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The University Campus as an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

Entrepreneurs are change-makers in capitalist economies; their innovations and their inherent need to bring to life unique economic assets is what leads to improved standards of living in their economies, which are becoming far more complex today, with regular white-collar jobs having reduced demand and an urgent need for entrepreneurs and innovators to solve pressing social/environmental issues. This means more college students are graduating without jobs and must rely on themselves to be job creators as opposed to being job seekers. Even graduates that choose to be job seekers need to be intrapreneurial to succeed in the future of work.

College campuses are the ideal place to cultivate an entrepreneurial ecosystem and mindset since students can be given the resources and freedom to create ventures and fail at a low cost. Modern college campuses today are asset-rich environments for budding entrepreneurs: entrepreneurship courses, strong support systems for startups, advanced technologies, deep research, talented human resources (professors, alumni, etc.), and extensive co-curricular opportunities. Colleges that aim to have a truly vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem on campus must strive to encompass the following attributes:

  1. Embed Entrepreneurship Courses within the curriculum: Entrepreneurship involves essential skills such as curiosity, teamwork, creativity, resilience, strategic thinking, financial prudence, communication and time management which are best learned through experience. One way to create entrepreneurial ecosystems on campus is to make entrepreneurship an essential part of college education for all students. Offering entrepreneurship classes that teach students about how to ideate, start their ventures, build a business model, how to get funding, etc. can encourage hesitant students to start the journey. Making the courses as experiential and real as possible helps to get students excited and stay engaged.
  2. On-campus incubator and accelerator programs are a great extension of entrepreneurship Courses to create a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem on campus:
    Various college campuses have announced programs over the past few years that aim to handhold potential entrepreneurs in creating innovative startups. These programs include turning thesis papers submitted by PhD scholars into full-fledged startups along with seed capital, mentoring, accommodation, a monthly compensation to kickstart their startups for three years and access to Incubators/Startup Labs. Institutions are introducing deferral programs which allow final year students that want to pursue entrepreneurship to skip the placement process and re-enrol in subsequent years if required.
    In India, IIT graduates have traditionally been the frontrunners of India’s Startup Ecosystem, with well-established campus incubators that provide students with technology support and monetary resources, including connecting them with venture funds. However, there are several other forward-looking campuses outside of the IITs that are leading the charge in developing entrepreneurial ecosystems in their campuses.
  3. Innovation Challenges & Competitions:
    Another effective way of ensuring a healthy entrepreneurial ecosystem on college campuses is by spurring college-wide innovation challenges, hackathons and competitions. This would be a safe space for college students to solve issues where they are motivated by a certain incentive provided by the university. The competition can involve technical assistance, mentorships and other services to help ensure student success. Several universities already have such competitions, one being the Conquest program at BITS, which encourages students to engage in the startup culture, develop new ideas and innovations, and start a business venture while working towards a degree.
    Several college campuses also develop a strong and sustainable relationship with industry and announce joint Innovation Challenges which continue on campus all year long, wherein students come up with innovative solutions to problems faced by various industries. Various departmental fests and events carried out by companies provide a huge exposure to the students, while their brains are buzzing to solve various industry-specific problems and challenges. These events are often supplemented by master-classes, workshops, investor summits and exhibitions.

Low Barriers To Entry
It is important to help students help themselves. Several universities have created programs that help connect students across different disciplines on campus who are working on both projects and real companies. Word of mouth within the student body is far more powerful than simply teacher-to-student communication.
Inclusivity is another essential component of building a healthy ecosystem. It is often believed by students that if they are not in a STEM major, it is unlikely that they will be accepted into the university’s accelerator program even if they have innovative ideas. UC Berkeley created the Berkeley StEP program to tackle this issue. They worked with student organizers to create and deliver a 10-week pre-accelerator curriculum connecting UC Berkeley STEM, design, law, and I-School students for a real founder experience. The only barrier to entry was the willingness to work hard. Inclusivity also includes diversity. Campuses with cultural diversity are likely to see an increase in innovation and entrepreneurship and new firm formation.

Creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem is a carefully crafted process, which requires that all staff and faculty are working toward the same goal. Colleges need to ensure that students are consistently provided with stimulating opportunities, mentoring support and other tangible resources as they begin their entrepreneurial journey.

Monica Mehta, Executive Vice President, National Entrepreneurship Network (NEN), Wadhwani Foundation

HT_Monica
Hindustan Times

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