Programs seek to boost campus entrepreneurship

October 15, 2012

By Claire Schlessinger, Brown Daily Herald

The University was named a Changemaker Campus last month by Ashoka U, an accelerator for social entrepreneurship at institutions of higher education. Nineteen colleges and universities were selected this year through a process that included interviews, a site visit and a selection panel that evaluated commitments to promoting entrepreneurship.

This new designation is only one of several indicators pointing to the flourishing atmosphere of entrepreneurship on campus. The entrepreneurial attitude — which professors and students noted goes hand-in-hand with Brown’s ethos of choice and risk-taking — has manifested itself across a broad range of programs and class projects.

With the Ashoka U selection, the renaming of the former Commerce, Organizations and Entrepreneurship degree, the full launch of the Brown Entrepreneurship Program and a new University president, this is the year “when all the fragmented pieces come together,” said Elizabeth Weber ’14, president of the Brown Entrepreneurship Program. 


Startups in the classroom

Possibilities for classroom entrepreneurship can be found “in every major,” not just in Business, Entrepreneurship and Organizations, Weber said. “You don’t need to be doing econ to be a business starter. It’s more of a mindset,” she added.

Alan Harlam, director of social entrepreneurship at the Swearer Center for Public Service, noted that courses relevant to social entrepreneurship are also listed in the sociology, anthropology and public policy and American institutions departments.

Adjunct Lecturer in Engineering Danny Warshay ’87 teaches ENGN 1010: “The Entrepreneurial Process: Innovation in Practice.” Warshay began his first entrepreneurial undertaking while studying at the University. The company he co-founded, Clearview Software, was later sold to Apple, and he has worked on numerous startups since then. The project was pioneered in hisWayland House dorm room and nurtured through independent study classes with Professor Emeritus of Engineering Barrett Hazeltine, then associate dean of the college, whom many students consult with when launching a startup.

Warshay compared entrepreneurship to building a bridge, noting it is no coincidence that many entrepreneurship classes are offered through the engineering school. Though there is no “cookie-cutter approach” to starting a business, there is a sequential process, he said.

In his class, students develop a business plan as if they were actually trying to launch an enterprise, and many of them end up doing just that. “Student projects are becoming real,” and venture capitalists, who originally stopped by the class as a kindness to Warshay, come willingly, he said. “You never know what’s going to come out of Brown.”

Warshay said he objects to the widely-held idea that entrepreneurship cannot be taught. He said the premise behind the Business, Entrepreneurship and Organizations concentration is that there is a “structured way” in which one can give lessons in entrepreneurship. His course — which spawned the leak-resistant underwear maker Underbrella, the dance class 305 Fitness and the prenatal vitamin producer Premama — embraces the model Warshay learned while at the Harvard Business School.

Dan Aziz ’11 co-founded Premama with William Do ’12 in Warshay’s class. Aziz said when he worked on the business proposal for the course, he did not see it just as a school project. “I wanted to make it real,” he said.

Aziz said he knew he wanted to manufacture a product related to powdered nutrition, so he went to Whole Foods to ask consumers what product they wished existed. Pregnant women told him they wanted a way to get nutrients other than prenatal pills, so his team developed a vitamin powder that can be added to beverages. 

“I’m not totally sure what Peter Thiel is doing,” Harlam said, referring to the prestigious ThielFellowship that was recently awarded to Dylan Field, a former member of the class of 2013.5.Harlam added that he believes the recipients of the fellowship could harmonize their formal studies and projects in ways that reinforce the learning in both without having to abandon their studies.


Where the magic happens

When Harlam came to the Swearer Center five years ago, “the primary charge was to support student entrepreneurs who were starting social ventures,” he said. The Swearer Center’s Social Innovation Initiative sponsors the Starr Fellowship, a yearlong fellowship that funds about 15 social ventures a year and provides workshops to advance projects.

Entrepreneurship funneled through the Swearer Center tackles social issues. “Everything that you know about entrepreneurship stays true, but your purpose is primarily around addressing an inequity (or) an injustice,” Harlam said.

David Ellmann ’14 developed iFLIP4, a “social network for causes” that allows contributors to purchase T-shirts while funneling half the profits from these sales to select charities, through a Starr Fellowship. He said he is currently on leave to “give (himself) to it completely,” adding that the fellowship has allowed him to feel like he is still part of a community even while living at home in New Jersey.

More than 70 students are involved in the approximately 35 to 37 ventures guided by the Brown Entrepreneurship Program, Weber said. The program has two divisions — Brown Idea Labs, for students who want to learn more about entrepreneurship but do not necessarily have a particular project to cultivate, and Brown Venture Labs, for students who are “concretely working on a company,” said Adrienne Tran ’14, a managing director of Brown Venture Labs.

Brown Venture Labs, which was a pilot program last semester, interviews teams after they submit their proposals and matches each team with one of its seven student leaders. The major factor for judging a viable venture is whether Brown Venture Labs believes “they will make an impact in their community, in the world,” Weber said. Teams picked in the fall are currently being primed for the West Coast Accelerator, where groups will meet with investors in Silicon Valley. In the spring, teams prepare for a startup competition.

Weber said the principle behind the entrepreneurship program is to gather “the brightest, the most likely to succeed in the same room, in the same community” and provide them needed “resources and support.” 

Max Song ’14, also a managing director of Brown Venture Labs, said the goal is to encourage students “to go one step beyond just talking or thinking about entrepreneurship but to try to implement it.” He listed three core values for this semester — coalescing “comrades in the cause” to help each other get through the hardships of being a student entrepreneur, ensuring ventures are meaningful for the founders and could represent a viable career option for them upon graduation and giving students the knowledge to raise capital and manage teams.


Brown in the bigger picture

Weber said Brown students’ penchant for innovating comes from their “personal mantra or need to change the world.” Ventures defy classification as part of a specific industry but are united in their mission of “making a global impact,” she said.

Shara Hegde ’05, an alumni interviewer for prospective undergraduates, said she was “really impressed with the entrepreneurial spirit (she) saw at Brown.” An entrepreneur herself, she lauded the alumni network as being supportive of Brown students and graduates who reach out to talk about their hopes and fears. 

Warshay said Brown “instills some kind of inherent entrepreneurial spirit in graduates,” regardless of whether they cultivate it in the classroom. He ascribed this spirit to something fundamental about Brown’s curriculum that encourages students to take chances and explore.

Many aspects of entrepreneurship parallel the open curriculum. Tran said startup founders in Silicon Valley “are so much more passionate about their work and do a much better job at it because it’s something that they do because they like to do (it) and not because someone’s forcing them to do it.” The cooperative spirit promoted in the entrepreneurial community at Brown is indicative of the way students function in all facets of Brown, where “relationships are not a zero-sum game,” Tran said.

Having taught all over the world, Warshay noted that Brown students have a certain “comfort with ambiguity” that enables the leap of faith required to invest in a startup, which he said exists at many liberal arts colleges. Warshay called Brown a “risk-supportive environment,” adding that this may be one reason why startups, which are inherently unpredictable gambles, are so prevalent on campus.

Harlam said that his position at Brown, created five years ago, made him “one of the first 10 or 15 people in the country who had a title with the words ‘social entrepreneurship’ in it,” and made Brown “one of the first in the social entrepreneurship space.” Now, he added, “we are one of many.”

But Weber said Brown is “very much behind” compared to the most successful campuses, such as Stanford, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard. She attributed this lag to a paucity of “infrastructure, physical support and monetary support for entrepreneurship — it’s very low on the totem pole.” Weber added that there is “just as much, if not more” student demand for entrepreneurship support at other schools.

That is where the Brown Entrepreneurship Program comes in. Weber said her goal is to demonstrate to the administration that there is an impassioned presence already active on campus so that entrepreneurship gets on the map of University priorities. 

The program meets in the basement of Sayles Hall, a significant shortcoming, Weber said, compared to schools like Cornell that have centers devoted to entrepreneurship. Harvard opened its innovation lab last winter, while MIT’s StartLabs was inaugurated two years ago, and Duke’s entrepreneurship club has a house, Song said. 


Stepping out of the silos

Weber said the leaders of the three major hubs of entrepreneurship on campus are united to take advantage of the momentum and energy of a new president. She said entrepreneurship has been happening in several different ways, but everyone is “doing it in silos.” 

The mission would be to integrate entrepreneurship in the Brown curriculum and to help projects developed in the classroom become realities, she said. Weber said she envisions a collaboration that would allow all groups to “keep our distinct identities but to find the synergies” to make entrepreneurship blossom campus-wide.

Tran said she sees entrepreneurship and education as complementary in that students can “anchor their theoretical frameworks and what they learn in classrooms in a very concrete project.” She said Brown Venture Labs hopes to help students channel what they learn in the classroom into something real to “help students engage in their classwork.”

The beginnings of such a collaboration are already visible. The Swearer Center has already partnered with faculty to create four new courses geared toward social entrepreneurship — two in sociology and two in public policy, Harlam said.