Colleges help budding entrepreneurs get started

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Courtesy of USA Today

Laura Baverman, entrepreneurs columnist.

Laura Baverman, entrepreneurs columnist.

In two days, Ameya Kulkarni will stand before 200 potential investors and experienced entrepreneurs at Google’s headquarters in Silicon Valley. He’ll pitch an idea he dreamed up in business school at Duke University, a start-up he believes transforms the way job searches happen.

Kulkarni feels a little pressure. He’s a first-time company founder and just one month off the North Carolina graduation stage. But he’s also confident in the skills he developed at Duke.

The start-up he built with classmate Amy Vaduthalakuzhy finished in the top 10 in the college’s Start-Up Challenge. He completed a year-long Program for Entrepreneurs course and found a mentor in Kathryn Minshew, a Duke alumna and founder of fast-growing career development start-up, The Muse.Plus, this crowd is a warm one. They’re all Duke alumni, brought together by the college to support and celebrate Duke-born start-ups.

“I had free reign at Duke to do whatever I felt like, to take risks and get resources and mentorship,” says Kulkarni, founder of Jobbertunity, an online tool for job seekers to organize job searches and career fair recruiters to manage résumés. “I know a little bit about business now, I know failure is OK, and I have comfort knowing that other people at Duke before me have done it, too.”

Welcome to the next generation of campus entrepreneurship, in which students don’t just want to learn the principles of starting a company, they actually want to start one.

The sweet spot for colleges, says Bill Aulet, managing director of the Martin Trust Center for Entrepreneurship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is figuring out a way to help them do both.

“At many leading schools, 40% to 50% of students want to be entrepreneurs, and the question is, ‘How are we going to train them in rigorous ways?’ ” he says. “So they wake up on Monday morning (after graduation) and know what to do.”

For many schools, it’s started with more courses, clubs and internships tailored to entrepreneurs. The University of Washington, for example, will soon offer neuro-entrepreneurship, a course focused on building businesses around the brain. It also puts students in internships with angel investment groups and gives them money to spend.

Five Ohio liberal arts colleges have used grants from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation to create entrepreneurship training and programs for non-business students such as musicians, equestrians and biologists, says Wendy Torrance, a director of entrepreneurship at the foundation. Many campuses now hold Start-up Weekend events, mini TED (Technology Education Design) conferences and business plan competitions.

But to help students turn their ideas into real start-ups after graduation, colleges are tapping into their alumni networks and business connections.

MIT and Stanford University each created start-up accelerator programs in the past two years meant to compete with the successful non-collegiate programs held by Y Combinator in Silicon Valley and TechStars in cities around the country. At MIT’s Founders’ Skills Accelerator, students receive a stipend, “real world” support such as help finding a lawyer or developing a marketing strategy, along with mentors in their fields. Each of the first 10 companies to complete the program raised money from angel or venture capital investors, Aulet says.

This summer, six international teams will join class two, helping to expose the eight MIT teams to global markets and challenges. Aulet is calling the 14 teams “Rhodes Scholars of Entrepreneurship.”

An early pioneer in campus accelerators was the University of Washington, with 20 student-led companies in the last three years, awarding each up to $25,000 in grant money.

“We want to help these students make the transition from student teams to start-up companies, so they are doing everything an early-stage company does here,” says Connie Bourassa-Shaw, director of the Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship at UW’s Michael G. Foster School of Business. “They have to meet milestones, and they’ve got to raise outside money.”

The program is working. Each start-up has raised between $40,000 and $1.2 million, she says.

Duke has ramped up its connections with entrepreneur and investor alumni in recent years, says Howie Rhee, managing director of student and alumni affairs for the Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative. The Start-Up Challenge now includes 500 alumni as judges and mentors, and DukeGEN Angel Pitch events, such as this week’s in San Francisco, are growing in influence and popularity.

Kulkarni and Vaduthalakuzhy have high hopes for the event. Jobbertunity isn’t yet ready for investors, but some common ground in Silicon Valley might help raise some awareness.”It’s going to be very, very important,” Kulkarni says. “We’re in the dating phase. It’s important to form relationships and get feedback for when we’re ready for the next steps.”

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