Back in 2009, some Colby students had an idea: a bottle-less and automatically filtered water cooler. It would save money, reduce waste, and give people cleaner water. When they went to Career Center Director Roger Woolsey for help turning their idea into a business, he didn’t find many resources to help entrepreneurial-minded students at Colby.
So, he decided to create some.
The result, just a few years later, is the Entrepreneurial Alliance, which offers a one-year curriculum of workshops, information sessions, and other programming to inject Colby students with a dose of entrepreneurial spirit and know-how. Colby faculty, staff, alumni, and community partners worked with 80 students last year to show them how bright ideas get turned into big business. The year ends with a competition in which a panel of demanding judges selects the most business-ready plan and awards its student creators $15,000 in seed money.
The alliance attracts a special kind of self-motivated student. They’re excited and driven. This isn’t a program for the student who shows up to class and wants the professor to give them something to do; it is for the student who is going to take charge and succeed.
Many alliance participants find themselves looking ahead to next spring’s competition even before they’ve registered for classes. Daniel Abrams ’13 presented a GPS tracking wristband for children and dementia patients last year and, while he didn’t win the $15,000, he is already planning to fine-tune his proposal and take a second shot at the competition. The judges last year gave him plenty to work on, he said. “It was really intimidating, but it was also one of the greatest learning experiences I have had at Colby.”
A few recent business proposals that made it to the Entrepreneurial Alliance’s spring business competition:
My Fresh Company LLC
Marcus Josefsson ’13
Danny Garin ’13
Noah VanValkenburg ’13
E-commerce website that allows user to have fresh produce shipped directly from farms.
Will O’Brien ’12
Mobile application for tracking personal productivity.
Nicholas Papanastassiou ’13
Provides folding bicycles to companies for their
employees to use.
Daniel Abrams ’13
GPS tracking wristband for children and
Benjamin Weinberger ’11
A nonprofit that trains high school students to start and maintain vegetable gardens in the Chicago area.
Clay McMickens ’12
An e-commerce digital marketplace that serves
as a broker between college students buying and selling goods.
Victor Chen ’12
Ben Darr ’15
A restaurant serving high quality, lower calorie
food and beverages.
Matthew Boyes-Watson ’12
An online tool that matches renters preferences to realtor inventories.
Woolsey said that’s exactly the kind of thinking that the alliance is supposed to spur. He said the entrepreneurial spirit in the United States has declined over the decades, and today’s students, especially those with the kind of background that Colby’s liberal arts curriculum provides, are in a unique position to succeed as entrepreneurs. The challenge is to give them the skills they need to move from idea to product.
Alumni, friends, and community members help provide those skills by advising, lecturing, and supporting the alliance financially. Mark Johnson ’96, a senior director at Conde Nast, uses his experience with Internet startups as an advisor for the alliance. He gives a workshop on fundraising, serves as a judge at the competition, and works one-on-one with students to guide them through the proposal process.
“These kids are learning what it takes to execute these ideas, and that’s the most important part,” Johnson said. “They’re making mistakes and fixing them and trying again after the program.”
So, where do these ideas come from?
Typically, from students’ own experiences, said alliance president Victoria Feng ’13. The diverse backgrounds and experiences Colby students bring to campus ensure that brainstorming sessions, workshops, and excursions always catalyze some kind of creative thought. “They’re seeing a problem that needs a solution,” she said. “But, instead of waiting for it to be created, they create their own.”
Recent projects have addressed clean water, urban bicycling, fresh produce, and healthful drinks. They suggest an interest on the part of the creators to look beyond sheer financial profits to find some social good, whether it’s for the environment, health, or the standard of living. Students talking about the alliance focus on what their idea can help people achieve, not how much money it could make.
Feng said one of her major goals this year is to get the club out into “the real entrepreneurial landscape in Maine.” Learning entrepreneurship is difficult without heading off-campus, engaging the wider community, and learning firsthand how businesses happen, she said. That thinking is in line with Woolsey’s aspirations for making the alliance a support network for entrepreneurs throughout the Kennebec River valley. The ideas these students have, and the entrepreneurial skills they’re developing, stand to have a positive effect on the communities where they eventually set up shop.
Feng said the business landscape and society at large desperately need a stronger entrepreneurial spirit, and that Colby students are well equipped to deliver it. The ideas are there, but the alliance is showing students how to turn ideas into plans from which they can really benefit.
“The thing about entrepreneurship is that you don’t just get a job after college,” she said. “You create it.”