Colleges help with tips on various business ventures

Last modified: Wednesday, November 25, 2015
Though starting a business in an uncertain economy may seem intimidating, educators from the Five Colleges believe that need not stand in the way of entrepreneurial success. A diverse range of programs offered by the colleges and University of Massachusetts Amherst help students realize that creating a profitable business is possible in any economy with the right approach.

“We know that being entrepreneurial does not necessarily mean starting your own business,” said Niani Tolbert, a senior at Mount Holyoke and founder and president of the college’s Entrepreneurship Club. “Being entrepreneurial to us is being a pioneer. Being entrepreneurial to us is breaking through barriers.”

The club has several projects in the works, including a TedX talk this semester funded by the Inclusiveness Initiative Fund at the college. The talk will feature leaders such as CNN producer Alicia Stewart who have broken through racial and economic barriers.

Steven Schmeiser, an assistant professor of economics and complex organizations, advises the club. “He’s the guy for entrepreneurship on campus. He’s really been able to guide and advise students to develop their business plans and participate in business-plan competitions,” said Tolbert.

Schmeiser helps students through independent studies and points them toward resources to start their own businesses, such as the student-run business called Jorge’s Trading Post, an online marketplace where students can offer items to each other for sale.

Isenberg School at UMass

The Isenberg School of Management, the business school at the University of Massachusetts, offers students nationally recognized graduate and undergraduate programs in business education.

One major event held by the Isenberg School is the annual “elevator pitch” competition. Students work with mentors and volunteers to come up with a business idea, and then give their pitches in just a few minutes to a panel of judges.

James Theroux, director of the Isenberg School’s Center for Entrepreneurship, has been working with students in business for 20 years. A graduate of Harvard Business School, Theroux previously founded and was CEO of Metropolitan Cablevision from 1984 to 1991.

“There are infinitely many mistakes to be made out there,” Theroux said. “It’s so situation specific. Something that works in one situation … in a different situation, it turns out bad.”

Theroux believes that “the trick is being able to size up your specific situation, your specific industry, your specific product and how it fits. That’s the talent that really separates one person from another, not someone who’s memorized the 20 most important tips.”

The Center for Entrepreneurship offers students a Mentors and Ventures Program which connects them with successful business leaders, many of them alumni. Through monthly trips to Boston, students are able to connect with and learn from experienced entrepreneurs.

Center for Women at Smith

The Center for Women and Financial Independence at Smith College focuses on preparing women to confidently enter the business world after graduation.

“We do a lot of financial literacy programming as well as a lot of entrepreneurship training,” said Elizabeth Rogers, the center’s associate director.

The center aims to teach students to “really understand your business model. Who are your customers, how do you reach them, and what do they need?” explained Rogers. “We really teach customer development first, product design next. That’s the same whether you want to start a small catering company or start your own software empire.”

The center offers business plan development and mentoring workshops, events and contests to encourage entrepreneurial thinking and business-themed courses during January.

One event at Smith called the $50 Challenge gives teams of five students five days to plan and five hours to operate a business venture starting with only $50.

Smith also participates in the Draper Business Plan Competition, an event in which student entrepreneurs compete with each other before a panel of judges for three prizes totaling $20,000 awarded to budding entrepreneurs from selected women’s colleges also including Mount Holyoke.

Seed Fund at Hampshire

The Seed Fund for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, created by a $1 million gift from alum and entrepreneur Michael Vlock, provides a boost for students at Hampshire College.

Each year, students are selected to use a portion of the funds to start business projects and to invest on behalf of the college. Though students are assisted and mentored by staff and faculty, the emphasis is placed on having each student be in charge of decisions regarding how to use the money.

“Entrepreneurship is an area in which Hampshire actively works with students,” said Elaine Thomas, director of communications at the college. “We define entrepreneurship broadly as the capacity to put ideas into action.”

Making connections at Amherst

The Pre-Business Group at Amherst College welcomes students interested in becoming entrepreneurs. The group holds seminars throughout the year in addition to other events that are designed to educate and assist students in preparing for a business education.

Seminars include opportunities such as the chance to interact with top business leaders in the area, learning to explore new business trends, and listening to speakers with extensive experience in the field. Amherst also connects students with funding sources and organizations such as MassGrant, DoSomething.org and The Draper Richards Foundation, all of which offer opportunities to get started on a business idea.

Grinspoon Foundation

The Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation, established in Springfield in 1993, has become one of the largest and farthest-reaching organizations in the area. Among its pursuits is promoting entrepreneurship and leadership among students. “The Grinspoon Foundation is what connects the Five Colleges together,” said Rogers of Smith College. “It really gets the Five Colleges together with all the regional colleges, which I think there’s tremendous value to.”

Paul Silva, a UMass alum and chairman of the UMass Amherst Entrepreneurship Initiative, is faculty liaison to the Grinspoon Foundation. “Harold’s life was changed by entrepreneurship, so he did something very unorthodox,” Silva explained. “Instead of calling all the college presidents and trying to get them to agree, he went out and recruited a professor from each college.”

Each liaison is in charge of a sum of money to be put toward encouraging entrepreneurship on campus. “Our mandate is to inspire entrepreneurship on our campuses and connect those entrepreneurs to resources, however we want to do that,” he said. The faculty liaisons meet periodically to share ideas.

“It’s important not to have a top-down philosophy, to let each representative figure out what the best thing for their college is,” says Silva. “That’s the genius, I think, of the Grinspoon approach. It created a grassroots movement; there are now entrepreneurship efforts at every single college in western Massachusetts, which was absolutely not the case over 10 years ago when the foundation started its work.”