The rise of, and challenges to, campus entrepreneurship
Over the past five years, the entrepreneurship scene — both private-sector entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship — on campus has seen rapid growth. Though the E-Club once had just a handful of members, today it lists 44 officers on its website. Students interested in forming start-ups have turned to the E-Club as the dominant on-campus resource.
The University has responded to this increased student interest by creating the Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education in 2005 and offering more courses geared toward entrepreneurship.
Although the E-Club is taking the lead in support for student-led start-ups, student entrepreneurs say they want more. They want more flexible options for students to stay enrolled while still being able to pursue entrepreneurial passions. They want Career Services to do more to provide students with opportunities with start-ups rather than in finance and consulting. They want the University to provide more of these opportunities so students don’t have to depend solely on alumni connections.
These student entrepreneurs want a change in campus culture. They want to create an environment more conducive to out-of-class, hands-on learning in order to make the University a leader in entrepreneurship. They think the University is well-positioned to make these changes and want to see it make becoming a leader in entrepreneurship a priority. The University, however, maintains that these endeavors should mainly be driven by the students themselves.
When former E-Club president Joseph Perla took time off from the University, Trivedi and James Thorman ’10 were given the opportunity to put into motion the changes that they thought would help the E-Club grow with the national movement toward entrepreneurship. Trivedi said the two “took a real grassroots effort to reach out to people” and, under their leadership, E-Club began hosting more events, such as Princeton Pitch and Idea Factory, two E-Club initiatives that continue today.
Trivedi arrived on campus right as the entrepreneurship movement was beginning to gain momentum. The 2008 financial crisis decreased hiring in the financial sector, he said, rerouting many prospective financiers to entrepreneurship, and thus many joined E-Club.
“A combination of our efforts to get the E-Club off the ground, as well as the national and world trend toward entrepreneurship really helped the scene at Princeton, and that got a lot of people involved,” Trivedi said.
By Trivedi’s sophomore year, student interest was only continuing its rise. He said the new class of freshmen — including Ryan Shea ’12, who would eventually succeed Trivedi as president — showed promise.
“We all got excited, and from there we kept getting more and more people involved,” Trivedi said. “It’s kind of like any organization. People who are passionate [about entrepreneurship] get other people passionate about it, and that’s what happened.”
Shea, like Trivedi, said he was underwhelmed by the state of entrepreneurship on campus. But over the years, he said he has seen a general improvement in the campus climate relating to entrepreneurship.
“Now, I think that we’ve come a long way as a school,” Shea said. “We’ve ridden the wave of what’s happening all around the world: a move toward entrepreneurship.”
Despite E-Club’s rise, Shea said there are still factors limiting the growth of the entrepreneurship community on campus. Shea said he would like to see a reform of Career Services, a more flexible policy that allows students to remain enrolled while pursuing start-ups, and a shift in campus thinking away from certain industries and toward finding students’ true passions both inside and outside of the classroom.
Yet it’s not just the students deep in the entrepreneurship community who have recognized their rapid growth. Career Services — which many involved with the campus start-up scene argue inadequately supports students interested in entrepreneurship — noted the ascent of student interest in the industry as well.
Abbey Racelis, assistant director of the arts, nonprofit and public sector at Career Services, whose position was created just this past July, said in an email that she has noticed an uptick in student interest in social entrepreneurship over the past year.
On the other hand, President Shirley Tilghman said social entrepreneurship specifically has always been a student interest over the course of her 10-year term.
“I’m not entirely sure that there has been a dramatic change in interest in the past couple of years,” Tilghman said. “It’s not a completely new trend.”
Tilghman said she is aware of the student criticisms of the University’s lack of adequate support that Shea and other student entrepreneurs have voiced.
“My guess is that there’s never enough,” she said. “There’s always more that we can do.”
Catharine Bellinger and Alexis Morin, formerly members of the Class of 2012 who have taken a year off to build Students for Education Reform — a nonprofit they founded while freshmen at Princeton — said the University has an opportunity to give students more support in launching their entrepreneurial passions.
“Princeton students are really the ones taking the lead on social entrepreneurship, and the University needs to catch up,” Morin said.
Yet to Tilghman, SFER is an example of what social entrepreneurship should look like; she believes ideas should be driven by students through organized extracurriculars and academic departments rather than through top-down initiatives created by the administration.
Tilghman noted that, while she believed entrepreneurial efforts should be student driven, if any class or organization were to propose a new idea regarding social entrepreneurship, “the University would be extremely supportive.”
But Bellinger said that she believes the University could do more to help students pursue their entrepreneurial interests while they are enrolled undergraduate students.
“The University has the chance to change the paradigm of what an undergraduate education looks like and change it in a way to make it more rigorous,” Bellinger said. “It is one thing to learn just academics. It is another thing to apply learning and combine entrepreneurship with rigorous academic study.”
According to Racelis, Career Services recently has been collaborating with student groups to co-sponsor events pertaining to social entrepreneurship. One such example is the IMAGINE Speaker Series, which invites alumni to campus to discuss their initially unpredictable yet ultimately rewarding career paths in the field. Last month, Career Services also worked with the Princeton Social Entrepreneurship Initiative to organize a social entrepreneurship fair and career panel.
Racelis added that the increase in interest in social entrepreneurship has been “student-driven” but noted that Career Services is always willing to be supportive.
“If there is a perceived deficit, Career Services would be very eager to do what speaks to students’ interests,” she said
But Trivedi said there are concrete things that Career Services could do to better suit student entrepreneurs, including doing a better job at getting entrepreneurial employers to interview on-site.
“This is partly because of tradition,” he said. “Investment banks and firms sign up early, so they get the best interview slots and the best info sessions. The infrastructure is not set up to allow start-ups to recruit talent easily.”
While Racelis declined to comment on a perceived lack of on-site entrepreneurial job interviews, she described her main role as being a “student advocate.”
“When students come to me looking for a job opportunity, I’m always open to help,” Racelis said.
But Shea noted that Career Services’ current framework is limiting for students interested in entrepreneurship.
“It is unfortunate that it seems as though Career Services pumps students into certain industries,” he said. “The opportunities are somewhat biased and somewhat limited.”
Tilghman said that the University is currently making major changes to Career Services, noting the recent initiatives to expand its staff.
“If [social entrepreneurship] is what students want to see, we’re more than willing to work with them,” she said.
Tilghman said that, while social entrepreneurship is an important field, it is not the only subject that Princeton students are interested in. Her goal is to provide as many “opportunities for those who will find them to be inspirational” as possible.
Racelis added that social entrepreneurship initiatives are a “small subset of what Career Services and I do. We want to be a valid resource to collaborate with any student interest.”
Morin said she feels that the student demand for opportunities is high and that the University is well-positioned to provide more of these opportunities for student entrepreneurs.
“President Tilghman has brought the University so far in every other sector, including science, women’s leadership and public service,” Morin said. “She’s the perfect visionary leader to take Princeton into the 21st century in entrepreneurship. She has identified correctly that the student demand is there. Students need a lot of flexibility to pursue their vision, and that’s going to take some serious courage from Nassau Hall.”
This is the first in a set of two articles about the entrepreneurship movement on campus and its relationship with the University administration. The second installment will be published on Monday, April 30.