Students make a study of dorm start-ups

17 Aug, 2012

Jason Shah was a 15-year-old high school student in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, when he started INeedAPencil.com, a venture offering free online courses to help students with their SAT university entrance exams.

He decided to act after seeing first-hand the link between low incomes and college admittance when visiting a middle-school class in 2005.

"It's crazy that the students who need the most resources have the least access. I wanted to change that," says Mr Shah, who started the website with backing from his parents of $10,000 and the support of a tech-savvy friend. He continued to expand the site after starting his own degree at Harvard University in 2007, using sponsorship and a further $15,000 he won in a student business competition. Colleges and scholarship programmes promote the site in return for featuring on the website. About 50,000 students have now used INeedAPencil.com, which Mr Shah last year sold to CK-12 Foundation, a non-profit educational body.

Mr Shah is among a growing number of aspiring student entrepreneurs who have been inspired by the opportunities afforded by social media, a dismal jobs market for graduates and their very own poster child in the form of Mark Zuckerberg, who started Facebook as a student.

Freedom from big life-decisions can make student years an ideal time to start a venture. "College is arguably a better time than ever to start a company – tons of resources, no family to support, many people willing to help, and few real-life worries," says Mr Shah, who is now a product manager at Yammer and acts as an adviser to start-ups.

The new ease of digital communication is also a help. "Social media gives students the chance to publicise their businesses effectively for free and win business," says Rajeeb Dey, who started Enternships.com – which helps students find internships and graduate jobs – while studying at Oxford university.

As president of the university's extensive student entrepreneurship society, Mr Dey launched the venture with support from friends and family. Enternships.com has eight full-time employees and about 4,000 clients using the site. Mr Dey remains the majority shareholder.

As students increasingly express interest in self-employment while still at college, organisations are emerging to support them. Non-profit bodies such as the Collegiate Entrepreneurs' Organisation in Chicago, founded by former student entrepreneurs, provides networking opportunities for budding entrepreneurs across college campuses in the US, Canada and Puerto Rico. At its annual conference, students compete for $15,000 in prizes for the best business proposals.

"Over the past two years there has been a 20 per cent increase in our membership," says Katie Sowa, director of operations at CEO.

"Entrepreneurship is not only trending, it is now becoming a realistic career path for all college majors."

The UK's National Consortium of University Entrepreneurs was created in 2008 by 12 university enterprise societies. Sponsors include Microsoft and the London Metropolitan Business School. NACUE gives students the tools to network with fellow undergraduate entrepreneurs.

Student entrepreneurs do not necessarily stay involved full-time or even at all with their venture once they leave university.

"For students who start companies, there is a great value in getting an MBA or working in another company," says Pulin Sanghvi, director of the career management centre at Stanford University's graduate school of business. "Often, the people who start these companies do not end up running the company."

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