When I first stepped foot on Georgia Tech’s campus, I had no idea what a startup was.
I knew what the term “entrepreneurship” meant. My parents were small business owners, having started their first business decades ago. But a startup? Not a single clue.
Two years ago, I was first introduced to startups when my best friend Wesley and I saw a flyer on campus. There was an organization called Startup Semester that was going to hold a pitch night where students could pitch their business ideas and be entered into their program, where they would provide mentoring, connections, and support. We were instantly excited, and thus we set out to pitch our first startup idea, Tradefloor, which we quite literally came up with in a single night.
It was a horrible, horrible pitch. Tradefloor, a website for trading possessions on college campuses, was barely a concept. We had no website, no plan, and no idea what it would take. So our pitch wasn’t accepted, and I was disappointed. But that was my first experience with the startup world.
Fast forward several months. I was sitting in my cubicle at my company for a summer internship, twiddling my thumbs. Suddenly, my phone began to vibrate from a call, and I checked to see the ID. It was Kyle, one of the brothers in my business fraternity, Alpha Kappa Psi. It was then that I made one of the most important decisions in my life.
I answered the call.
After I answered, Kyle explained to me why she was calling. She, alongside Murtaza, the president of our fraternity and our in-house startup guru, were organizing 3 Day Startup, an intense business hackathon where select students would team up to build their own companies in 72 hours. They wanted my help, especially for marketing, given my prior experience in the area. After only a moment’s hesitation, I accepted.
A month later, my friend Wesley joined the team. We later brought another brother from our fraternity, Lois. With that, we proceeded to launch one of the biggest student entrepreneur events at Georgia Tech in living memory. On September 11, 2015, 50 select students came to Georgia Tech to learn how to start a startup. We brought amazing speakers — Tom Chernetsky, the CTO of Yik Yak, Jim Beach, a fantastic teacher and entrepreneur, and Jacqui Chew, CEO of iFusion Marketing and go-to-market expert. These students learned everything from product development, to customer discovery, to pitching to investors. Yet, it was so much more than a business hackathon. 3 Day Startup introduced me to the world of startups, the sheer opportunity and excitement, and the potential to make a difference in the world. For me, entrepreneurship was more than just starting a business. It was the only way that I could see myself doing anything significant in my life. The participants at 3 Day Startup felt the same way. 50 students arrived wanting to start their own companies, and 50 students left wanting to make an impact on the world.
After 3 Day Startup, I wanted to know more. I wanted to learn about entrepreneurship and what it meant in the modern era. I wanted to explore the world of startups. That internal drive led me to join Startup Exchange.
Startup Exchange is the student entrepreneur community of Georgia Tech. Its primary mission is to encourage entrepreneurship among the student body and promote the startup lifestyle. To do that, it hosts workshops, thought leadership talks, socials, and other events to create an amazing community. When it first began at Georgia Tech a few years ago, it was nothing more than a couple of inspired students in a solitary room in the library. Now, it is the driving force behind student entrepreneurship at Georgia Tech.
In the past, the primary paths for Georgia Tech students were traditional industry and research. Now, a third path is settling in: entrepreneurship. Even though the Institute administration is still focused on the former, they have made great strides in the latter. Create-X began over a year ago, creating a program for students interested in pursuing their startup ideas, taking them from ideation and customer discovery in their Startup Lab class, to product development in their Ideas to Prototype, and finally to building the business and finding their first customer in Startup Launch. With a $20,000 check to help with that. Legal Buzz provides legal advice and counsel for aspiring student entrepreneurs at no cost. And who could forget the Inventure Prize competition? While not necessarily promoting entrepreneurship, it definitely fits in the vein of promoting innovation. Certainly not a bad thing at all.
And Tech Square itself has become a powerhouse of innovation. The Atlanta Tech Development Center (ATDC) is a top-notch incubator that houses dozens of startups. It sits right next to Flashpoint, an accelerator that implements a unique approach called startup engineering with a portfolio of companies that have a total combined market cap of $1 billion. Behind that building lies Venture Lab, a fantastic incubator that has produced companies like Pindrop Security and Better Walk. Next to that? Tech Square Labs, which has just partnered with Google For Entrepreneurs to provide funding, support, and resources for founders. Then there’s the Garage Under Tech Square, which serves as a co-working space for many entrepreneurs and organizations like Startup Exchange. Beyond that, millions of dollars have been poured into innovation centers in Tech Square, and there’s a lot more on the way.
However, despite all of this, entrepreneurship hasn’t become a part of the norm yet.
Unfortunately, money can’t solve all of our problems. It certainly helps, but it can’t be the only thing providing the push. The problem’s a lot more complex than that. To truly address this issue, we need to do 2 things.
Provide the resources. Georgia Tech has done a phenomenal job so far over the last couple of years. Really, it has. But it could do so much more. Look at the University of Pennsylvania, which hosts competition after competition and awards, fellowships, and programs for students interested in pursuing their startup ideas. The university literally even has an award for students who take the summer to intern at a small, bootstrapped startup. Look at MIT. They have an entire building dedicated to student entrepreneurship. Their startup ecosystem is huge, ranging from a wide variety of student clubs to a host of accelerator programs and courses. Like I said, the only thing wrong with what’s at Georgia Tech now is that there isn’t more yet. The difference between Georgia Tech and a school like Stanford is that, within the context of startups, we encourage our students to work at startups rather than own those startups. It’s not about giving students the skills to remain competitive, but giving students the tools to become entrepreneurs. Student initiative is strong in that regard, but there needs to be more action on that front from the university level. Create more classes like Product Development for students to take. Increase the prominence of the Institute of Leadership and Entrepreneurship, and don’t just let Entrepreneurship be a certificate in the Business curriculum. Make it a concentration. Provide financial support, or reward students for taking a risk no one else is willing to take. Of all the things Georgia Tech could do, this is the least it could do.
Change the culture. This one’s on the student body, not the institute. Compared to some other universities, Georgia Tech’s community has a long way to go. When I talk about starting a startup to the average student at Georgia Tech, the initial reaction is one of skepticism and confusion. That needs to change. Currently, for most students, interning at large companies and eventually joining the ranks of employees at your choice of Fortune 500 companies is the dream. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But, for many, many, people who don’t share that dream yet don’t know any other way, entrepreneurship is that path to success. Unfortunately, changing the culture is the most difficult task of them all. To achieve this, we have to become a culture of builders and creatives. These people aren’t just hard workers, but people who are willing to break things down because they’re curious and build things to solve problems in the world around them. These ideal students aren’t content with simply observing and working with the way things are. They’re dissatisfied, and they won’t stop tinkering until they create something that will make things better. Thankfully, the rise of hacker culture and organizations like HackGT are assisting the change on that front. We just need to keep pushing it along and encouraging students to be better builders rather than workers. Start going to hackathons, whether you’re a Computer Science major or a Business major like me. Pursue that idea you’ve had in your head for a while as a side project. Make a website. Stop sitting around and do something.
Now if we manage to achieve all of that, then we’re on our way to progress.
When Aswin Na and Jerome Choo first had the idea for Startup Exchange, they lived in an era where quite literally none of this, save for ATDC, existed. Student entrepreneurship was just a mote in the eye of the community. If they could return and see the landscape now, I think they would be proud. After that, they would get right back to work on making it even better.
This year, I’m running Startup Exchange with my Co-Director, Wesley, alongside our awesome team: Chris, Stephen, Nikhil, Kshitij, and Annalise. We’re looking for more to join the team on our mission to promote student entrepreneurship at Georgia Tech. The community is growing all the time. We have a lot of work ahead of us, but it’ll be worth it.
Alongside that, Wesley and I will also serve as Student Partners at Contrary Capital, a decentralized, university-focused VC fund. Contrary Capital’s mission is to empower young student entrepreneurs by providing access to funding, mentoring, and support. It’s one of the first VC funds of its kind, and it’s certainly the first one at Georgia Tech. Venture capital funding has always been the missing link in Atlanta’s startup ecosystem. Contrary Capital represents the first major step towards changing the startup landscape. As Student Partners, Wesley and I will do our part to support fantastic student startups and help them achieve their goals.
And 3 Day Startup is coming back again for the spring of 2017.
For everyone out there who knows entrepreneurship is your path, this is the year that the tides turn at Georgia Tech. For everyone out there who doesn’t know that entrepreneurship is your path yet, this is the year that the world, in all its beauty and vastness, will open up to you.
This is how it begins. When people decide to listen to themselves and take control of their situation, that’s when real change occurs. It comes down to us. We all have the power to make an impact, whether you’re a veteran entrepreneur with a team, funding, and connections behind you, or a naive young boy who had never heard of a “startup” before he came to college.
Now go out there and build something amazing.
San Francisco, 2016
P.S. If you ever want to hit me up, feel free to do it. I’d love to have a chat. If you want to join the mission, then I’d be even happier to talk.