Wish List for a College or University-Based Entrepreneurship Centre

The case for building on-campus entrepreneurship capacity is fairly well known: the economy is stimulated by the job creation that new ventures create and increasingly more students are interested in entrepreneurism. It seems pretty straight forward – at least for some. Based on an ongoing review of best practices, many that have evolved over time, the following items should be on the wish list for a best-in-class university/college entrepreneurship ecosystem:

Leadership – First and foremost, there needs to be defined and palatable support for entrepreneurship capacity building at all organizational levels, including the most senior. As with any major project or initiative, if there isn’t proper leadership support, it will be doomed for failure. “Failure” can manifest itself in two ways: 1) immediate (i.e. it never gets started); or worse yet falls in to the category of many initiatives, 2) it starts and functions – giving the illusion of success, but isn’t either effective or relevant. Next, the actual leader of the Centre or cluster of entrepreneurial initiatives is key. S/he must be adept at dealing internally within an academic institution, yet also be uniquely qualified as someone who is intimately familiar with entrepreneurship and building the conditions and factors that lead to entrepreneurial success. Important point of clarification: a successful entrepreneur isn’t always able to replicate their success nor are they guaranteed to be able to “facilitate” entrepreneurial success for others.

Funding – There are two parts to funding: first, sustained and sufficient funding for the operations of a full scale
entrepreneurship centre; all successful projects require appropriate capacity. It’s not enough to want success – you have to pay for it. Second, funding to support student ventures is a key ingredient and should likely include some combination, or all of: micro financing programs; access to angel and venture capital networks; and, seamless path finding to available grants and loan programs.

Community Engagement – Key to the success of any new venture is access to relevant communities which might
not be easily accessible. Most student entrepreneurs don’t have experience with, or connections into, these networks. Formal and informal networking opportunities are required for students (and faculty) to link to and learn from potential clients, collaborators, strategic partners, professionals and suppliers. In addition (as with all businesses) clubs, associations and related peer networking groups need to be leveraged locally and internationally.

Mentoring – Linked to community engagement, but important enough to have its own category, is mentoring. As with industry and professional networks, students don’t often have deep connections to the key individuals who can guide them along the entrepreneurial path. Formal mentor programs are essential to a fulsome program and provide great opportunity for alumni involvement and community engagement. Interesting to note that in the most recent Princeton Review of the best University/College entrepreneurship programs, the top 25 institutions all had multiple mentoring programs.

Incubation – While a physical incubator or space is not essential, the benefits are very attractive. A formal incubator or “co-location” space provides for a leverage point for recruitment of students and funders, a focal point for broad cross-campus entrepreneurship initiatives and an opportunity for like-minds to benefit from the energy, synergies, competition and peer learning that often spurs great innovation. It should also be noted that for many, the natural home for an entrepreneurship centre or incubator is the existing Business School. While this is the logical choice, a truly great entrepreneurship centre is inclusive of all faculties, students and perhaps the broader community, thus providing the innovation mixing pot that breeds successful ventures.

Education – The cornerstone of the institutions that house these suggested entrepreneurship centres and their
related programming is of course education. What’s interesting to note, and important, is the number of entrepreneurship-focused courses that are offered by an institution. Entrepreneurship courses are different than business courses. Entrepreneurs can greatly benefit from business courses and vise versa but let’s be clear – there is an important distinction between traditional business courses and entrepreneurship courses. Entrepreneurship courses cannot just be re-purposed or rebranded business courses. Also vital to a healthy entrepreneurship ecosystem is the non-credit learning available to students that come in the form of personal development, guest speakers and activities & competitions that provide learning and skills development opportunities.

Celebration and Promotion – Well understood, often taken for granted, the promotion of the available
opportunities and capacity, as well as the public celebration of success is key to long term sustainability of any (entrepreneurship) program. Existing students, potential students, alumni, private sponsors and donors all need to have a clear understanding of the brand, value proposition and successes. This can’t be overstated. Internal and external stakeholders need to be well informed and engaged in the ongoing successes and activity of the initiative. Proactive communications and celebrations are vital for student recruitment, fund and sponsor development and for the student entrepreneurs and their business success.

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