The following is a white paper I wrote over Winter 2013, which I then presented to the Dean of the Gabelli School of Business. I am posting it here for my own personal records, and for anyone interested in helping me turn Fordham into an Entrepreneurship Powerhouse.
This White Paper aims to analyze the entrepreneurship ecosystem at Fordham, understand what works well and what could be done to improve the ecosystem to maximize the potential for real entrepreneurial success – a thriving community of entrepreneurs, web developers and designers who create real-world businesses that enhance Fordham University’s reputation as an innovative institution.
I would like to argue that 3 elements are necessary for a successful entrepreneurship ecosystem to emerge – an excited and supportive community, access to learning relevant skills from freshman year and an organizational structure which empowers students, rather than restricting them. There is a fourth element which can act as a catalyst to ignite an entrepreneurial ecosystem, access to monetary and non-monetary resources, however access to resources alone will not produce results if the previous 3 factors are not already in place.
Over the past 10 years, NYU has become an entrepreneurial powerhouse, with the Stern School of Business recognizing the changing career landscape as “Software is eating the world”. Today, Stern’s best students are choosing jobs at top tech firms such as Google or Facebook over the traditional prestigious jobs at Investment banks or Management Consultants. NYU has managed to produce top tech talent who have started businesses which have raised millions of dollars in Venture Capital upon graduating from University, and have produced many more graduates who have themselves gone to work at top tech firms in business development roles as well as technical roles.
Fordham is a very different institution to NYU, and we should not strive to be NYU, but there are lessons to learn from our neighbor. Fordham has a different value proposition, as a result of our Jesuit values and location in the Bronx, which lends itself more towards social entrepreneurship – businesses that make a real and quantifiable positive social impact. The huge popularity of classes such as “Sustainable Finance” and “Sustainability and Microfinance”, as well as our thriving community service population through the Dorothy Day center, prove that Fordham attracts the right caliber of student to be a hub for Social Entrepreneurship.
Implementation of some of my suggestions, along with ongoing improvements, could lead to Fordham being able to stake a claim as the premier institution for Social Innovation in the United States. This positioning is in line with Fordham’s values, and could act as a huge magnet for driven high-school students wanting to use their college experience to kickstart a meaningful career, and a draw for employers who may not understand the value of a Jesuit education, but want to hire students who are more than just heartless number-crunchers.
The potential to back up this vision as a hub for social innovation is within Fordham’s grasp, but reaching this potential will require a meaningful commitment from Fordham (which I believe should be led by GSB) and a 5 year vision plan to make it happen. The responsibility rests as much upon the shoulders of the students as on those of the administration, but together we have a unique opportunity to do something special.
Existing State of Affairs
There exists at Fordham a small but tight-knit community of students passionate about startups and entrepreneurship. The group is probably 25/30 people strong, and includes aspiring CEOs and product managers as well as computer coders and web designers. The group all knows each other through a Facebook group called “Tech Talk at Fordham” which was formed by Juvoni Beckford before he graduated. This group has 93 members, but only 25/30 are active.
The offline “hub” for this community is the Fordham Foundry – its introduction has probably been of greater significance for this community of 25/30 students than the 5 member businesses. We often hold informal meetings there, providing feedback on the projects we are working on. Prior to the Foundry, there was no hub for entrepreneurship at Fordham, and so any students who were interested in startups had to go to the city and attend Meetups organized by NYU etc…
The Compass Fellowship has a fantastic community spirit amongst the 15 fellows, and as a result Compass has produced some of Fordham’s most promising startups; however, more must be done for other freshmen who are not part of Compass, and a real community must be developed so that Compass fellows can grow into the wider Fordham entrepreneurship community rather than having one great year and then dissipating.
What Can Be Done to Improve It?
Unfortunately, the community for entrepreneurship is not as vibrant as it could or should be, as there are no organized community events. Both Entrepreneurship Society and Digital Business Society are crippled by their need to organize events through OrgSync, use a room on campus (not in the entrepreneurial hub of the Foundry) and most of all by the fact that they receive a $50 budget/semester from USG. The USG designated club-model, with its many restraints and limitations, is not the correct model for forming a vibrant community.
I have attempted to correct this problem by creating a Meetup group, Startup Fordham (www.meetup.com/startup-fordham) in November 2013. Rather than having a rigid hierarchical community structure (President of Entrepreneurship Society etc…) this Meetup group can act as a platform for anyone involved in the Fordham Entrepreneurial ecosystem to organize and attend events for Fordham students. Furthermore, by being outside of the control of USG, we are able to organize events such as “Tech Talk at Pugsleys”, partner with external groups (we have already agreed to partner with Bronx Tech Meetup, and are working on partnering with Tech @ NYU and Columbia ADI), and generate our own revenue. We intend on running regular workshops and community gatherings.
This Meetup group has got off to a good start with 36 members and 3 successful Meetup events to date, but in order for it to fully service the entrepreneurial community, it will need support from the administration in two key areas:
- • Promotion – to ensure that more than just our tight-knit community of 25/30 entrepreneurs know about Startup Fordham. We want people to be aware that there are a plethora of opportunities for Marketing Majors, Visual Graphics majors, Journalist majors etc etc… And that anyone interested in organizing a startup related event can leverage the Startup Fordham platform. Promotion cannot just entail a single post on GabelliConnect, and should instead be a well devised strategy that includes an introduction to the Fordham Startup scene at Freshman orientation, as well as promotion by all professors within Gabelli.
- • Support for space and partnerships – The advantages of running a community that is outside of the jurisdiction of USG are clear, but in order to for those advantages to come to fruition, we will need support in arranging space for our events. Ideally, all entrepreneurial events would have the option to be held at the Foundry unless another venue is preferred (e.g. for a “Tech Talk at Pugsleys” meetup).
Additionally, the administration is to date failing to inform Fordham students about some of the work both the Gabelli School of Business and the Graduate School of Business are doing. For example, the Graduate School is currently in partnership with the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) for their “Venture Fellows Program” which has incubated some of New York’s top tech companies. This type of partnership needs to be better broadcast to the Undergraduate student body, and Startup Fordham could be a fantastic conduit for this type of news.
I personally would also like to see some large-scale entrepreneurial events that showcase Fordham to the wider community, which will raise awareness and pride of the Fordham Startup community on campus. I am excited to work with Andrew Kingsley and the Concourse Group to put together the first Bronx 3 Day Startup, but that is just the beginning – I envision a TEDxSocialImpact event, a Bronx hackathon, a major, city-wide pitch competition etc… etc… NYU hosts an annual Entrepreneurship Festival, which energizes and brings campus wide attention to the NYU Entrepreneurial ecosystem (watch highlights of last year’s festival here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvL1ocpRpfo ).
Existing State of Affairs
Our Entrepreneurship classes do a good job of teaching many of the desirable qualities found in todays entrepreneurs – fearlessness of failure, customer feedback development etc…
The introduction of the “Web Apps Design & Development” and the “Business Applications Development” were an important step in recognizing that Information Systems is no longer about backend database infrastructure, and is instead a vital arrow in the quiver of anyone looking to succeed in Business in the 21st century.
Additionally, the mandatory nature of the Info Systems class as part of the Sophomore core shows that the administration are aware that Computer Science is growing in importance in today’s economy.
Finally, the introduction of the Digital Business Society (formerly the Association for Info Systems) was important as it offered an avenue for business students interested in learning about how they can apply technology to their own endeavors, without needing to be invested in hardcore computer science. To date, DBS has run workshops on real-time data analytics, Google AppScript programming, VBA for writing macros in Excel; it is planning events about cyber-law and productivity life-hacking amongst other topics for this coming semester.
I’d like to see our Entrepreneurship classes be more interactive and hands-on: we should learn about a topic and then try and apply it to a venture idea of our own.
Unfortunately, the introductory “Info Systems” class in the Sophomore core is simply too little, too late for anyone looking to develop the coding skills to start a tech startup. Information Systems is far too skewed towards learning how to use Microsoft Office programs such as Excel and Access, rather than understanding the science behind computers. 15 years ago, mastery of Microsoft Office was enough to qualify a graduate student as technically competent, but it just doesn’t cut it in today’s digital economy. Even bulge bracket banks are asking students who are applying for front-office positions what technical languages they are fluent in.
Similarly, graphic design skills are becoming more and more important to business, yet we continue to segregate the visual arts classes from our undergraduate business students, unless taken as an elective.
What Can Be Done to Improve It?
Seasoned Entrepreneurs and VCs are hugely influential as mentors to students looking to break into the startup world. I would advise that our entrepreneurship program focuses less on academic instructors, and more on obtaining adjunct professors who are very much involved in entrepreneurship in their life outside the classroom.
Just as Harvard’s students adapted to changing economic conditions and began taking “Introduction to Computer Science” as a core Freshman class (http://qz.com/123705/the-most-popular-courses-at-harvard/ ) so, Fordham needs to adapt its curriculum to allow our Business students to do the same. Introduction to Computer Science is much more oriented towards programming, encouraging students to begin programming themselves in languages such as C. This type of Intro class is much better than our existing Info Systems class, as it teaches students the fundamental elements of coding, a skillset which today is much more valuable than Microsoft Office.
I would advise that an Intro to Computer Science class be offered, and allowing it to count as a “Fine Art” requirement as part of the Fordham core. That way, Freshmen can begin to understand the value of computer programming early in their college career, and will understand the next steps they need to take to become fully fledged web developers.
Similarly, I would allow a Visual Arts class in Graphic Design to be incorporated into the Gabelli curriculum as a Marketing elective, allowing our creative marketers to learn about graphic design as part of their major.
The Digital Business Society will continue to offer a variety of workshops outside of the curriculum on topics that are more specialized, and I would encourage all Information Systems professors to tell their students about DBS events in their classes.
Existing State of Affairs
Gabelli is very lucky to have an administration which is willing to adapt to student demand, and invest in its students (as demonstrated with the funding of the Compass Fellowship and the addition of many different Concentrations such as Value Investing or Sustainability). This level of support for student ambitions will be necessary for Fordham to reach its potential as a hub for Social Entrepreneurship.
Unfortunately, Fordham is currently set up as a process-driven organization, rather than a system-driven organization. Under a process-driven organization, the default answer to any suggestion or idea is “no” unless the appropriate consent has been given and the idea fully-vetted. In order to become a truly innovative University, we must instead become a system-driven organization, whereby the default answer to any suggestion is “yes”, but a system has been set up so as to raise red flags if the proposed suggestion violates policy or presents a conflict of any nature.
The amount of bureaucracy and red-tape involved with starting and operating a business at Fordham are a major obstacle in students progressing from the idea stage to the operational stage.
Additionally, the organizational structure of TrepCon is too informal, which acts to the detriment of the event and Fordham Entrepreneurship.
What Can Be Done to Improve It?
Here are some examples of how a system-driven entrepreneurship program might run:
- • Operating a business on campus – At the moment there is no formal procedure for students operating their own business on campus, and students attempting to operate businesses come under fire from the Office for Student Affairs. Dean’s Council Chairman and USG Gabelli representative, Nevin Kulangara, has proposed the implementation of a University owned Umbrella Company under which students can operate a business on campus with minimum legal hassle, known as Fordham Student Holdings (FSH). As a company run by students, but with oversight by a “board” of administrators, FSH turns running a business on campus into a system-driven organization whereby students do the leg work, but the board is able to veto any decisions made if a red flag is raised. Furthermore, FSH has the potential to generate revenue for Fordham while providing students access to services and products they can’t currently access.
- • Promotion of events around campus – students should be able to access the TV monitors around campus, add events to the GabelliConnect calendar and stick posters around campus without prior permission. This system could be policed by students themselves – once students submit their promotional material, there is a certain time period (e.g. 1 hour) before it actually comes up on the monitors around Hughes Hall and the rest of campus. Other students using the system would be able to raise a red flag against any of these postings if they deem them inappropriate, at which point Nicole Gesualdo would be notified.
- • Gabelli Suggestions Initiative – A proposal for student feedback system which is much more effective than the Dean’s Council: a system integrated with GabelliConnect where students can post ideas to improve Gabelli or Fordham in general, and other students can upvote or downvote a suggestion. Any suggestion with more than a certain number of votes (e.g. 50 upvotes) must be addressed by a member of the Gabelli administration.
Here are some suggestions for improving the organizational structure of TrepCon:
- • Host Committee for TrepCon – the organization of TrepCon should be conducted by a committee of students and faculty, chaired by Dr. Janssen-Selvadurai, with a minimum of 8 members. The committee should be convened in the Spring, before the event in the Fall. The committee should be financially incentivized if they can raise sponsorship, sell tickets to students at other Universities and members of the public, and generate a substantial amount of PR. TrepCon should be a chance for Fordham to showcase its Entrepreneurship program to the outside community, but to date it only really serves the Fordham student body.
As I mentioned in my abstract, access to financial resources can act as a catalyst to ignite a small but vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem, but in itself will not build a successful ecosystem. Below are a few suggestions of the type of access to financial resources that Fordham could look to offer once we have established our ecosystem.
Access to Financial Resources
- • Student-run credit institution – proposed by a number of USG representatives over the past 3 years, but never implemented, a student-run credit institution could offer microloans ($500-$5,000) to student entrepreneurs to help them get their businesses off the ground.
- • Pitch & Business Plan Competitions – a competitive pitch competition and business plan competition can help students to validate their ideas, and winning a competition can give them the confidence to dedicate time towards executing their vision. A financial prize for a pitch competition and a business plan competition would add further legitimacy to an idea’s credentials, and provide the fuel to get the off the ground.
Fordham has sowed the seeds of a fruitful entrepreneurship ecosystem, but there are important steps that need addressing and developing to nurture the system organically. To continue the metaphor, a supportive, collaborative community acts as the strong roots which are the necessary foundation for the plant’s growth; a deep pool of skilled product managers, developers and designers are the water, carbon dioxide and nutrients which the plant draws in order to grow; a system-driven organization is the soft soil which promotes growth instead of the rocky ground which restricts growth. That leaves Financial Resources as Miracle-Gro!
Check list of steps that can be implemented
- 1. While Community development is ultimately an organic development that is down to the students, the administration can support community development through well-developed promotion and support in finding space and making us aware of existing partnerships.
- 2. The curriculum for teaching business students technical skills is currently seriously inadequate. My proposed solution is to offer an “Intro to Computer Science” class that students can take instead of their Fine Arts requirement in their freshman year.
- 3. The University can work with Nevin Kulangara to implement his proposed Fordham Student Holdings, an Umbrella Company that helps Fordham move towards becoming a systems-driven organization.
- 4. The University can continue to fund and support existing Entrepreneurship programs such as the Compass Fellowship which have proven efficacy.
- 5. The University can set up a committee for TrepCon and raise our ambitions to put on a conference that many members of the startup community in New York would be willing to pay to attend, and put Fordham Entrepreneurship on the map.