I speak often about the opportunity to couple investment crowdfunding with existing financial, intellectual and physical infrastructure. Universities have invested decades in time, and millions in capital, in building all three. With access to biased and engaged capital (alumni); vast intellectual capital reserves (faculty and students); and expansive physical infrastructure (equipment, spaces), Universities are uniquely positioned to meaningfully capitalize on this opportunity. And doing so—integrating and championing a University crowdfunding solution— will create enormous value for its direct and indirect stakeholders, including students, alumni, and community members.
This is a dense subject so I’m going to break it into three parts: Part II of this University Crowdfunding series will speak to Alumni engagement; Part III will focus on the University’s community at large; but first, let’s start with the students.
I attended the University of Akron, a school of 20,000+ undergraduate and graduate students. What if each and every one of these students were given ubiquitous access to a platform that guaranteed them the opportunity to start a business? No arbitrary semester deadlines; no degree pigeon-holes; and no resource constraints. Across all majors, at any given time, students could catalyze their studies, passions or accidental discoveries into an entrepreneurial initiative. Big or small. Some students would plan their path; most likely finding their way spontaneously, a consequence of a mid-semester idea, or perhaps a run in with an inspiring professor or Alumni. Empowering any student, at any time, to become an entrepreneur would be an insanely awesome achievement.
With crowdfunding, it not only can be done, it needs to be done.
The problem today is that Universities approach entrepreneurship linearly: planned programs, planned degrees, on planned time lines. But this linear approach fails in the very non-linear world students live in. (In fact, it’s the world we all live in!) Few students understand entrepreneurship going into their first semester of college—let alone if its the path they want to pursue, let alone when or how. Their discovery happens non-linearly, so a linear solution will fail. Rather, students need to be surrounded with resources and opportunities that can be accessed anytime, anywhere, and most importantly, by anyone. Regardless major.
And this is where crowdfunding steps in. An integrated crowdfunding solution, deeply supported and championed by the University, is one step towards achieving this goal. Let’s look at how.
This University crowdfunding solution would need to accomplish three things: inform, engage and involve.
- Inform Resources and information centralized; easily discoverable
- Engage A collaborative network of students and faculty that guides, motivates and supports
- Involve Once informed and engaged, students are given a seamless path to getting involved—writing the business plan, attending workshops, raising funding, etc.
The majority of students won’t get involved, or want to become informed. (For the same reason I hated Biology; it just wasn’t for me.) But the key is this: every student needs to know that (a) they can and (b) precisely how. The path to discovering, engaging and getting involved with the opportunity needs to be frictionless. Far from where it is today.
Google any variation of “Startup programs at [University Name].” Is the information centralized? Clear? Actionable? Probably the exact opposite. The discovery process is incredible frictional. And this is an enormous problem. Online buyers abandon shopping carts if the checkout process is too onerous; in this same manner, students drop out of the entrepreneurial pool—or never find it in the first place— if the process of discovery is too onerous. Friction creates loss; and in this case, it’s the loss of an unknown number of students whose entrepreneurial capacity is never captured. Anytime a student searches for an entrepreneurial resource, they need to be directed to a centralized platform that’s designed to capture, cultivate and grow their interest.
Here’s what such a platform would look like, versus today’s linear approach.
The platform gives entrepreneurial access to all students. Across majors, and across time. Once the network is built and acquired —students using it to discover and engage with information— they will invariably begin to interact. Creating support groups, finding team members, asking questions, et cetera. The value of this interaction is enormous. Spontaneous and unpredictable, it will grow organically, and exponentially.
This is just one component, the online platform. The most effective solution must be online-to-offline.
Online-to-Offline: Let’s not forget the class room
Online brings dramatic efficiencies (ubiquitously discoverable) but only offline can bring the deep engagement and mentorship that students need. Offline, we need to bring crowdfunding into the classroom.
I had a great college experience. Largely because my University was greatly supportive of my initiatives, both on campus and off. But a perennial frustration of mine was the severe shortage of application-based learning. Exceptions to be sure, but the unfortunate majority of classes sentenced students to a semester of textbook confinement. Read, memorize and test. Rinse and repeat. It’s a wretched way to learn as knowledge in the absence of application is fleeting.
For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them. — Aristotle
A simple truism: learning is doing; and doing is learning. Students desperately need more of these “doing” learning experiences.
Unfortunately, within the existing status quo, there often aren’t enough “doing” opportunities to go around. (Ignoring predatory commission-only internships.) The consequences are steep as employers are increasingly demanding applied experience from new graduates. For all too many students without it, they’re graduating unequipped into a tough labor market.
The platform can help solve this structural shortage in two ways: (i) organically creating more applied opportunities in-class; and (ii) engaging Alumni more efficiently to onboard more external opportunities to match students with (internships, mentorships, etc.) We’ll explore (ii) in the next article. Let’s start with (i), and how Universities, through crowdfunding, can significantly increase the aggregate supply of applied opportunities it offers to students.
At its essence crowdfunding is a tool. A tool that shapes anything into a participatory experience. Taking an entrepreneurship class? Why read about it? Do it! The structure could be quite simple. A professor tasks groups of students with starting a single-product/service business, and requires them to seek actual funding for it. [Via the intra-University crowdfunding platform.] By way of example: One group attempts to raise $500 to fund their on-campus catering business, easyfood.io. They engage investors (friends, family, students, supporters, alumni!) with a simple revenue-share agreement. Investors receive a percentage of revenues generated in that semester.
Some groups rock it and generate a financial return for investors; some groups raise funding, but fail at executing; and, of course, some groups fail to find funding, forced to incorporate investor feedback and iterate their pitch.
Flipping awesome! Succeed or fail, this practical experience is absurdly more valuable than any textbook and equips students with the experience they desperately need.
Re-imagining how entrepreneurship works
Entrepreneurship is not a degree. Nor can it be a single program. It’s not fixed, finite, or defined. And it cannot be boxed in, controlled or predicted. Universities need to obsolete systems that try, and re-imagine new ones.
As students across all functional backgrounds discover an entrepreneurial interest, systems need to be in place to support them. Rarely will their interest be planned, rather, spontaneously ignited from a passion, need, or study. An art student who wants to open his own gallery; an English major who wants to start a tutoring business; or a polymer engineer who wants to patent and comercialize her research.
An intra-University platform, of which one modality is crowdfunding, can be the system that captures and cultivates each and every one of these inclinations. With every student on campus aware of the path to entrepreneurship, empowered to take it, and supported in finishing it, just imagine the entrepreneurial renaissance they can lead.
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