Why Entrepreneurship Flourishes in College Towns
Academic resources, community, quality of life nurture young businesses.
When Julia Haried signed up for a college class in Social Entrepreneurship in her junior year, it seemed like a fun course that would lighten up a tough 18-hour semester load. It never occurred to her that the fun would become life-changing.
Today, she is the executive director of MakerGirl, an innovative and highly successful venture that seeks to educate young girls about the world of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and share the empowerment that comes from bringing their designs to life through 3-D printing. What began in class and was nurtured through University of Illinois professors, several different academic departments, an innovative Business School laboratory and the Champaign-Urbana community has already begun to go national, and soon may very well go global.
As more and more young entrepreneurs are discovering, university and college communities are fertile soil in which to plant a new enterprise and launch new business endeavors.
“We have a 40,000-student campus, so anything we need we can find there, which is really useful in creating something that has never been done before,â€ said Haried, who, in the midst of co-founding the company with fellow student Elizabeth Engele, completed her accounting degree. She is now working for Deloitte Touche in Chicago, where she and Engele will continue to expand MakerGirl while a new student team operates in Champaign.
“UIUC has an engineering school, it has great artists, a social work school, a business school. Research Park is really interesting, too, in terms of startups and commercialization. We have great scientists and companies like Yahoo right there, actively looking for students to work with them. That ecosystem, all of that exciting cutting edge support, is right there.”
“Because there’s something for everyone, it draws a wide range of students with different interests and abilities. You can probably find people who share your interests and have the abilities to do what you want to do.”
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Business Loves Academia
Not surprisingly, Inc. reports that 32 percent of all the business incubators in North America have ties to a university. The obvious benefits entrepreneurs find in university communities include access to expert brain power, sophisticated technology, a well-educated workforce and a well-educated customer base that appreciates innovative ideas.
Gainesville, Florida, is one of those communities, and in fact works hard to make the city attractive to entrepreneurs in conjunction with the University of Florida, which has the fourth-largest commercialization record in the country – a legacy that dates back to the invention of Gatorade there, 50 years ago.
Innovation Square is just one example, a developing 40-acre campus that connects the university with downtown Gainesville and will include 5 million square feet of office, research and tech space, as well as residential, retail and open space, designed to nurture collaboration and creativity.
“Our 2,000-acre campus offers all disciplines — medical, legal, everything — and provides a different milieu for entrepreneurs,â€ said Susan Davenport, president and CEO of the Gainesville chamber of commerce. “It’s a place where agricultural technology crosses over with software development and biomedical engineering crosses with everything, and then the business school sits in the middle of all that. Gainesville is on an incredible trajectory for entrepreneurs.”
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As much as its academic richness and commercialization prospects appeal to entrepreneurs, Davenport said, so does Gainesville’s lifestyle and culture.
“Entrepreneurs are looking for a culture that embraces an open community, that’s collaborative, a size that fosters that, from meeting spaces to a great group of open-minded mentors, people who have ideas. The millennials and entrepreneurs can see themselves here and see a lot of other people who are like-minded and embrace things out of the box, who love to create.”
Great restaurants, available housing, lots of entertainment options, outdoor recreational opportunities and music are part of the scene in Austin, Texas, home to the University of Texas and a booming hub for entrepreneurs, who are also looking for something more than financial success.
“In Austin being involved in the community is huge for companies, especially in terms of attracting and retaining talent. Employees want to have opportunities to give back to their communities,â€ said Leigh Christie director of the Entrepreneurs Foundation of Central Texas. “Among millennials coming into the workforce it is more expected, rather than a wish. And those companies who do offer opportunities to employees are often more successful.”
“People in Austin really want to live here and be here and have it be a great city, and a big part of that is giving back.”