With a top-tier research university right in the heart of the city, as well as several other colleges in the area, Columbia is brimming with young and aspiring entrepreneurs. Well aware of this fact, local leaders are doing all they can to help students take a shot at their dreams right here in The Capital City.
“We’ve had a lot of students come to the Incubator as interns working for our startups, where they get a taste of what working for a small business is like, where you have no job title and do everything you can to help,” says Jack Beasley, Managing Director of the USC/Columbia Technology Incubator. “And that’s incredibly valuable experience for those students, and really valuable for the startups as well. In some cases, they get hired on full-time after they graduate.”
Beasley says his organization can also help young men and women looking to create their own startup (rather than work for one), even if their idea is not quite ready to become an Incubator company.
“Most of the programs we run are open to students,” says Beasley. “They can come, they can learn, they can sit in on some workshops. And even if we consider something a closed session, if a student emails me and asks ‘can I sit in on this, I’m interested,’ then absolutely they can come.”
“That mindset isn’t just coming out of business schools,” he says. “It’s coming from students at Midlands Tech who are focusing on a specific skill trade, it’s coming from medical school students. We’re hearing from students in social work, and public health, and engineering.”
This is a mindset coming from many different schools, and from many different students.
“I probably meet with, on average, two to three students a week that have reached out to me with an interest in starting something and talking about it,” says Beasley. “The answer is always yes. No matter how busy I am, we want to make time for that. It’s obviously important to us to provide assistance where we can, to help people like that.”
“I wish I could spend all day doing that,” says Beasley.
The potential of the Incubator as a resource for students is about to get a huge boost. According to Bill Kirkland, Executive Director of the University of South Carolina’s Office of Economic Engagement, the school will soon be breaking ground on a brand new 50,000 square-foot space for the Incubator. Kirkland says that kind of excitement is what his office is all about.
“Our whole focus is on innovation,” he says. “Intellectual property, licensing, the Innovista district… All that starts to create a buzz, an environment that allows students to see that there are opportunities to stay here and build your own company.”
The fact that Jack Beasley is seeing entrepreneurial interest from students of all disciplines has a lot to do with Kirkland’s work. He is leading a movement to encourage all schools to support students’ dreams of starting a business. There is, of course, the entrepreneurship track in the Darla Moore School of Business. But it’s not just business students. The College of Engineering and Computing has designated a staff member to promote and facilitate student entrepreneurship within that school. The plan is to start teaching entrepreneurship classes within the engineering curriculum. The University also has developed a social work entrepreneurship program, as well as a minor in applied computing, which helps students interested in tech and app development gain those skills before graduation.
“Everybody’s really taking their own spin on entrepreneurship and developing programs,” says Kirkland. “Some of our most successful entrepreneurs have come out of the chemistry department, for example.”
In addition, the Office of Economic Engagement leads Global Entrepreneurship Week activities at USC, like The Proving Ground, creating an opportunity for students to get involved in startup competitions.
“We’re plowing the ground for students to have opportunities,” says Kirkland. “If they want to know about it, we’ll tell them about it. And if they want to get involved, we’ll get them involved.”
Giving students the chance to pursue entrepreneurial dreams before graduation can be very beneficial to Columbia. According to Ryan Coleman, Director of the city’s Office of Economic Development, there are currently 55,000 students in the community between seven local colleges. That is a massive pool of potential talent that can help build the region’s economy. The problem is keeping them here.
Lauren Liles, Senior Project Manager at EngenuitySC (and a former Gamecock herself), stresses the important of fighting “the collegiate brain drain” that Columbia is merely a college town, and students must move away after graduation to be successful.
“The university provides such a large group of amazingly talented young people,” says Liles. “And we’ve got four years to really hook these kids in. We need to showcase our city and get them out of the campus bubble to see what kind of opportunities are out here post-graduation. That includes not just careers, but arts and entertainment, Soda City and Farm-to-Table dinners on the Gervais Street bridge. We have to hook them with a love of the community, and get them to want to be a part of the fabric of that community.”
Jack Beasley agrees.
“I think that’s one of the biggest problems for anyone in leadership around Columbia, letting these students know ‘you don’t have to go somewhere else,’” he says. “This is a great place to live, have a family, and it’s only getting better. Most college students aren’t thinking about quality of life, affordable housing, cost of living.”
But Columbia is doing all it can to make those attributes loud and clear. According to Bill Kirkland, the Olympia neighborhood has a vision to position itself as the perfect place for young professionals to live. Within its boundaries will lie the brand new Incubator space, on a section of Catawba Street that has been designated by the city exclusively for innovative research and small manufacturing. So the scene is being set for entrepreneurs to come thrive.
“This is forward-thinking innovation that began fifteen years ago,” says Kirkland. “We’re now just ready to do it because of the success we’re starting to have.”
“People are seeing their peers start their own thing, and grow it, and the pride in owning your own successful business,” Kirkland says. “Imagine you’re in class one day, and your buddy John says ‘I just spent the whole weekend developing a product at Startup Weekend.’ You’re going to be curious about it. You’re probably going to want to do it.”
For a student that may be having the thought Kirkland imagines, Jack Beasley offers some words of support.
“Don’t be afraid to make that call, or send that email,” says Beasley. “We want to hear from you, we want to help you. Even if you’re at a point where you’re not ready to be part of an accelerator program, we still want to give you advice to get you going.”
And as Bill Kirkland reminds, “What better place to do this than a brand new, 50,000 square-foot Incubator?”
Tune in tomorrow for the next installment of The Anchor’s Global Entrepreneurship Week series.
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