Dell, Microsoft, Reddit, Facebook, Google.What do they all have in common?
Aside from being among the country’s most successful companies, they’re all ventures that were started by college students — often out of dorm rooms with little-to-no money. What their founders lacked in capital they made up for in ingenuity and determination. They refused to let their status as college students get in the way of their vision. In fact, in many cases, they used it to their advantage.
“College may be the best time in your life to start an entrepreneurial journey,” says Greg Pool, Wake Forest University professor and director of the school’s StartUp Lab. “You’re surrounded by resources, and you have free access to facilities, research tools, creation tools, and plenty of people around you who want to see you succeed.
“Plus, no matter what happens with your venture, you’ll still graduate with a degree and can use the experience you gained in whatever you do next professionally.”
It’s that kind of thinking that led leaders at Wake Forest to launch the Center for Entrepreneurship more than a decade ago. It’s stationed on the second floor of Reynolda Hall, right in the middle of campus, and is home to Wake’s most popular minor program — entrepreneurship — which has more than 300 students enrolled.
Its popularity isn’t surprising, leaders say, given the wave of entrepreneurism that’s swept the country in recent years — a trend born out of the Great Recession.
“When the economy was stagnating, many Americans felt the need to take matters into their own hands and create their own job opportunities,” says Polly Black, communications professor at Wake Forest University.
Beyond the economy, many believe the rise in entrepreneurism stems from a cultural shift that’s taken root — particularly when it comes to the younger generation.
“As the baton passes from the Baby Boomers to Generation X and Generation Y, there’s less interest in being a soldier in a big corporation,” Black says. “Gen X and Gen Y want to do it on their own terms. That change in mindset is also impacting the interest in entrepreneurship.”
Learning by doing
The Center for Entrepreneurship (CE) goes beyond simply teaching students how to start a business successfully. Like most things at Wake Forest — where the motto “Pro Humanitate” reigns supreme — the Center empowers students to create real change in the world.
“Many of our students are interested in making the world a better place,” says Dan Cohen, executive director of the CE. “They may be interested in an idea that solves a social problem, improves the environment, or makes us more sustainable. Regardless, we enthusiastically support students using their abilities and efforts to bring valuable innovation to the world.”
Cohen came to Wake Forest as a professor of practice in 2015 after spending eight years teaching business and entrepreneurship at Cornell University. In 2017, he became executive director of the Center after co-founding the University’s Startup Lab.
“We are really focused on helping students develop skills like problem solving, critical thinking, how to market themselves, how to sell themselves,” he says. “Our vision is to become the standard by which all liberal arts entrepreneurship programs are measured.”
Cohen cites research that shows students learn entrepreneurship most effectively by actually doing, not just listening and studying. To that end, students not only get feedback on their own entrepreneurial ideas — they get to test their ideas with real target market customers, build prototypes based on feedback, make sales to real customers, and identify potential markets to determine ways to scale a venture.
In addition to classroom lectures, the Center has developed a number of co-curricular programs designed to augment the lessons, including:
• Deacon Springboard, which helps students spot and develop valuable ideas into concepts, and provides access to mentors or seed capital.
• The Idea Sandbox, which helps students develop their ideas and problem-solving skills while trying to remedy real-world issues.
• Social Impact 360, a program for students interested in social-change ventures. Over the course of a year, students get an in-depth crash course on social issues and develop a social startup under the guidance of peer mentors.
• Entrepalooza, the CE’s marquee event held each spring. Student entrepreneurs pitch their ideas and startups to a live audience as part of the “Deac Tank.”
• Startup Lab, the Center’s signature program, helps students with the most advanced-stage startups develop their concepts into ventures. “Students in the Lab get academic credit while they build their venture,” Cohen says. “They get a lot of coaching and mentoring.”
He adds that Startup Lab students generated more than $1 million in revenue in 2018, and many companies born in the Lab have gone on to accomplish great — even revolutionary — things.
Among the recent success stories is UpDog Kombucha, a startup founded by 2017 grad Lauren Miller and 2016 grad Olivia Wolff. The company originated in the confines of their Wake Forest dorm rooms, where the women first started brewing kombucha — a fizzy, fermented tea beloved for its health benefits. They began selling orders on Instagram before taking their product to local farmers markets, slowly growing a customer base. Today they sell in nearly 150 locations across North and South Carolina, and have five full-time employees, along with a number of part-timers. They credit much of their success to lessons learned at Wake Forest.
“The [Center] gave us the mentorship and resources that helped us launch UpDog and set it up for success in the future,” Miller says. “Creating UpDog was a huge challenge and risk, so it was always reassuring knowing that we had a whole team of people behind us, wanting to see us succeed. Not only was the CE supportive of our venture, they gave us invaluable resources such as networking opportunities, access to grants and seed capital, and classroom learning opportunities.”
Logan Harvey, a 2019 graduate, is another entrepreneurial alum. The former Wake baseball player is the creator of the FanPark app, which he calls “the Airbnb of event parking.” The app helps drivers reserve or find parking at events by connecting with people or businesses that have spaces to rent. FanPark became a revenue-producing company in 2018 while Harvey was still a student. Plans are now in the works to expand to Virginia, Texas, Tennessee, and other states. He says the guidance he got from the CE was crucial to his success.
“The relationships I cultivated (in CE) were incredibly important,” he says. “When I announced what I was doing with FanPark, the outpouring of support and ‘let me know how I can help’ messages I received were staggering.”
Relationships are everything when you’re in the startup game, says 2014 graduate Alex Smereczniak. It’s the primary reason he’s found so much success with 2ULaundry, an on-demand laundry and dry-cleaning delivery service that began in Wake’s Startup Lab. Now based in Charlotte, 2ULaundry offers free pickup and delivery service with a one-day turnaround on all orders. The company has gained thousands of loyal customers in recent years while securing millions in funding, prompting an expansion to Atlanta.
Smereczniak’s advice to college students with an entrepreneurial itch? Don’t wait. Go for it now.
“Work as hard as you possibly can, learn as much as you possibly can [while in school], and follow what you’re passionate about,” he says. “You should be selfish in your 20s, focus on yourself and your vision. That corporate job will always be there, money can always be made, but the best time to start a company will always be right now.”
For more information on the Center for Entrepreneurship or Wake’s entrepreneurship minor, go to entrepreneurship.wfu.edu.