are ready to scale and grow upon graduation. Mindsets and priorities need tweaking.

The Fix

How do we improve? Does curriculum need tweaking? Maybe, but the fact is that not that much magic happens in classrooms to begin with. They happen in dorm lounges, when a group of students spark up an idea, and one grabs her laptop to begin building it. Magic happens two students walking across campus think, “there’s gotta be a better way to do this”. Magic happens spontaneously. It can’t be manufactured through a syllabus. I think living-learning programs where like minded entrepreneurs live together is a great start (I’m partial to Hinman CEOs, since I’ll be a member in the fall). But they don’t exactly embody the idea of spontaneity. I think we need constant services available to students who should happen to need them. Let the ideas form naturally, and provide services along the way to help students. Monthly co-founder speed dating would be a great first step.

Traditional sources of jobs in America are rapidly diminishing and entrepreneurship can employ the next generation of great minds. College campuses have a responsibility to foster entrepreneurship as best it can. It’s no coincidence that Facebook was built in a dorm room, that the co-founders of Google met at grad school, and that Kevin Plank began Under Armour just after graduating the University of Maryland. The structure of college campuses geographically and demographically create a great space for people to generate new ideas. The challenge lies in helping these people make their ideas and dreams a part of everybody’s reality.