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Some college students choose to spend their time at a university creating something of their own… such as a new business. With scholarships and grants, plenty of work space, and your choice of partners, college can be the perfect time to test out a new idea. As schools caught on, programs were created to help students build their own businesses and attract investors.
One such program is the iVenture Accelerator at the University of Illinois. The iVenture team, lead by program director Manu Edakara, has helped their students raise over 17 million dollars since its start back in 2015. On this episode, Manu and Meg Goodman discuss the importance of programs like his on college campuses, the marketing behind a successful start-up and how situations like the pandemic can affect business. Read on for some of the highlights of their conversation. And of course, make sure to subscribe to J&See: Views on Marketing to hear a compelling interview like this once a month.
Q: How can go going through a program like [iVenture Accelerator] help students to build their brand?
A: So, our program is slightly different than most accelerators. Usually when investors give you money, they own a piece of what you're working on. So, we don't do that. We're equity-free. We essentially give grants to students and through that student development is first. We're always on the side of students rather than their venture.
Regardless of whether or not their startup or nonprofit fails or succeeds, we are still guiding students on individual development. So, what that means is, throughout the full year program — summer, fall, and spring — students are focused on their development first; their career goals and their vision for life after iVenture. ... Whether they do want to run their company full time, whether they do want to go into industry or they want to work on really interesting, meaningful projects — all of that is brand-building in itself.
Q: What are some of the challenges that students face doing a start-up compared to starting a business later in life?
A: There a re two ways to look at it. When you actually look at the median age of startup founders across the world, it's not a college-age student, not an undergrad-age student. It's, I think, towards end of thirties, early forties. So, they've done a lot of industry experience, they have some capital saved up, they're ready to take a risk, they built up connections.
On the flip side, in the media, what we see is there are a ton of young millennials and Gen Zs creating companies [and] taking advantage of opportunities. For a student building a venture in college, I think one of the biggest things is just understanding risk evaluation. So, you really don't have that many responsibilities right now. You have to go to class and take care of your health, absolutely. But most of them do not have a family. They do not have a full-time job. They're not managing employees. Like there's a ton of things in terms of just day to day responsibilities that are offloaded.
In addition to that, college is an amazing ground for students to meet other potential co-founders and teammates. It's one of the best places to meet people that you want to work with in the future. ... Students are used to living lean. But the fact of the matter is: they're used to being innovative, they're used to being nimble, they're used to being lean and all these things contribute to a very favorable environment for creating ventures.
Students — just by definition, by being enrolled in a university — are eligible for a number of scholarships, grants and services that help them build a venture. All those things immediately dissipate after graduating. So, it is a very favorable time to at least pilot or test an idea that you're working on.
Q: How does your program go about teaching your students the value of marketing early on?
A: So, marketing and branding are absolutely critical for early stage ideas and ventures. With student startups, one of the first things we teach them and have them go through is customer discovery.
The whole process of customer discovery allows you to talk to potential users, identify their pain points and see if your solution maps onto those issues. So, with that, there's a tremendous amount of thought that goes into understanding the user, empathizing with the user’s problems and finding solutions for it. That is the basics of marketing because ... if you can understand the user's pain points, talk to them, craft messages that helps support them and speak to them, that is the core aspect of marketing.
Q: How do you convince investors to invest in the young entrepreneurs?
A: As of today, I think the number is over 17 million and we just had two teams close pretty significant rounds. In terms of convincing investors to invest in young entrepreneurs, we actually don't really take active involvement in that. What we do is we put students together with the right people and we try to allow them to lead their own discussions and decide what's best for their future and their venture. We serve there as coaches because we always want to be on the same side of the students. We do not take a cut of this investment so there's really no incentive for us to push investment in our companies. In fact, I would say a lot of our companies are bootstrapped.
I think there's a bubble in venture capital and you'll see consolidation of a lot of those firms, as well as drawing up of capital to models that actually have a proven revenue model. So, we actually don't do tremendous convincing. We're more of matchmakers and we bring together people in a nice, fun, safe environment where they can create those relationships for themselves.
We are supported by our own public private university venture capital firm who helps give us advice. We're also supported by some of the earlier students and entrepreneurs that have secured investment themselves. So, I guess the short answer is we have good friends that help and have done it before.
Q: How have you and the iVenture Accelerator program had to pivot during the COVID-19 pandemic?
A: We had to move online, which actually wasn't that difficult for a program based on young, innovative entrepreneurs. We already have kind of all of our remote workflows set up and we encourage students to work on that throughout the school year. So, that wasn't too difficult.
Our core principles and core programming in terms of mock boardroom presentations, virtual strategy chats, checking in with the whole entire cohort together — those things really didn't change. Looking forward though, as we start a new cohort this summer, I do anticipate significant challenges in terms of motivating the cohort, encouraging them to build, building a sense of community and encouraging ideation and work flow between different members of the cohort.
We're bringing in more people to support. So, we have program fellows. They're not interns, but they're students that are given a high amount of responsibility. And they'll work with teams, one-on-one, in terms of branding, pitching community support, making sure that students are supported. A lot of people's mental and physical health is in question right now. We want to make sure that it's a priority for us in this program. With us, with the leadership of this program, we are really striving to make sure that we can encourage students to build, be strategic and make the most out of this time, because at the end of the day, chaos breeds innovation and turmoil is a great opportunity for people if they can take care of their basic needs. We really want to make sure that students are prepared not just for this current crisis, but for a bunch of crises that are coming up in the future. So, a lot of challenges, but we're excited,
Listen to the whole episode to hear everything Manu has to say about start-up marketing. Download J&See: Views on Marketing on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. Or you can listen to the episode on Google Podcasts and Simplecast. And make sure you subscribe to get a new episode every month.