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The Startup Bug Strikes Earlier


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There was a time, not so long ago, when a person choosing the entrepreneurial career path wasn't exactly greeted with rampant enthusiasm. Among the notable exceptions: Michael Dell famously started his eponymous computer company (DELL) out of his University of Texas, Austin, dorm room. And what would eventually become software behemoth Microsoft (MSFT) began life when Bill Gates was still a Harvard undergrad.

Both men eventually dropped out of college to pursue their wildly successful ventures, but their paths to fame and fortune were decidedly not the norm. For the most part, and for the rest of us, conventional wisdom held that to be successful, one got a degree or two and then worked for an established company. Tinkering and dreaming was left to -- ahem -- entrepreneurs, not serious businesspeople.

That was then. Nowadays, "Entrepreneur is no longer a dirty word," says Gerald Hills, an entrepreneurship professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and executive director of the Collegiate Entrepreneur's Organization, a network of student groups on 500 college campuses. "It's nearly what everyone thinks of when they think about opportunities. They think of entrepreneurs now." Shorn of its stigma, the once-risky career route is now viewed as a positive calling, particularly given the wobbly economy and the no-longer-sacrosanct benefits of corporate life -- pensions and job security are fast becoming relics of a bygone era.

OUT OF THE CRADLE. The short-lived dot-com epoch that launched countless ideas into startup ventures before imploding also helped make the entrepreneurial route a viable alternative to the traditional job path. While a more sober reality has replaced the heady New Economy days, entrepreneurs are finding an expansive array of sophisticated resources, tools, and options for helping them start and operate a new business. More simply, the trail has already been blazed.

And while more and more young entrepreneurs may be embarking on the same general path, their destinations couldn't be more varied. Take surfer Matt Rivers, who five years ago used money he had earned dishwashing to buy the Pump House Surf Shop in Orleans, Mass. -- at the age of 17.

Then there's Alasdair McLean-Foreman, who started HDO Sport, a high-tech sporting-goods company in Cambridge, Mass., when he was a Harvard freshman and a member of the track team. And in 1997, Paula Yakubik, then 25, quit her job as a newspaper reporter and founded public-relations firm MassMedia in a rented cubicle in Las Vegas. Today, she has two offices in Nevada and over 30 clients.

DORM LABS. Instead of flying blind, fledgling entrepreneurs of all ages can turn to a number of organizations and resources for help in nurturing a diverse set of ideas. Business-plan competitions with juicy cash purses have sprouted up all over the country. In September, the Small Business Administration announced a partnership with Junior Achievement Worldwide to launch a small-business portal for teen entrepreneurs, mindyourownbiz.org.

A number of networking associations are also targeted to particular communities of likeminded businesspeople and their specific issues. For instance, YoungEntrepreneur.com, based in Blaine, Wa., is an member-based Web site that offers advice, strategies, information sharing, and help in securing funding.

In fact, colleges and universities that once emphasized academics in recent years have established a number of entrepreneurial programs and incubators to help polish, educate, mentor, and develop those dorm-room eurekas into full-fledged businesses. No longer the exclusive purview of MBAs, many entrepreneurial programs are now geared toward undergraduate students (see BW Online, 10/25/05, "Teaching the Startup Mentality").

"I've been in education for 30 years," says the University of Illinois' Hills, "and I've seen a real shift as more and more students want to start a business. They don't necessarily want to wait to give it a go."

VIRGIN VENTURE. Five years ago, the University of Maryland in College Park, launched the Hinman Campus Entrepreneurship Opportunities (CEO) Program. The two-year course was established with a $2.5 million grant from alumnus Brian Hinman, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. It takes 35 students at a time, who must apply for admission. The program and its students are housed in a special high-tech dorm that's designed to give participants a residential learning environment where they experience an entire business lifecycle, from concept to execution to operation.

According to Karen Thornton, the program's director, while 75% of the students take part as a learning opportunity, 25% have actually gone on to create businesses from the ideas they hatched at Hinman. In recent years, Iowa State and Oregon State have launched similar programs based on Hinman's model.

Being an entrepreneur means making your own opportunities, and there's no telling where a good idea can lead you. After all, Virgin Group got its start when 15-year-old Richard Branson dreamed up a magazine called Student in his native London. Virgin Group is now an $8 billion global empire comprising some 200 companies in 30 countries, and in 1999, the celebrated founder became Sir Richard Branson when Queen Elizabeth II knighted him -- for "services to entrepreneurship."


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