Schools support entrepreneurship in a number of ways.
They connect students to the local startup community, teach classes to guide students, engage in hackathons, and more. Another option is to take students on a trip and visit a thriving startup ecosystem like Silicon Valley to get a full perspective of entrepreneurship. Supporting students interested in this area can be scary, but ultimately helps universities and communities significantly. Most schools also have student clubs focused in this area to push the needle forward as well.
That’s where I come in.
I lead the Society of Entrepreneurs at UGA. This is UGA’s premier Entrepreneurship club that encompasses all students regardless of age or concentration who either have a business idea, or an interest in startups and venture capital. While it isn’t a new club per say, we are relaunching and have grown significantly in just a few months. We need members with diverse backgrounds in every subject. It is that diversity that makes us so valuable to the ideation and innovation space.
One of my main goals for this school year was to take students on a Silicon Valley Trek. The Athens startup scene is growing very quickly, but exploring the Valley could help motivate us and show us where Athens could be in the future. The idea behind the Trek was to showcase what the strongest startup ecosystem in the US looks like. I wanted to expose students to small early stage startups, those who received some funding, and then established newer companies.
This also included learning about venture capital, accelerators, and incubators along the way. I had no idea how difficult it would actually be to make the trek actually happen.
How do you determine the right people to go on a trip like this? How many people can you bring? What will it cost? What types of backgrounds are the best fit? How will you get CEOs to agree to meet with you? These were a few of the many questions I asked myself. The amount of faculty at UGA who truly support Entrepreneurship is actually quite small. (And every day, I work to add more advocates!)
Dr. David Sutherland was one of the most helpful faculty members. He guided me throughout the process and I can’t thank him enough for that support. He helped us network into a few companies, locate additional funding, and ultimately became our faculty resource (babysitter as he put it) on the trip! I determined that at most we could have 8 people join us. Why? Startups don’t have a lot of space. You shouldn’t overwhelm them with a huge group of people. I convinced two MBA students to join me because it would be a great experiential learning opportunity.
Cost was a concern, but I was determined to solve that. I spoke to Entrepreneurship classes, marketed the idea for the trek online, attended meetups, and spoke with faculty across the university. Even after this, it was difficult to get people to commit. The students had more questions than I could imagine. Asking students to commit to a trip during their spring break with only a month or two notice is difficult. Not only that, students want to know exactly what they will be doing on a trip, how much it will cost, and each has specifics they want out of a trip like this.
It was chaotic to say the least. I knew I would need to become more organized than I typically would, and try to think of every little thing a student could want. It wasn’t until two weeks before our trip that I finally solidified who was going on the trip. My stress level was insane.
This almost killed me. I lost many nights of sleep thinking about how I could connect with as many businesses as possible. How many could we meet with? How many days was an appropriate trip length? How would we get to and from each of the businesses. Where would we sleep?
The only thing that helped was that I developed an outline of the types of companies I wanted us to meet with. I leveraged my network that included UGA faculty, local athenians, and many others to ultimately get in contact with companies. I also randomly e-mailed and called companies that I thought could be great places to visit. We visited 15 companies during our trip. A great mix of startups, incubators, accelerators, & VCs. While I’m proud of it, the reality is I had far more failures than successes.
I contacted over 40 companies in two months. I was rejected countless times. It was tough for me when I didn’t receive responses, but it was more painful when the companies told me they were not interested in supporting our initiative because it “didn’t fit” with what their company was doing.
My biggest fear was I wouldn’t be able to find enough companies to host us and allow a visit. I didn’t want to fail the group of students that were trusting me to put this trip together. While it came together without many issues, the timeline changed at least 25 times just in the week leading up to the trip. Companies rescheduled, changed locations on us, cancelled, and more. The truth was, I had to make changes while we were ALREADY IN SAN FRANCISCO!
Again, stress levels were high.
San Francisco is one of the most expensive cities in the US. Flights are expensive, but nothing compared to hotel rates in good areas of San Francisco. Most of the people attending the trip said cost was the main concern that held them back from committing. I spent weeks working with UGA faculty to try to get funding to support our students. I hit many roadblocks, but feel so lucky to have the support of Dr. Sutherland, Dr. Chatterjee of the MBA Program, and Dr. Lee of The Office of the Vice President of Research.
Funding was finalized just a couple of weeks prior to the trip. Beyond that, hotels and transportation were tough. We got lucky that the itinerary I built the first few days was all walking distance downtown in San Francisco.
As for the Palo Alto area, that was going to be quite expensive if it weren’t for Marshall Mosher. Marshall is the CEO of Vestigo, and former UGA student. He helped us negotiate our way into NASA. Yep, we actually stayed at NASA. It made it affordable, and a pretty cool attraction for all of our students.
As I write this (it’s much longer than I expected), I find myself wanting to talk about the amazing students that joined me on the trip more than the trip itself. We took students of different backgrounds, different schools, different areas of interest, and took them on somewhat of an unknown journey with little notice. Casey Stewart, Brian Ransom, Aalok Patel, Chelsea Williams, Payton Bray, Tyler Puszewski – These are the students that joined me on the trip. We quickly became friends, talked about the future, and were exposed to everything the Valley has to offer.
I am so proud to have led them on the trip, and I know each of them has an amazing future ahead of them regardless of whether they pursue their own business or not. It’s pretty cool that there are this many people who have an interest in entrepreneurship just in our little Athens community. Beyond that, we saw how supportive everyone was of the startup culture within SF. Everyone believes in big ideas, and supporting the unknown. It’s pretty cool that most of the people don’t think about innovating, they just do it.
We can absolutely create that same culture at UGA, Athens, and Atlanta. SF is a special place, but ultimately the special sauce is great people who are open and supportive to new ideas. It is people like this that helped make this trip happen in the first place when there were so many roadblocks.