By Cem Erdem, President and CEO of Augusoft
The concept of a business ecosystem first began to emerge in the early 1990s, and has been widely adopted in the high-tech industry, particularly in Silicon Valley. This is one of the reasons why there are so many successful entrepreneurs and companies coming out of Silicon Valley, as they have been able to create an ecosystem that enables new entrepreneurs to interact and learn from other entrepreneurs that have achieved some level of success, as well as failed. As I believe you can learn just as much from failure as from success. And once a region becomes established or known for a particular industry, then other entrepreneurs will want to move there to become part of the ecosystem.
While it is unrealistic to expect Community Colleges to replicate the type of success that Silicon Valley has, I believe Community Colleges can play an important role in fostering entrepreneurship and creating an ecosystem unique to their communities. This can be done by developing programs that bring together entrepreneurs, mentors, investors and others to exchange ideas and take these new ideas and concepts for businesses and implement them.
There are several things that schools can get started on to begin building their own entrepreneurship ecosystem in their community. For starters you need to realize that a portion of your prospective students are not interested in a degree pathway. However, these students may need specific entrepreneurial skills based training to help them improve their business or help launch a business idea or concept they may have. These students can come from all walks of life, as they may be owners of established and growing businesses, single moms, immigrants, baby boomers looking to start new careers, or members of generation Y. You will find that many people in your community have great ideas and passion to start a business, but may not have the know-how or resources to get started.
To support this it is helpful to identify successful industries in your area and from where you can draw potential mentors, business consultants and investors to help other local entrepreneurs. This will also help you develop curriculum that better meets the needs of your local population. I’ve found that entrepreneurs and investors are most comfortable helping others that are in the same industry as they came from, as that is what they know.
Over the last two years I have been involved in starting the first tech accelerator in Minnesota called Project Skyway. Tech is a great entry area for entrepreneurs, unlike other industries such as med-tech or manufacturing, because it takes minimal capital to get started, doesn’t require FDA approval, and someone with a good idea can take it from concept to implementation very quickly with the right support.
The accelerator model being used at Project Skyway is one I see being replicated for Community Colleges to use with their entrepreneur students. The basic idea is to bring in entrepreneurs with good ideas or business plans over a period of time. At Project Skyway, it is a three-month cycle. During this time we give the entrepreneurs access to mentors, co-working space, developers, funding and other resources that they may need in order to implement their business concept. In addition you can host regular meet-up groups, start a speaker series, or even run your program like a summer camp.
By focusing and leveraging this intellectual capital in a confined time frame, entrepreneurs are better able to accelerate their business plans and launch process. Immersing and surrounding the entrepreneurs with resources and a community of knowledge will further help to fuel the likelihood of their success.
In addition to accelerating the likelihood of success for the entrepreneur’s business, this model can also provide other benefits to your students. First, not all students may want to start their own business, but do have interest in working in a start-up company. This is particularly true for many members of Generation Y. This model can provide these students with access to working in a start-up environment to gain experience. Students that complete this program will receive credit or a certificate, which they can use to develop their business, find a job with another start-up, or further their education.
Note: The following article appears in the Summer/Fall 2012 issue of NACCE’s quarterly publication Community College Entrepreneurship.