Universities and colleges around the world have become hubs for entrepreneurs looking to find guidance and resources to help them develop their business initiatives and make them profitable. With the abundant access to information, facilities, and networks that many universities provide, it comes as no surprise that new entrepreneurs are drifting towards them for help.
In terms of global development, entrepreneurship has begun to play a more dynamic and important role; its relevance will continue to grow, and universities are developing programs that allow them to keep up with the needs of their students and their communities.
I reached out to Valeria Siegrist, Student Director of StartupFIU at Florida International University, in Miami, Florida. On the other side of my iPhone screen, I was met with an on-the-go woman, with dynamic answers and confidence in her work. In charge of bringing the student and community perspective to the table when it comes to the organization, I thought she would be the perfect person to ask about this shift and its benefits.
By developing experiential entrepreneurship programs, such as Startup FIU’s 14-week program that allows students to pitch their startup ideas to a team of experts and student leaders who will invest their time, contacts and resources in helping them jumpstart their businesses, universities are using alternative “out-of-the-classroom” ways to educate communities. “We are trying to answer the question, ‘How can we help students in the development of businesses when they are not aware of the research necessary to achieve ventures’ while also trying to figure out how we can help our research labs commercialize what they produce.” It’s a win-win situation.
Siegrist explained that with FIU being one of the largest research universities in Florida, it has access to ample research, and with the right technical skills, this research can be made profitable. She used the example of research on hurricanes, which is done to predict and mitigate their impact, as something that can be turned (and most likely already has been turned) into a useful and profitable tool.
“The point of programs like StartupFIU is also to be a link between all the resources in the university. If you need finance or marketing help, even if you need something like a kitchen for your venture, we help connect entrepreneurs,” she said.
This is why more and more universities are adopting these systems and more student and non-student entrepreneurs are looking for these environments. For example, at StarupFIU’s 14-week program, entrepreneurs go through the process of developing their business. “We help them figure out what they are missing, and we help them develop their investor pitch. We had an event of 300 people, 9 investors and 14 companies, where their stories and pitches were shared. Our main goal is to aid them with the tools they need to get started with their business and connect them with investors so that they can get funded,” says Siegrist.
The benefit of these programs is that community members, as well as alumni and teachers, are not exempt from the opportunity of participating and having access to the resources. These resources can vary and become much more accessible within the university environment. Aside from free work space and expert guidance, Siegrist says that one of the greatest resources is that programs like these around the world provide confidence and perseverance. “For someone in the idea stage, it can be hard to stick with the idea and follow it through. Usually they dream about it, work through a week and give up. In a program, you have to commit and you will continue to work hard through the 14 weeks. It will help you not give up through the hard times that research, for example, involves.”
Understanding what others want is another crucial element for Siegrist. Many enter the world of entrepreneurship without being aware of the implications: the amount of research it might require, the small details or expenses that might come up, etc. Experts in universities help keep these in mind, and they are committed to advising those in the programs.
I asked her if she encouraged non-enrolled entrepreneurs to seek out these types of programs. “Yes. Strongly. Not only because of the resources, but because of the connections that are in universities. You can find students to work with you and for you.”
Siegrist spoke about the extent of networks that one taps into when they reach out to others for help. She explained that in universities, the web of networks expands beyond university walls. For example, she said, a student has a job and works in an office. The office is run by other students who have professors. A professor has built a career in X field. They have colleagues, and now you’ve tapped into that network that could have taken years anywhere else.
Taking advantage of the fact that we were speaking about new entrepreneurs and the possibilities they can find in university settings, I asked Siegrist what her thoughts were on a successful entrepreneur. For example, who were the ones who passed the first test when it came to Startup FIU?
She mentioned they look to pick businesses that have the potential to scale. “We need people who are coachable and willing to commit.” By this, she meant people who know they will make mistakes and will want to learn from them. Also, those who they believe are tapping into the right market in terms of their own expertise. “If you want to send a poet to the moon, that might not be exactly the best idea, but maybe next year when you find an astronaut, you are ready to launch,” she said.
Selection in these programs is not the only way. Many new entrepreneurs use them to get feedback regardless of whether they are getting first-hand help. “We also provide feedback to people who aren’t selected,” explained Siegrist, “because we understand that this is the idea that you will pursue for, maybe, the next five years, or more.”
Siegrist pin-pointed some barriers for entrepreneurs, or “newtrepreneurs” as she calls them, who she felt were keeping them from making their projects successful. One thing is the way people fall into entrepreneurship and how they view the process. She believes the concept has become almost obsolete because of overuse without a clear purpose. “You are an entrepreneur when you solve a problem and build something, not only because you want to be your own boss.”
The last thing I asked her was whether she thought there was ever a time when an entrepreneur should say “stop.” With a frown, she answered that it depended on a lot of personal factors, but that the main question to ask would always be, “What problem am I trying to solve and is it important enough to me and to others?”