When is the best time to launch an innovative idea or business venture – a time when there is nothing to lose? That’s right: while in college!
This article highlights concrete steps colleges and universities can take to support and encourage their budding student entrepreneurs.
I spent the last 15 years of my life working in the educational travel sector – specifically in the area of sustainability and entrepreneurship. Throughout this time, I have had countless interactions with incubators, accelerators, hackathons, meetups, and startup events around the world. I was also part of a Danish accelerator in London – Accelerace.io – one of the leading seed accelerator programs in Europe, where I spent time assisting young entrepreneurs.
Starting up your own business is one of the most rewarding achievements in life. It gives you freedom, which is by far the most powerful outlet for self-expression. However, getting there is not easy! It requires specific qualities and there is no defined path to follow. No one ever succeeds alone so having the right campus team and resources is crucial.
This is something you – as a college administrator or professor – can actively help your students achieve with some concrete steps and college support.
Below are some suggested steps to take – based on my own experience as a passionate entrepreneur and educational travel professional who has started up his own business from scratch.
1. Create a Student Entrepreneur Hub
Make sure you have a Hub / Incubator / Center for Innovation or a similar facility on campus designed to support student entrepreneurship activities. Some schools already have entrepreneurship facilities in place but make sure they are designed with students in mind.
At the London Metropolitan University, where I studied, initially there was a small center for entrepreneurship but the school went on to build an entire accelerator facility designed to accommodate student entrepreneurs and new startups.
Another great example is the University of South Florida (USF), ranked in the top 15 institutions in 2018 by Princeton Review and Entrepreneur magazine with an excellent centre for student entrepreneurship.
The Center director, Dr. Michael Fountain, is honored as one of the top 100 business leaders in Tampa Bay. He established an entrepreneurial program that supports students throughout the entire lifecycle of a company; from the origination and identification of an idea all the way up to the development of the product, intellectual property protection, and commercialisation of the product and financing.
Thanks to its initiatives, USF’s Entrepreneurial Hub has helped more than 100 students to accelerate and launch their own successful companies.
Even if you don’t have anything like this on your campus yet, you can start small and with little steps strive to put together an organized “hub”. Make sure to speak with your Dean and suggest supporting this initiative.
2. Use Proper Methodology
The Lean Startup Methodology is the most effective and widely-used entrepreneurship methodology tool available. It helps entrepreneurs reach an end result more quickly – be it failure or success – so there is less money, time and resources wasted.
This methodology can be easily used with a student entrepreneurship program as there are free resources and business canvas templates available to help students design their MVP (Minimum Viable Product). This methodology helps students to test their ideas on the market which is an important first step in entrepreneurship.
It is important for the college’s academic areas of expertise to be reflected in the student entrepreneurship program. For instance, if technology and finance are strong subject matter areas for a college, then a student entrepreneurship hub that supports FINTECH ideas becomes a natural fit at that campus.
3. Set Up Campus Meetings
It is important for a college to promote student entrepreneurship program on a regular basis to build campus awareness. This can be done via regular informal student meetups meetings which introduce interested students to the entrepreneurship program. These meetings are also useful for students to connect with each other and form a business team
4. Organize Startup Hackathons
If you want to take the student entrepreneurship program up a notch up, you can organize internal startup hackathons. These are more involved events that can last a full day or longer. During the hackathon, students are asked to form teams, identify a problem to solve, find suitable solutions that can translate into a viable business venture, and finally pitch their idea to a designed jury. Read more about Startup Hackathons from the Institute of Entrepreneurship Development, here.
5. Monitor Student Commitment
Ensure that students who sign up for the entrepreneurship program are committed and regularly attend events. These hours can count as part of a class module. A well-planned entrepreneurship program selection process should be established to attract the right candidates and ensure dedicated school resources are used effectively.
6. Provide Proper Student Mentorship and Advisors
This is the most important part of supporting student entrepreneurs. Mentors who have gone through the process of launching a startup/business themselves can help students understand the challenges involved and motivate them to set up an initial business plan. It is also important to understand a student’s timeframe, resources and responsibilities in order to provide the best advice.
It’s also a great idea to treat the entrepreneurship facility as an institution in itself and to put together a proper advisory board comprised of experienced, connected and passionate individuals ready to contribute their expertise and time. Here an example of advisory board from USF.
7. Partner with External Organization
Another way to add value to the entrepreneurship program is to invite external speakers, motivators, and mentors from a variety of areas. The best practice is to partner with a medium to a large firm that may be interested in following young entrepreneurs from the start.
For example, a business could dedicate team members to work on a consultancy-basis with the school. The main interest of the external stakeholders is to keep an eye out for potential ideas and startups that could benefit them.
Another option is to partner with small/medium media companies that can offer some initial pro-bono work such as building an app or a website in exchange for returning clients in the case of a successful idea/venture.
This stage is also essential in getting an initial sponsor. Speak to local companies in your area and see which ones want to get involved from the start.
8. Incorporate Study Abroad
Consider organizing short term faculty-led or semester abroad programs focused on business and entrepreneurship. This is a great opportunity to take students out of their comfort zone, stimulate their brains with new ideas, and create opportunities for long-lasting professional connections abroad.
Study Abroad Association (SAA) run several short-term entrepreneurship programs around the globe during the course of the year. All the business / entrepreneurship programs have organised visits to local businesses, universities, startups, co-working spaces, and social projects. Also, on SAA programs, students have the opportunity to listen to CEO talks and participate in specific learning activities related to the program’s academic focus (for eg. review the business plan of a chosen startup, analyze a case study, and come up with new marketing ideas to add value).
Study Abroad Association also combines entrepreneurship studies with local community and grass-root activities, resulting in strong impactful programs for students and faculty. This is usually when students get inspired to create something meaningful in their lives.
All those activities, initiatives, events, visits and talks are aimed at sparking new ideas and motivation in students’ minds. Show them there are other young entrepreneurs around the world that have already started the process and are willing to connect with each other.
This topic is close to my heart since I met my SAA business co-founder, Christian Alyea, while he was participating in a study abroad program in Italy as a college student in 2009.
9. Stay Connected Globally
After the study abroad program finishes, it is important for the college and students to stay connected with the organizations visited to maintain these newly created contacts. Try to be an active member of their community, ask for advice, and when possible, organize video conference calls and include your students. This not only gives credibility to your entrepreneurship program but also establishes overseas connections that are crucial in today’s global society.
10. Get Funding
Obviously, the hardest aspect for any budding student entrepreneurs is money!
There are ways to facilitate this process which consists of having the right connections at the right time. Below are a few avenues to consider for student entrepreneurship funding:
- External investors
This is the less risky option for entrepreneurship funding but it is also the longest process. It is a good idea for schools to speak with local “angel investors” and venture capitalists. The credibility of a college or university can motivate local investment groups to partner with your college and dedicate “seed money” to be invested into the best entrepreneurship team, ideas or startup. Usually, investors are great connections as they can open doors to unforeseen opportunities and partnerships. Typically, investments from these groups come with a buy-in into the company shares.
- Crowdfunding Platforms
Platforms such as Crowdcube, Kiva, Indiegogo and Kickstarter, are becoming a popular means to raise funds among entrepreneurs. As such, it is not a bad idea to post the entire “Hub project” there and ask micro-investors to support it.
- School Donors & Foundation
Many schools have a foundation aimed at supporting students and other educational activities. This could be a great internal area to ask for funding to support a campus-based student entrepreneurship hub program.
This is the simplest and riskier way to get funding. You can ask a loan from a bank or even to friends and family. I discourage this idea however since the risk in any early-stage startup is quite high, and there is the possibility of failing and not being able to pay your debt back.
- Personal Funding
This may be an option if the entrepreneurs contribute personal funds to sustain the initial start-up costs for the newly launched idea.
11. Check Out Local Events
Check out local Meetup event pages and look for start-up events nearby. There are many interesting events in every corner of the world. This is a great opportunity to meet a potential co-founder, gather information, and share your passion for entrepreneurship. It’s important for professors to gather and share these types of events with students. If you can’t find much around your area, why not organize your own event at your school?
12. Connect with Other Schools
No one is an island. So why not ask a colleague, even from a different university or college, if they have experience creating entrepreneurial opportunities for students? If so, this is a great way to partner in such efforts across schools.
I leave you with a quote from Dr. Michael Fountain from USF:
“Dare to be exceptional, be unwilling to accept mediocrity, strive for excellence and always be willing to give back freely to others. By living these principles in our personal and professional lives, I believe that each and every one of us can make a difference to enable the USF Center for Entrepreneurship to operate as a program of excellence in entrepreneurial education and leadership.”
Let’s support student entrepreneurship and create opportunities for college students to explore their ideas while discovering the world in the process. Let’s do this together!
Leonardo Gubinelli, co-founder of Study Abroad Association,
+1 202 910 6318