Startup ecosystem grows on city's college campuses

As the startup ecosystem grows in the city of Memphis, it’s also expanding on the city’s college and university campuses where efforts are combining to encourage entrepreneurship.

College educations often center on the theory more than the practice of what might come after graduation.

And while degrees in marketing, computer science, philosophy or English all have their own advantages, it can be argued that none of them prepare students interested in following a path of entrepreneurship. In a changing economy that sees young professionals choosing to follow a path of entrepreneurship, colleges and universities are recognizing the need to fill some of the educational void.

The University of Memphis established the Crews Center for Entrepreneurship in November 2013. Originally intended as a technology incubator, the center’s vision was broadened to serve as an entrepreneurship hub for the university where it serves as a resource for creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship within the student body and faculty.

“We don’t assume startups will happen,” said Mike Hoffmeyer, Director of the University of Memphis Crews Center for Entrepreneurship. “Let’s create a fertile ground where those things can grow organically and we’ll provide some of the catalyst to make that happen.”

The focus at the center is on developing entrepreneurs. That might sometimes include producing funded startups, but it’s not the focus. That’s what Hoffmeyer said is a fortunate byproduct of the work the center does.

Hoffmeyer’s goal is to raise the baseline level of entrepreneurship in the city, and hopefully see more homegrown teams apply to accelerators.

“The unsuccessful attempts are successful outcomes because the experiences students are exposed to are so rich they touch things they might not touch in their entire career in corporate jobs,” he said. “They have different perspectives than graduates who come out having only had a couple of minor internships without that broad experience.”

Zark Strasburger, Assistant Professor of Design Arts and Director of Professional Practices Program at Memphis College of Art, said the shifting landscape that sees college graduates come out with a more entrepreneurial spirit is encouraging.

“It’s an exciting shift, a necessity in terms of the change in the marketplace when I think about the shift that has happened with what it was like for my grandfather to my parents to me to my 10-year-old son,” he said. “My grandfather was a bank teller and ended his career as a vice president at the same bank. That model really is not the reality that our kids and our students will experience. They will experience a world where they change jobs and careers many times.”

And the startup ecosystem empowers students to make what they want of the world, Strasburger said.

“They come to the table with the toolkit with the understanding of what it takes to launch a new business that creates a ton of opportunities and plants seeds for students as they go out and make their way,” he said.

Bud Richey is Associate Vice President at Rhodes College. He said he sees students doing things in part because they don’t know they can’t.

“Their imaginations haven’t been stifled,” he said. “And it’s not all tech-driven. Part of it is they’re challenging themselves to do things. In some ways they don’t know it’s not common.”

The efforts of many of the city’s institutions of higher learning will combine this year in an entrepreneurship push. The U of M, Rhodes College, Christian Brothers University, LeMoyne-Owen College, Memphis College of Art, Visible Music College and Southwest Tennessee Community College have created the Imagine U Memphis Collegiate Accelerator. The experience will last all summer and give students who are selected from each participating educational partner the opportunity to have an entrepreneurship boot camp of sorts in the exercise of launching new startup ventures.

“The Imagine U accelerator is awesome in terms of being a system designed to build radical collaboration between organizations, but more importantly students from different disciplines,” Strasburger said, referring to students with a range of majors from business to philosophy. “It brings people with different mindsets and by design pulls together different skills and brings them together to show them a way to launch their own ideas.”

Five of the schools participated last spring in what were called innovation boot camps, which attracted 40 students. The idea for the summer accelerator came out of those conversations that led to a November meeting at Rhodes. Southwest Tennessee Community College and LeMoyne-Owen College recently joined the original five to make up the current mix.

“There was a high level of energy in that cross-campus interaction last year,” Hoffmeyer said. “That started the thinking of what can we do to encourage more of this. Yes, the University of Memphis is the biggest but it’s not the only one. There are talents to draw from at all of the colleges across town.”

Richey said a draft system will be used to select students from all seven schools. For example, if two students from Christian Brothers apply and five apply from Memphis, the CBU students will have the opportunity to be “drafted” into the program along with two from Memphis before that school’s remaining three applicants have an opportunity to be chosen.

The chosen students will receive a stipend to offset living expenses during the 12-week program.

These efforts are new in Memphis, and in some ways has the schools playing catch up. Strasburger said Memphis College of Art made a decision about seven years ago to work on professional practices, meaning the connection of theoretical experiences with life after college.

Hoffmeyer said Memphis’ Crews Center, while it’s been going for 2.5 years, is still somewhat behind the curve in terms of its maturity.

“Not having some sort of entrepreneurship capability is unusual for a university these days,” he said. “The reality is this generation, they’re more aware of entrepreneurship than ever before. So many studies have been done on entrepreneurship being on the road to recovery. It’s the economic development mission of public universities of why it makes sense.”

The Crews Center is located just to the west of campus along Walker Avenue. It’s not an academic unit and not part of the business school. There is no criteria for a degree or major.

If a student is interested they typically start out with an informational session or schedule a time with Hoffmeyer to explore where they are with a startup idea. Sometimes a student already has an idea that has produced some income, but they need to improve it.

That might be a mentorship scenario where Hoffmeyer meets with the student on a regular basis or he makes a connection with a community mentor.

The efforts at Rhodes College are organized but it’s a credit to the students who created an entrepreneurship club, which is in its third year. The main effort during the first year was a business plan competition.

The winner went on to participate in a business accelerator where the team developed an app. Last year’s effort saw the winners create an electronic guide for fishing and hunting.

“We’re seeing students do things in part because they don’t know they can’t,” Richey said. “Their imaginations haven’t been stifled.”

In January, Rhodes College held a hackathon that saw five teams compete to develop apps over an 18-hour period, one of which is being evaluated by Apple.

“We’re running to catch up with students in terms of what we’re doing,” Richey said adding that the school now has an introduction to entrepreneurship class. “It’s keeping in some ways with our broader mission of being a college of liberal arts. … We have to prepare graduates to do things in their communities. What we’re seeing now is the merging of curricula and extracurricular. Students lead it.”

Sam Reid is a senior Rhodes student who helped organize the hackathon.

“If you look around at all the schools that tout themselves as the best they have a hackathon and a presence in tech,” he said. “We didn’t have it.”

And much like Richey said is the case at Rhodes, Reid did something about it. He will graduate this spring with a major in economics and minor in computer science.

When Reid started at Rhodes he planned to major in history before going on to law school. But he got involved in the school’s entrepreneur club, which spurred his interest in technology.

Today, he’s working on his own startup with a childhood friend who is attending Princeton University.
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Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler.