Take 5: Launching students into startup careers

IDEA CEO Nick Naraghi, DMSB'15, second from right, speaks during a panel discussion at "Education Uncubed," a national conference focused on preparing students and alumni to launch their careers at fast-growing companies and startups. Photo courtesy of HC Media.

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.