Ryan Allis and Aaron Houghton met at an entrepreneurship club while attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Within three days of meeting, the two had the idea for their company iContact that helps small businesses manage their e-mail marketing. iContact now has 63,000 customers and generated $26.5 million in revenue last year. With the creation of entrepreneurship clubs, colleges and universities across the country are becoming small business development incubators.
According to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, over 2100 colleges and universities were offering entrepreneurship education programs by 2006. These programs and centers vary in their execution, but often help students cultivate a startup business idea, teach them basic strategies like estimating costs and writing a business plan, and help them network their ideas toward sources of funding.
"There's been an explosion of interest in entrepreneurship," said Gerald Hills, the Turner Chair of Entrepreneurship at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. He attributes this interest to its cross-disciplinary nature, which is relevant to members of an increasingly global generation. "Today, a cutting edge entrepreneurship program has to go beyond the Business College," he says. "Successful entrepreneurs are not only out of business school; they're students of biology, education, and English. All students should have the opportunity to decide if entrepreneurship is something they might want to have in their future."
Today's college students are part of a critical generation that will further our economic recovery. The foundational role of startups in our economy makes an entrepreneurship club an asset to any college campus, large or small, state or private, over- or under-endowed. Small businesses have generated 64 percent of new jobs according to a survey by the Kauffman Foundation. As Hills explains, "Entrepreneurship is inherently intuitive; as human beings, we're always engaging in selling. It doesn't require substantial resources as much as it requires is one or more passionate leaders."
This guide will teach you how to start your own entrepreneurship club, because remember: if you can't find a job, you can always make one.
Starting a College Entrepreneurship Club: Selecting a Program Structure
From student-run to curriculum based, from business-minded to creatively focused, every college entrepreneurship venture takes a distinctive approach. Some colleges have fully formed centers, some have certificate programs, and some are simply actively meeting clubs. The one thing they have in common? They all reflect the tone of their colleges.
Creativity & Leadership, the entrepreneurship project at Oberlin College, purposely defines itself on its website as a "multi-disciplinary initiative," instead of an Entrepreneurship center or club. Oberlin is both a liberal arts college and a music conservatory, well known for combining creativity with structure.
"We deliberately didn't create an identifiable center because we thought it would best fit the culture as an endeavor infused into the campus," says Andrea Kalyn, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs for the Conservatory. "We want it to be a tool through which you can apply your education, that serves as the core of your academic work." C&L primarily distributes a series of application-based monetary grants, called creativity funds, but also offers supporting curriculum courses and symposia.
"We tapped into something utterly Oberlinian," Kalyn says, explaining that this applies to any college. "Tapping into a culture of a place and playing to its strengths is essential. Why would you want to create a program that is counter to the ethos of your school?"
Johns Hopkins University is the home to Hopkins Student Enterprises, a student-run organization that helps their fellow students' business ventures off the ground. Hopkins undergraduates developed the group in 2008 as an expansion of their profitable first business, Hopkins Student Storage, which collects and stores student items over the summer. They have since launched three more student-run businesses - a graphic design company, a consulting agency, and a care package delivery service – that serve the students and the Baltimore community.
Luke Kelly-Clyne, the president of Hopkins Student Enterprises, suggests that no matter what method you choose, your program must be backed up by active initiatives. "You just want to be able to put your skills into practice," he says. "The point of this service is not to learn how to network and find a job; that's what the career center is for. It's also not just to talk for hours about finance or business. The point of this service is experiential learning."
Kelly-Cline explains that choosing also involves research. "Reach out to the schools that have done this and ask them for their operating materials," he says. Once you have all of this in place, you can write your mission statement.
Dig Deeper: Entrepreneurship Education for All
Starting a College Entrepreneurship Club: Gauge Interest and Generate Support
Any successful on-campus initiative needs support from the inside out. Internally, find a network of faculty with entrepreneurial experience that can be your advisers. You don't need to have a business department to find this faculty support, says Kelly-Cline. Look closely in your course catalog for courses in economics, finance, and accounting, and keep an ear out for professors that have come from other career paths. "Email all of the professors that teach in those areas, send them a prospectus of what you want to do, and then see if you can try to recruit advisors," he says. Bringing the faculty and administration into the equation is important, because "the faculty can act as liaisons." Additionally, these courses and professors can provide a foundation for eventually implementing entrepreneurship into your curriculum.
"The thing about faculty is that they're extremely busy," says Kalyn. "But they'll do anything that supports the work of their students. If students can really take control and facilitate a program like this, and hold it to a high academic standard, you get momentum. That leads to consistent support."
External support should consist of alumni and community members. Often, your college's Alumni Office, along with resources like LinkedIn, can help you find alums that have been involved in start-up businesses. These relationships can offer you free advice, resources, and even financial support.
"I think the grassroots approach is the most effective," says Kalyn, who believes that alumni support is especially integral once the club is established, with actualized student business plans. You don't need to ask for much to sponsor an idea: "Even a gift of $500 can affect a student's ability to try something," she says.
Hills suggests connecting to entrepreneurs living in the surrounding area, who can come to campus to motivate the students unaware of the value of entrepreneurship. "Particularly for non-business students, seeing an artist who sells their songs or paintings is often a revelation," he says. "There are a huge number of students that still don't think of entrepreneurship as a viable career alternative for them. But it fundamentally is; entrepreneurship plays a vital role in revitalizing the economy."
Hills is also the president of the Collegiate Entrepreneurs' Organization (CEO), a nonprofit society for college entrepreneurship programs with chapters in 187 universities. A resource for students focused on extracurricular entrepreneurship, CEO offers access to advice from successful student programs, leadership training, newsletters, and an annual conference each November. Hills suggests that meeting and developing support from other like-minded young entrepreneurs is integral to starting a successful group. "Get a few students and ideally a faculty member, to attend the annual conference," he says. "It usually creates a very favorable impression."
Finally, begin advertising yourself to students who would want to join your team. Spread the word however you see fit. Start an easy, accessible website. Put up fliers. Promote the importance of entrepreneurship as an alternative career choice.
Dig Deeper: Cool College Start-Ups 2010
Starting a College Entrepreneurship Club: Make it Official
Once you have a strong mission statement and support network, it's time to register as a student organization and apply for school funding. What's the most effective way to pitch an entrepreneurship club? Remind them of three things: One, creative thought is profitable. Two, starting a successful small business is possible. And three, everyone else is doing it.
Kalyn insists that the goal of C&L is not to acquire immediate tangible results. "We want to get our students thinking in an entrepreneurial way so they can apply it in the future to everything they do," she says. "You have to be prepared for the long term gain. Create the culture now and instill it on that basic level: you can't just have an idea. Everyone has ideas. Try it."
Give them facts and figures about the role of entrepreneurship in today's economy. Find data about the success rate of young entrepreneurs on websites like the US Small Business Association (SBA) and the Kauffman Foundation. For example, today, half of startup businesses persevere beyond the first five years. Describe your involvement with alumni, faculty, and organizations like CEO. Then ask your administration for money.
If you decide to start a club like Hopkins Student Enterprises, Kelly-Cline suggests you come in with an actual business. "A group of students, even as little as 2, need to come up with some sort of a vision, a mission statement, but back it with one concrete business plan they can start up," he says. Write a business plan for an idea, and "try to make it one that's simple, understandable, most importantly, profitable. Start with that, if it goes through, stay with that for a year. Don't worry about the next step."
Kalyn believes that institutional support is invaluable for a venture like this. "Students can be a bit reticent about it, but as long as the institution knows when to get out of the way, their support is essential to fundraising, to connecting students to alumni, and to making sure things are sustained."
Dig Deeper: The One Day Business Plan Worksheet
Starting a College Entrepreneurship Club: Put Learning into Action
Once you are an official club, try to get your business started – at school. Design a course rating website, book buyback program, or late-night snack delivery service. Find a product or service a school doesn't offer, and provide it.
Hills explains that entrepreneurial success is like a three-legged stool: you need resources, opportunity, and people. "Most businesses don't require a lot of startup capital, which is something we tend to forget," he says. "It does take one or more good entrepreneurs who can recognize innovative prospects, and a market opportunity – people that'll hand you some cash. It's simple and basic, but that's what it comes down to."
Finally, if you have the time and motivation, don't be afraid to offer your services outside the college doors. According to the SBA Office of Advocacy, 41% of nascent entrepreneurs are under the age of 34. There's no reason one of them can't be you.
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