Changing the Entrepreneurial Culture at UGA

This is a guest post by Dev Iyer about changing the culture of startups in Athens.

I lived in Silicon Valley from May to December 2013 working in venture capital with startups. I was exposed to the inner workings of the community and the people there. Through the many experiences I’ve had in the past six months and my interest in promoting entrepreneurship at UGA, the following short essay outlines my thoughts on creating a culture of entrepreneurship at the University of Georgia:

First, I think it’s important to recognize the fundamental truth – it’s impossible to replicate Silicon Valley at the University of Georgia. The ecosystem of the valley has taken decades to formulate and was propagated by the rise of key companies (Sun Microsystems, HP, Apple, etc.) It would be naïve to assume that Athens (or other small towns for that matter) can replicate this ecosystem in a short timeframe. However, our town has massive, untapped potential that must be utilized strategically in order to ensure our residents are creating high-quality companies among like-minded peers:

1. It comes down to the people. People define communities. Intelligent, decisive people will raise the future potential of our community. People such as Jim Flannery, who recognize that sourcing technical talent and providing an environment for developers to feel comfortable in, are the key drivers of this movement. Palantir, one of the most successful tech companies in the Valley, says this about their hiring philosophy:  the key in hiring is to value potential skill rather than currently existing skill – and potential skill is based on intelligence rather than training. Athens has plenty of intelligent students and adults that should be specifically sourced to lead the entrepreneurial initiative. The key is picking the right people to get involved.

2.  Action, not events. Hackathons, code camps, incubators, and accelerators will encourage entrepreneurship in a much more efficient way rather than hosting networking/panel events to showcase entrepreneurs. The rational? When people work together to achieve a common goal, an inherent culture of trust and action is created between them.

Case in point – the rising popularity of hackathons on college campuses is due to the fact that students are forced to ship product under enormous pressure – a staggering display of teamwork, trust, and commitment. College campuses that host big hackathons such as the University of Michigan (Mhacks) or University of Pennsylvania (Pennhacks) have experience a drastic rise in interest among students pertaining to creating new ventures. These events have also attracted startups, investors, and incubators around the nation to come setup a booth and source/help students at the event.

3. Capital.  One reason why many startups make the move out to Silicon Valley is due to the abundant capital that resides there. Your valuation levels are generally higher in San Francisco than in Atlanta (and hey, why wouldn’t you want your startup to be valued really high?) due to the higher concentration of venture capital firms and angel investors. In Athens, we should find ways to make capital accessible not just from any investor, but from a variety of investors. In raising capital, it’s not just about finding money, rather it’s about finding the right strategic partner. The wider the selection, the better chances you have of finding an investor that can be of strategic use to your company. This would require partnerships between multiple Southeastern tech hubs with connections to contacts in New York and Silicon Valley.

4. Change the culture of UGA. The University of Georgia is an extremely pro-corporate institution. Students are not exposed to entrepreneurship and innovation early on in their college careers. The Computer Science Department and Terry College should be financially and institutionally bridged together. Students should be subsidized if they decide to create their own company while taking classes. More cross disciplinary classes should be offered that combine the intersection of different subject areas. More startups and small businesses should attend career fair events. More innovative research opportunities should be offered to undergraduate students.

5. A Homerun. It takes a homerun to create a following. All we need is one company from Athens to become extremely successful in order to generate our goals. Companies that are creating products an order of magnitude better than what is currently in the market. We are already evidencing this with startups like Evoshield, who are creating innovative products that are known nationally. We should be doing whatever we can to help these companies succeed.

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