Searching for entrepreneurship at the University
Over the summer, my startup, Hublished, was featured twice in TechCrunch, once in VentureBeat and about a half-dozen other times in tech and startup publications. While media coverage should never be used as any indication of the health of a startup, the exposure nevertheless gave our community and us cause to celebrate.
A group of Rutgers and New York University students founded Hublished. But the media only refers to us as an “NYU startup.” A simple reason explains this: We have been featured in multiple New York University competitions and entrepreneurship events.
We also received an investment from Lawrence Lenihan, an adjunct professor at NYU who awards his teaching salary to the most promising startup that comes out of his “Ready, FIRE!, Aim” business competition class. Lenihan was one of the first, and leading, investors in Pinterest, a website that allows users to organize things they like.
NYU entrepreneurship departments and organizations are quick to embrace student entrepreneurship. Whenever an industry leader or publication mentions Hublished, NYU’s organizations disseminate the startup via Twitter and email.
NYU has multiple in-house business accelerators, facilitates access to dozens of mentors and annually invests more than $250,000 in community startups through different competitions and events, according to an NYU website. Startups such as Pinterest and CourseHorse were founded at NYU and were included in the NYU Innovation Fund challenge.
Rutgers has not given a single peep about our startup since its founding — not even a retweet, even though we have reached out to the administration and relevant departments.
I don’t want Rutgers to promote us or any other student startup just for exposure. My company offers enterprise technology and targets Fortune 2000 companies. If every student at Rutgers knew about Hublished, it probably would not help my company anyway. So why do I care?
The “Rutgers Tech Meetup” is the largest student-run tech event at Rutgers aside from “HackRU.” It features more than 200 students, 25 demonstrations and several keynote speakers.
Two dynamic alumni came back during this fall’s event to speak to the student tech community. The first speaker, 2012 alumnus Mike Swift, is regarded as one of the premier developer evangelists in the country. Swift speaks regularly at events nationwide and helps to organize some of the largest hackathons, or coding competitions, in the world.
The other, 2007 alumnus Peter Sullivan, has raised more than $900,000 for his previous startup, Tripl, and his current startup, Jackpocket.
Swift and Sullivan share much in common. Both have said they do not attribute their successes to Rutgers, and neither is officially associated with the University today. And that’s a really big problem.
Swift and Sullivan have made critical connections for my company, but neither of them met me through Rutgers. I met Swift because he still mentors many current students, and Sullivan coincidentally works in the same New York office building as us.
In the entrepreneurial world, networking is everything. If student or alumni entrepreneurs from Rutgers are not connected, we may lose a critical prerequisite for entrepreneurship. How many other pioneering students and alumni will remain unknown?
Rutgers should not emulate NYU merely to popularize startups at the University. It should build a relationship with and among entrepreneurs so that a value-adding community develops.
We do have a busy tech scene, but we need to distinguish between that and a thriving culture of entrepreneurship. Although often related, they are not always one and the same, and we should not be content with believing one implies the other. The University’s enormous tech community has not produced an entrepreneurial counterpart.
I spent this past week asking tech leaders a fundamental question: Why don’t we have an entrepreneurship scene at Rutgers?
Framing the Problem
I first met Adam Rubinstein at a tech conference in the spring. Rubenstein, now a first-year student, was excited to study at Rutgers in the fall and told me of his plans to double major in business and computer science.
He said since both departments are ranked highly, he would be able to get involved in an emerging student entrepreneurship scene. I told him that I personally had a difficult experience connecting with entrepreneurs on campus, but that he should explore the environment for himself.
I finally got a chance to catch up with Rubinstein last week to discuss his findings. Unsurprisingly, he is disappointed.
“I was expecting a more coherent community — a foundation I could help build on,” Rubinstein said. “But when I got here, I found out that the entrepreneurship scene is very fragmented.”
Rubinstein gets animated when he talks about the University’s unrealized potential.
“We have a large tech community and are right near Silicon Alley,” Rubinstein said, referring to the recent explosion of startups in Manhattan and Brooklyn. “I feel like we’re missing out on what we could be doing here.”
Rubinstein is only one of many students searching for a community of like-minded students, said Zion Kim, a School of Arts and Sciences senior.
“Just try signing up for courses in entrepreneurship,” Kim said. “The classes fill up immediately, so you know the passion for this type of stuff is there.”
In addition to founding the popular website RU Screw’d and the greek apparel outfitter E-Z Greek, Kim co-founded JuiceTank, an open business lab that occupies 22,000 square feet of space in Somerset, N.J. He is currently a partner at Atlas, a technology consulting firm in New Brunswick.
Kim said fellow students frequently ask him how to best get involved in entrepreneurship on campus.
“The problem is that students are looking for resources within the University,” Kim said. “But I honestly don’t attribute any of my success — or failures, for that matter — to the school.”
Entrepreneurship requires building a network, which in turn requires seeking mentorship and speaking with real industry professionals, he said. With the limited resources, even entrepreneurship classes cannot help students acquire the necessary information.
Kim is discouraged by student initiatives such as the Rutgers Entrepreneurial Society.
“I think the society was started with good intentions,” Kim said, showing me a Forbes article featuring a startup from one founder. “But that hasn’t really continued. The group isn’t very active. … And the leadership simply isn’t there so it’s difficult to get involved.”
Kim places some blame on entrepreneurial students for not fully participating, but recognizes we are operating with our hands tied behind our backs.
When he looks at successful university entrepreneurship programs, he finds most initiatives come from the top down, driven by administration.
Entrepreneurship is simply not a major piece of the Rutgers agenda right now, Kim said.
“The money speaks for itself — you know where the money is being invested,” Kim said. “We focus on athletics and when you look at the return on investment, I don’t think it’s very impressive.”
He believes the University is moving in the right direction, but very slowly.
“Beefing up the entrepreneurship department is a good start,” Kim said. “But until you see some continuity, like having startup and growth companies at the career fair … I have to believe that the program is nothing more than a tangential response to student demand for entrepreneurship education. It’s entrepreneurship in name only.”
Facilitating a student startup culture is simply a conversation the administration has not really begun yet, Kim said.
At first, I was not entirely convinced of the necessity of a top-down approach to stimulating entrepreneurship on campus.
Rutgers has one of the largest and most dominant tech scenes on the East Coast, and I would argue the overwhelming majority of student-run startups in the country are focused on Internet technology. So I decided to try to shift the onus of developing a startup culture to the technology community.
Eighteen months ago, I began to help manage the Rutgers Mobile App Development club, a bustling new group on campus at the time. While the organization had an active base of more than 200 students meeting weekly to learn mobile app development, I was the only business school student involved. Almost everyone else was studying computer science or engineering.
I soon found that this demographic breakdown was not unique to RuMAD.
The other major tech organization on campus, the Undergraduate Alliance for Computer Scientists, neglects to include a diverse set of students. They gather in at the Hill Center on Busch campus, in a room better known as “the Cave.”
“The Cave” is one of the school’s most active hangouts for computer scientists and is uninviting to newcomers. I took more than six months to feel remotely comfortable in the Rutgers tech scene.
As more and more online educational resources about mobile app development became available, I realized it was time for RuMAD to evolve from being a one-trick pony. I expanded the scope of the weekly meetings from solely learning coding to exploring the domains of user experience, marketing, fundraising and generating revenue.
In the past year, our club has doubled in size and now has members from at least 10 disciplines. Employers at the “Reverse Career Fair” recently named us the school’s “No. 1 Club on Campus.”
Most importantly, members of the organization are paid to develop apps for local businesses and organizations.
In the last six months alone, I have helped to negotiate more than $20,000 in app development, and that amount is poised to triple next semester. Students are working on projects with utility — The Daily Targum’s app, for example, has been downloaded nearly 1,500 times since the start of the semester.
I have vocalized my criticism to key members of the Undergraduate Student Alliance Computer Scientists for not sharing the same focus. Aside from the unwelcoming atmosphere in “the Cave,” the emphasis on competing at hackathons instead of entrepreneurship is overwhelming.
I am an advocate of hackathons because they critically expose ambitious student developers to diverse technology and mentors. But I also fear that terrible business habits are being learned, such as spending one to two days working on a project nonstop, then never touching it to improve it afterward.
Yoni Cohen, the first venture capitalist I ever met, gave me valuable advice.
“Ideas are worth a dime a dozen,” he said. “We invest in execution.”
Catering to a Larger Audience
For entrepreneurship to take hold on campus, all the necessary players, including students, will have to make a commitment. It is certainly possible, because we are already seeing a demonstrable difference with RuMAD. But we are only one piece of the puzzle.
I sat down with Russ Frank, an application developer at Rutgers Central Systems and Services.
Frank, a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in computer science, is one of the organizers of “HackRU,” the premier student-run hackathon at Rutgers. This fall’s event attracted more than 350 students who dedicated a weekend to coding.
HackRU is run by USACS and thus shares many of the club’s objectives. Frank admits the environment is not welcoming, as the very name of the organization implies exclusivity to computer scientists.
“We know that’s been a topic of contention for awhile,” Frank said. “But now we’re actually doing something about it.”
Frank said USACS’s executive board has begun to consider changing the organization’s name to make it more inclusive, like NYU’s parallel organization, Tech@NYU.
“We want more engagement from business and design students,” he said. “So we’re considering rebranding to signify that our doors are open.”
Yet Frank said he is cautious for two reasons.
“First, we’re bursting at the seams,” he said. “Demand to attend ‘HackRU’ … was so great that we had to turn down sponsors that were going to bus students from other universities to the event. Second, I don’t know who to talk to at the business school — where do I even begin?”
Closing the Loop
Rubinstein later pleaded with me to meet with Assistant Director of Entrepreneurship Programs Alfred Blake.
“[Blake is a] beacon of entrepreneurship [on campus],” Rubinstein said.
Blake is responsible for helping students matriculate through the entrepreneurship minor and guiding students seeking resources related to entrepreneurship.
Rubinstein made an email introduction, but I already had my own plans to crash a meeting I knew was happening at Starbucks later that week between Blake and Kim.
At the start of the meeting, Blake explained he has only been with the University for eight weeks, so I filled him in on the lackluster entrepreneurial landscape.
“OK … I’ve spoken to enough students and I see the consensus,” Blake said after listening intently.
He showed us some of the initiatives he was driving, like a multimedia program to highlight student entrepreneurship on the Rutgers Business School website.
Blake talked about his extensive yet, often fruitless efforts to connect with student entrepreneurs and tech communities on campus. He said he is not immune to students’ inability to find one another and bridge gaps.
“I want to highlight startups at Rutgers because when you’re spotlighted, it inspires other entrepreneurs to come out of the woodwork,” Blake said. “Right now, the administration has been open to my ideas. We’re ready to join the conversation.”
If you build it, they will come
As I made the introductions to start connecting this puzzle, I remembered why I am so passionate about this topic.
One of the questions I am most commonly asked is why I stay in college. My answer and thoughts on the matter have evolved, changing more times than I can count. I tell people college is the best place to start a tech company, and I honestly believe it. Students typically have relatively few expenses and fewer responsibilities, and should be able to tap into a willing network.
But it remains that starting a company in college is incredibly difficult. And knowing how easy it could be to start a company at Rutgers with the right resources only highlights the difficulty.
I am now more convinced than ever the Rutgers’ tech community is ripe for entrepreneurship and innovation. They have started the conversation, and the administration claims they are ready to answer the call.
Yet I cannot help but to remain skeptical. In my time at this school, I have not seen a real shift in priorities. Events like “Entrepreneurship Day” are great, but few and far between, and we need to rebrand ourselves as the school that funds technological entrepreneurship.
We are still known as the “Slutgers” that paid Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi $32,000 to speak to students on campus. And we continue to build residence halls and academic facilities while “the Cave” reaches capacity at 25 students.
If a culture of entrepreneurship at Rutgers is going to be anything but a pipe dream, here is what needs to happen:
Space: Though TopManagementDegrees.com recently ranked the Rutgers Business School the 19th most beautiful business school in the world, RBS is tied for last place in space available for students to actually conduct business.
If the school is serious about shifting its cookie-cutter “everyone should strive for an entry-level job at a consulting firm” approach, it needs to provide facilities for entrepreneurs to call home. Student entrepreneurs need space where they can meet, book conference rooms, host networking events and generally avoid distractions.
And parking within a half-mile would be appreciated as well.
Investment: When Frank said he was approaching business and design schools, I warned him to be aware that the worst thing for entrepreneurship is “wantrepreneurship” — students who think they want to start companies, but end up caring more about maintaining their GPAs and waste everyone’s time. Supporters then regret getting involved in the first place.
In the development community, hackathons effectively separate students who are serious about coding from those who pretend. Our business school does not have such a filter, so I look to NYU for insight.
I repeatedly meet the same students at all their entrepreneurship events and festivities. NYU’s Innovation Venture Fund invests $200,000 annually via a formal competition that highlights many budding entrepreneurs in the university and community.
Rutgers needs to embrace the concept of investing in students outside the classroom to stimulate and de-risk entrepreneurship and identify potential ventures. A $32,000 investment every year would symbolically right some wrongs and unleash the entrepreneurial bug.
Attitude: The Rutgers tech community has made great strides to embrace business-minded students and entrepreneurship. I was downright jolly when Frank told me he was up for the idea of a “hack night” in which student developers would work with business students to improve and commercialize projects from a hackathon.
But any student-led initiative is going to be successful only if it has administrative support. The University of Michigan recently allowed its students to use its nearly 110,000-seat football stadium to run the largest student hackathon in the world.
Frank has his eyes on the Rutgers Athletic Center for this spring’s HackRU. It is a lofty ambition, but one that would be beneficial for the University as a whole as it attempts to meaningfully transition into the 21st century.
If not that, a tweet about student entrepreneurship every now and then would be nice.
Nis Frome’s articles have been published in Forbes, Content Marketing Institute and The Social Media Monthly. He is a Rutgers Business School senior and is the co-founder of Hublished. Tyler Gold contributed to this story.