Entrepreneurial Connectivity and UGA

In growing the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Athens, we are lucky to have a powerful resource in the University of Georgia in town. In the terminology of Brad Feld’s Startup Communities, to make a successful ecosystem, a town needs leaders and feeders. Leaders are entrepreneurs that drive the community forward. Feeders are everyone else; supportive entities and individuals that provide assistance to the leaders. Both are necessary and crucial for a strong ecosystem.

As a feeder, UGA can make two important contributions to the entrepreneurial community: people and programs. The first, people, is significantly more important, as it is people that build companies, which are the backbone of the ecosystem. Without startups, we don’t have a startup community. And without new companies launching (and more importantly, growing) we don’t have a vibrant town. Below, I’ll briefly outline the power of each group, what I currently see occurring and then some potential pathways toward growth and further connectivity.

Every year UGA brings thousands of new, potential entrepreneurs to Athens. For the startup community, this is amazing customer acquisition that would cost millions in other towns and probably not be cost effective – for every successful entrepreneur that is brought into the community, there are dozens of others who realize this is not the path for them. Therefore, UGA is a great resource for the community. However, universities also suffer from institutional inertia – building a community takes decades and there is little immediate incentive (financial or otherwise) for any one department to spend the time or take risks in assisting a fledgling idea. Universities that have successfully helped build entrepreneurial communities, like University of Colorado, Boulder or Stanford, have been successful by taking a long term view and overcoming this inertia.

As a startup community, we need to identify ways to accelerate the growth of potential entrepreneurs – open them to the possibility that starting their own company, or joining a growing company in town is a viable career path. We need to provide them mentorship and guidance as they progress through their educational journey. UGA can assist in this process by highlighting clear paths on how to get involved in the startup community. As a feeder, UGA’s most critical role is supporting the community and letting entrepreneurs guide the path forward. Some of this is already happening – every semester, Four Athens partners with departments (like Computer Science) on campus to hold Talk Tech which connects students to local tech startups. In this collaborative effort, startups have identified a problem (lack of awareness of job opportunities) and teamed with the University to leverage their power (students) to attempt to solve the problem. At Four Athens, we’d like to see more of these collaborative efforts appear (and will discuss some opportunities below) that are hyper focused on growing companies, not simply events that celebrate what is currently happening.

UGA also has existing programs that are focused on growing the entrepreneurial community prior to students leaving their field of study. These programs can (and should) be focused solely on growth of companies. Personally, I believe you can’t teach entrepreneurship. But, you can facilitate student/faculty entrepreneurs (and accelerate) through their journey with the explicit end goal being that they leave the University equipped with the tools necessary (money, mentors & talent) to build massive companies. In turn, UGA benefits when these successful entrepreneurs continue to re-engage future generations of students through mentorship, jobs and money. At the outset, however, this can’t be a goal. Building the entrepreneurial community is about giving without expectation.

How does the startup community advance connectivity to the assets of UGA that benefit everyone? From a people perspective, robust intern programs might be a start within each department. Startups are small. With only 1-2 people on your team, attempting to interact with the University is a daunting, time-consuming and overwhelming task. And frankly, it is usually not worth it. You spend hours trying to figure out who you need to talk to about potential interns only to have nothing fruitful come out of it. Recruiting interns for a startup is completely different than recruiting interns for a big company like Microsoft. What a Microsoft can do to attract interns isn’t comparable to what a startup can muster. The University needs people that clearly understand the difference and are willing to work with startups at identifying and sourcing quality interns. Re-imaging the path to internships for startup companies would benefit both sides – startups get new potential hires and a fresh look at their companies. Interns get real-world experience that is vastly more beneficial than many traditional internships that revolve around getting coffee and making spreadsheets. Over time, these startups become the Microsofts of the world right in the Universities backyard.

The idea of a robust internship program ties neatly into what UGA can do from a programatic perspective. As previously mentioned, dealing with the University is frustrating due to its massive size and silo-ed nature. Startups simply don’t have the time to email or call 5 different department heads to figure out how they get interns; nor should those department heads really be spending time talking to a 2 person company. Dawglink doesn’t work for startups competing against well-known companies. Yet the value they may provide for a potential intern is better than working at massive company Y. There is an entrepreneurship program at UGA. It currently resides in Terry College of Business. But, most entrepreneurs don’t come from a business background. They are innovators, creators and tinkerers that go to school for Computer Science, Journalism, Art or any of the other varied fields of study that are their primary focus. The entrepreneurship program needs to be re-imagined to focus on these people. If it can break down barriers within the University system, it can be the focal point of an internship program that provides tangible benefits to startups and gets these companies the diverse talent pool it needs to grow a big company. The entrepreneurship program can accomplish this task by being more accessible to the entire University system and not staying silo-ed in the Business School (which can be overwhelming and daunting to non-business types).

These are just two easy (and easily implementable) steps that I believe can be taken to grow the entrepreneurial community with the help of UGA. UGA is a phenomenal asset in Athens. Leveraged properly, it will be a crucial asset in the ecosystem for decades to come. We’d love to hear other ideas on how to leverage the University community in growing the entrepreneurial ecosystem.

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