This fall, the Lead365 Conference will be adding two sessions on student entrepreneurship to the lineup- check out our schedule for more details on this session. To prepare you for the idea of learning about entrepreneurial leadership, we talked to Northeastern University’s Lauren Landry about the value she sees in that sort of thinking and how you can encourage it in student leaders on your own campus.
What sorts of experiences did you have as student leaders that led you to want to continue working with college students?
When I was in college, I had the opportunity to work for the school’s first lifestyle magazine, initially as a writer and eventually as the managing editor. What made the experience so meaningful is that it became the place students could come to discover whether publishing was the right fit for them, and in what capacity. Did they start as a writer, but fall in love with design or sales? Or did they think they wanted to be an editor, but realized they’d miss writing their own stories?
The magazine served as a creative outlet for so many. It was also a place run on peer editing, meaning students were pushing each other to be better. Our goal was to create the same quality you could find on newsstands and, because of that, it took a lot of work. Students made the choice to spend their time outside of the classroom on the magazine, and that desire to be the best was inspirational. It’s easy to miss that collaborative environment and youthful energy, which is why I was thrilled to cover campus innovation for BostInno.
Given your background as a journalism student, where did the interest in student startup culture start for you, and what opportunities did you take to build it?
Admittedly, prior to taking my job at BostInno, I was a stranger to student startup culture. That said, I, like so many others, was unknowingly plugged into it all along. I was constantly logging on to Facebook, regularly sharing documents via Dropbox, or visiting SoWa on Sundays just for Roxy’s Grilled Cheese. When doing these things, I never thought, “These companies got their start in Boston-area dorm rooms.”
My position at BostInno granted me the opportunity to remind people of that. Even better, I got to put a spotlight on the dozens of other young entrepreneurs trying to make our world a better place, whether through the convenience of on-demand services or the democratization of education.
My initial goal was to simply educate readers on a growing culture I was surprised to know so little about—particularly as a former Boston college student. We launched the Campus Innovation Guide in mid-2012 to highlight the incredible work being done city-wide, as well as provide aspiring student entrepreneurs with the resources necessary to get their ideas off the ground. As luck has it, some of the stories populating that Guide happened to spark the interest of investors and customers, which proved to be a huge win for students and motivated me to wake up every morning.
Over time, I realized my role went far beyond sharing stories—it was making connections. I spent many inspiring nights sitting around tables with student leaders from around Greater Boston brainstorming and collaborating. When I met an entrepreneur I knew could benefit from the expertise of another, I would introduce the two, regardless of the schools they were studying at.
Achieving a vibrant startup community is impossible if everyone is operating in silos. A lot of progress has been made—student-run firms like Rough Draft Ventures and the Dorm Room Fund are great examples of that. More could always be done, however, to encourage students to break out of their campus bubbles.
As I’m sure you’ve seen, many institutions aren’t always ready to support entrepreneurship, instead preferring to steer students toward more traditional paths like corporate work, graduate school, or service. Why do you think that is? [what fears are tied up in it, what skills need to be developed, etc.]
If an entrepreneur is stumped on a problem, they will do whatever necessary to figure it out—often on their own. I think that scares some schools; they fear irrelevance. If an aspiring entrepreneur can learn something without attending class, why should students bother taking on the average $30,000 in student loan debt? After all, we live in a world where students are being paid $100,000 to drop out.
That said, the best schools are making entrepreneurship a part of their fabric. I’m admittedly biased, because I currently work at Northeastern University, but the school’s Center for Entrepreneurship Education has done an amazing job connecting what students are learning inside the classroom to what they are building outside of it, using three simple words: “Educate,” “Incubate,” and “Launch.” They assist students at every point of their startup journey—from fleshing out that initial idea to bringing their concept to market.
More schools should be supporting student entrepreneurs and celebrating innovation.
Now I want to get to our Top Five, in which you pose five points or tips for those looking to create a more inclusive and fruitful leadership experience for students who want to create a lasting impact through building a company or solving a problem.
Point/Tip One: Give students the room to innovate.
There is no better time to start a company than in college, when students have a built-in safety net and don’t have to worry about how they will cover rent or additional living expenses. Acknowledge that and encourage entrepreneurship. It’s hard to believe that, at one point, students at Harvard were forbade from running businesses out of their dorm room. Ensure you are not killing the next Facebook by giving students the room to innovate.
Point/Tip Two: Create a safe space for students to innovate.
Part of giving students the room to innovate requires they have a safe space to do so. This doesn’t require a state-of-the-art facility—it’s unrealistic to say every college or university can afford to create an Innovation Lab. That said, schools can provide a variety of resources dedicated to fostering entrepreneurship. Is there a spare classroom that could be turned into a makeshift co-working space, or faculty available to walk students through their business plan? Are you bringing outside speakers in, perhaps successful alumni, who can inspire students to take that leap or offer mentorship? There are a lot of little things colleges can do that make a big impact.
Point/Tip Three: Celebrate the wins through more than business plan competitions.
Business plan competitions are a great place to start—students should be recognized and monetarily rewarded for their hard work. But business plan competitions shouldn’t be the only way entrepreneurs are supported. Additional programming should be integrated throughout the academic year, whether that be hack nights, networking opportunities, or speaker series. Entrepreneurship doesn’t happen in a vacuum during the spring semester; your programming should reflect that.
Point/Tip Four: Help connect student entrepreneurs to the greater community.
For students in Boston, there are dozens of ways for students to plug into the greater startup scene. Help students discover those opportunities. Too often, we complain about a “brain drain”—students coming to school here, acquiring knowledge, and then leaving immediately after graduation. A way to prevent that is by helping young entrepreneurs build a network too valuable to leave. Companies in this area are committed to giving them a reason to want to call Boston home. Tell them about ventures in your area like Rough Draft Ventures and the Dorm Room Fund, introduce them to accelerators like Techstars and MassChallenge, or bring them with you to events like TUGG’s Tech Gives Back or the New England Venture Capital Association’s NEVY Awards. They will thank you for it.
Point/Tip Five: Build a strong, encouraging alumni network.
One of the best ways to inspire student entrepreneurs is by introducing them to someone who’s experienced what they have. Start building a strong alumni network early—one that’s able to support like-minded entrepreneurs post-graduation if your school might not have the resources to do so. Alumni want to get involved. A prime example of that is the Soaring Startup Circle, a summer accelerator program started by Boston College alumni for Boston College students. Encourage initiatives like this, and provide students with the confidence that their support won’t run out immediately after commencement.
If you had to distill all of this into one suggestion for professionals seeking to create a more inclusive environment for creating an environment where potential student startups and their founders can thrive, what would you suggest?
It’s simple: Celebrate entrepreneurship. Create an environment that encourages students to want to take that leap of faith. As President Obama said in July at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit:
Everywhere I go, across the United States and around the world, I hear from people, but especially young people, who are ready to start something of their own—to lift up people’s lives and shape their own destinies. And that’s entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship creates new jobs and new businesses, new ways to deliver basic services, new ways of seeing the world—it’s the spark of prosperity. It helps citizens stand up for their rights and push back against corruption. Entrepreneurship offers a positive alternative to the ideologies of violence and division that can all too often fill the void when young people don’t see a future for themselves.
Provide students that future.