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What’s The Big IDEA? A Degree Plus a Startup

Two years ago, a small team of us from Syracuse University and the surrounding community started the recently renamed Raymond von Dran Innovative & Disruptive Entrepreneurship Accelerator (IDEA). The effort was instigated by a simple question that I hope more administrators, faculty and students across the U.S. start to ask: Why aren’t more students starting businesses? For a number of reasons we believed that students simply did not see this as an option.  We hypothesized that higher education was implicitly downplaying venture creation by not allocating adequate resources to both campus-wide promotion and support of entrepreneurship.

To test this, we were more explicit about the option of starting a business and made more resources available to startup-minded students. Resources emerged from a confluence of events that included the leadership of Chancellor Nancy Cantor. This has resulted in a campus-wide focus on Scholarship in Action, the Kauffman Initiative of Entrepreneurship, entrepreneurial-minded administrators such as the iSchool Dean Liz Liddy and Associate Provost of Entrepreneurship Bruce Kingma, a growing community of entrepreneurial-minded alumni, a team of committed faculty and local community members and—most importantly—a pioneering group of students willing to embrace an unproven approach in addition to all the uncertainty associated with venture creation. The platform that has resulted includes coursework that allows students to evolve ideas, build out demos, alphas and betas, seek out business models, earn seed money, be part of a university supported accelerator and go to market—all with the help of a community of mentors and coaches.

 

Preliminary data suggests that we might be on to something. The first two years have included campus-wide participation of hundreds of students and multi-disciplinary startups with students ranging from bioengineers, to techies, to architects, to designers, and history majors. Thus far, participation is leading to one of three welcomed outcomes from a student perspective:

  • The recognition that the startup life is not for them, a reinvigorated focus on a career path and a more meaningful understanding of their education,
  • A strong(er) desire to pursue the entrepreneurial pathway as a founder,
  • The discovery of a new type of business—the startup—and a desire to become the talent a startup requires for success.

More interesting is the impact on the larger community of Upstate New York. Student-entrepreneurs in the Syracuse area are now linking up with like-minded individuals from both Ithaca and Rochester. They are organizing events geared towards their specific needs as first or second time entrepreneurs. Student teams are landing seed, angel to A-stage financing, winning regional business competitions and—more importantly—creating both jobs and internship opportunities. One indicator that the platform is starting to organically grow is the emergence of UNYStartups, a student-startup from the University of Binghamton focused on becoming a catalyst for the student-startup community in the Upstate region. Another indicator is how the local Tech Meetup, which was also started by a student group, has grown to over 300 members in less than 6 months. We are not there yet, but momentum is increasing.

The effort is maturing within the context of a larger discussion on entrepreneurial teaching that is starting to impact a larger debate on the value of higher education (more posts on this to come). Some of the more provocative contributors include:

  • Saras Sarasvathy who is developing the Entrepreneurial Method that will potentially be as impactful to the world as the Scientific Method,
  • Steve Blanks who is introducing the lean startup approach to the classroom environment,
  • Scott Adam’s who recently presented his perspective on the benefits of an entrepreneurial experience for the “B-student,” and
  • Peter Thiel who is directly challenging the overall value of higher education for the entrepreneurial 20-something by offering the best and the brightest college applicants “seed money” to start a business rather than go to college.

Thus far, the main hurdle of building a startup friendly setting within a university/college environment seems to be the legacy structures common to most institutions. One way we have addressed this issue is by staying focused on the needs of the student-entrepreneur and not compelling ourselves to stay within traditional course structures or environments. For example, we are applying the Entrepreneurial Method to our approach in the classroom and demonstrating that entrepreneurship can be both inspired and coached. We have already run through a number of iterations of what Steve Blank is currently working on at Stanford. We continue to vicariously learn from him, among others, and remain more focused on business doing than planning per se.

We are demonstrating how to directly address Scott Adam’s concerns by using a student’s effort to launch a venture as a gauge of their potential, which is proving to be more profound and illustrative than a mere grade. We are directly addressing Peter Theil’s concerns by embedding venture creation into the curriculum via a minor in Information Technology, Design and Startups (IDS). This is intended to offer students the necessary “space” within the curriculum by receiving credit for “business doing courses” and launching their venture, thus eliminating the need to make a choice between starting a venture and pursuing a college degree.

Since the start, our focus was Upstate-wide. The number of institutions across Upstate is in the hundreds and the number of students is in the hundreds of thousands. Hopefully, in time, Upstate New York will become a beacon for student entrepreneurs from around the world … but—at the moment—we are taking things one step at a time albeit working under the belief that the healthiest pace is the fastest one possible. If you are a student, faculty member or administrator interested in helping to accelerate the effort, please let me know!