Take 5: Launching students into startup careers

A conference held in New York City last week titled “Education Uncubed” brought together universities and leading founders, entrepreneurs, and experts nationwide to discuss best practices for preparing students and alumni for startup careers. Among the panelists were Nick Naraghi, DMSB’15, CEO of IDEA, Northeastern University’s venture accelerator, and Dan Gregory, co-director of the Northeastern University Center for Entrepreneurship Education. Gregory spoke on a panel titled “Rethinking Entrepreneurial Education,” while Naraghi represented Northeastern and IDEA on a panel titled “Incubators, Accelerators, and Facilitators.” Here are five key takeaways from their remarks and the conference overall:

Entrepreneurs thrive in disruption

When asked what he thought the word “entrepreneurship” meant, Gregory explained that entrepreneurs find opportunity through change and innovation, and defined the term as “the ability to navigate disruption.” He went on to say that in today’s economy, entire companies are not the ones being disruptive—it is the entrepreneurs that are driving innovation. Gregory also noted that entrepreneurial curricula should teach students the skills to cope with disruption.

Education through incubation

Naraghi emphasized that it’s important for universities to clearly define the purpose of their accelerators or incubators. At Northeastern, he explained, IDEA’s purpose is to educate entrepreneurs and launch successful businesses. He stressed that education is the primary mission of academic institutions, though IDEA has also experienced success in launching companies. Since its inception in 2009, the student-run venture accelerator has helped launch 30 startups, which have received more than $12 million in external funding. Naraghi added that IDEA employs a self-selecting process in which Northeastern entrepreneurs are faced with increasingly difficult hurdles to overcome and matched with a set of resources that expands as they progress.

Float many boats

Both Gregory and Naraghi touched on how ventures are funded at Northeastern through IDEA’s Gap Fund. Instead of a “winner-takes-all” approach, Northeastern has opted for a funding model that supports many ventures, providing more opportunities for growth and development of Northeastern ventures and entrepreneurs. Gregory noted that the “small infusion of capital is a great learning opportunity” for young entrepreneurs.

The Northeastern difference

Northeastern’s unique approach to entrepreneurship—particularly its focus on student leadership and experiential entrepreneurship education—shined through at the conference. For one, Northeastern was the only university in attendance with a student-run accelerator. What’s more, the university’s signature co-op program—which blends rigorous classroom learning with real world work experience—provides students with critical skills startup employers were looking for in job candidates, including dynamic problem-solving abilities, professional behavior and attitude, confidence, and real-world experience.

Demonstrate initiative

Of the several startup founders and recruiters who spoke at the conference, the most important thing that many of them looked at when hiring college students was what those students did in their free time. Do they contribute to open-source code? Do they work on cool projects outside of the classroom? Students who are more actively engaged in relevant and creative activities and projects outside of the classroom are more likely to be attractive hires in the startup community.

Additionally, most startups don’t have the human resources capacity to recruit on campuses; however, they are willing to hire students for internships or full-time positions. Some startups don’t feel the need to recruit on campuses, because the students they would want to hire are often the ones who take the initiative to actively seek out opportunities themselves. For its part, Northeastern pairs students with startups through co-op placements, some of which are supported through the Subsidized Co-op Program, in which students’ compensation is funded, in part, by alumni gifts. The initiative began in 2011, originally in partnership with MassChallenge, an annual global startup competition and accelerator program.