- By Jane O’Brien
- BBC News, Washington
It’s been a little over a decade since Mark Zuckerberg left Harvard at the age of 19 to start Facebook.
The social network made him the fourth richest man in America and a hero to any aspiring college entrepreneur.
Of course, Zuckerberg was already a prodigy when he launched his global empire. But for those of more modest ability, there are now thousands of schools across the country offering entrepreneurship courses.
The days seem to be over when students looked for skills that would guarantee them a job for life working for someone else.
“There’s been a massive shift,” says Derrick Maggard, director of the Apex Systems Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Virginia Tech.
“Most of these students grew up during the Great Recession and saw their parents, maybe their grandparents or an uncle or aunt struggle and get laid off by big companies.
“They’re almost afraid to go into the corporate world,” Maggard said. “They say: I don’t want this to happen to me, I want to do what I want and control my destiny.”
According to him, the most important characteristics of a successful entrepreneur are the ability to deal with ambiguity and the skills needed to bring an idea to fruition.
“Ideas multiply and there’s nothing in the world that someone hasn’t already thought of. It really comes down to the ability to execute an idea and it’s a very difficult process,” he says.
Mark Zuckerberg is now worth more than $52 billion (£39 billion), adding $18 billion to his fortune in the last year alone, according to Forbes.
And while it represents a tiny percentage of entrepreneurs, many other successful businesses have been started in a college dorm.
Dyn was co-founded in 2001 by Jeremy Hitchcock, a student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Massachusetts.
He developed a way to optimize the flow of data between online businesses and their users to improve Internet performance. Dyn, based in Manchester, New Hampshire, now employs 400 people and has clients including Twitter and Etsy.
“I would give the same advice to any college student,” Hitchcock says.
“Start a business or be a part of something that you create or build, because you’re at a point in life where you have this freedom to explore. And do something crazy, non-traditional.”
According to Maggard, there’s no better place to experiment than a college campus where students can also develop professional networks.
“If you are a student entrepreneur and you have an idea that has a limited time to market, I encourage you to take some time off and give it a shot. But this is rare,” he says.
“Work on it while you’re in school. Develop the idea and continue to do customer research. Then, when the time is right and you’re ready to move forward, go for it.”
Mehr Pastakia, 29, already had a degree in horticulture, but started her rooftop garden business while studying at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School in Baltimore.
“I just wanted to learn what everyone else seemed to know about business,” she says. “I had some really great classes and some really great classmates that made it really worth it for me.”
One of the most important lessons was how to manage conflict and develop self-awareness as a leader, she says. She was also able to meet a potential investor who focuses on supporting women-owned businesses.
“Women entrepreneurs are on the rise,” says Maggard. “But one of the challenges they face is equal access to capital. Venture capitalists are known to invest less in start-ups led by women.”
“Research shows that women are more risk averse than men, which can be presented as unfavorable,” says Kathy Korman Frey, entrepreneur in residence at George Washington University and founder of Hot Moms Projectthe world’s largest online library of case studies of women entrepreneurs.
But, she says, attitudes toward women entrepreneurs are changing.
“If I know my investment is safer with someone who will consider all options and then act, that’s a (good) investment strategy.”
She says millennials – especially women – also have a different definition of success and are better at identifying work-life balance.
“They are much more sophisticated when they look beyond their current state and say: This is how I would like my life and my work to be. They don’t want to be part of the 50 percent who find themselves in divorce court like their parents,” she said.
Maggard agrees that the new generation of academic entrepreneurs has ambitions that go beyond making lots of money.
“A lot of our students come to do research to solve really big problems,” Maggard says.
“They think about things in a way that will allow them to make a difference in the world. We have this culture of social entrepreneurship and social impact and that’s very cool.
“We just have to surround them with the right mentors, the right tools and the right resources so they can be successful.”