NYU’s Thriving Entrepreneurial Scene Represents Broader Theme Sweeping America
Photography by Riley Sistrunk
April 27th, 6:20PM. Room T200 at NYU’s Tisch Hall is strained with anticipation. Undergraduates representing a cross-section of NYU’s schools cluster around laptops pointing at Google Analytics dashboards, dissecting website mockups and tweaking financial models. Uninitiated passers by may assume this class no different from any other undergraduate business class, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. The serious work being carried out in this room is not being done for a grade or for a job—most of the students laugh sincerely at the suggestion—it’s being done for themselves and more importantly the world.
10 reasons to join a start-up out of college 1. You’ll learn to be flexible 2. You’ll be forced to live frugally 3. You’ll discover talents you never knew you had 4. You’ll learn how to fail 5. You’ll learn how to be an entrepreneur 6. You may be given a stake in the outcome 7. You’ll be working with passionate people 8. You’ll have a voice 9. You’ll learn how to work in a team 10. Startup cultures rock -- Donna Fenn, reposted in Venture For America news
A Perfect Storm
A handful of subway stops away from Wall Street to the South and Times Square to the North, this class room has transformed into Ground Zero for a small yet potent subculture bubbling up within NYU’s thriving intellectual scene: startup.
Nestled within the perennially top performing Stern School of Business, across the courtyard from the Courant Institute of Mathematics’ Computer Science department, steps away from the Tisch School of the Arts with its deep stable of honored alumni and Interactive Telecommunications Program (recently famous for incubating Dennis Crowley and his technology application “Dodgeball” that went on to become the 8 million member strong foursquare)—this is a perfect storm in the making.
The student group Tech@NYU burgeoned past several dozens of members (in a school notorious for low student participation—you just can’t compete with the enticement of New York City) before it even received official campus club status last year. The club now regularly packs crowded halls with its semesterly NYU Startup Weeks, weekly programming lessons, and social events. Behind the sober official mission statement (“We connect technologists and entrepreneurs at NYU to collaborate, work together, and learn from one another.”) lies something much bigger, a sea change in undergraduate aspirations infecting students across academic disciplines. With the entire world a few clicks away, and the cost of enterprise business solutions tumbling to free in many cases, there is no reason aside from personal readiness for students to wait a few years before attempting their first venture.
NYU’s energy has been significantly stimulated by the larger context of New York City. “Silicon Alley” has steadily reemerged after the dotcom crash, flush with out of work computer science grads who were previously put to work within the cavernous financial behemoths of Wall Street. Despite the best efforts of the Middle Eastern emirs to jumpstart industry clusters such as Dubai Internet City and Dubai Media City with massive infusions of cash, these things take time, sincerity, and several dashes of serendipity.
Ready, Fire, Aim!
Culture is not static. The moment an intellectual artifact leaves the mind of its originator it belongs to the world, endlessly remixed in the minds of all who encounter it. Each human is a drop of water, diluting and carrying the ripple farther away from its source. All their experiences combined, these student-entrepreneurs have read, and spoken with, witnessed, and participated in the wealth of startup culture that has accumulated in NYU and New York over the past decade. And now they are ready to try it out for themselves.
The class, called Ready, Fire, Aim! (formally known as Entrepreneurship for the New Economy) to reflect the startup mantra that execution trumps planning, is helmed by Lawrence Lenihan, founder and CEO of Firstmark Capital, along with Hilary Gosher, a Managing Director at Insight Venture Partners. This earnest participation within the NYU community by NYC’s own Venture Capital community is proof of the robust nourishment the community is enjoying at all levels. Over the course of the semester, T200 has also been graced by top names in the startup world such as Second Market founder Barry Silbert, and Gilt Groupe founder Alexis Maybank. The education being received in this classroom is absolutely real world and absolutely irreplaceable—you have to be there to really learn what is being taught.
The Next Generation of Leaders
NYU isn’t the only school with some of its brightest students shifting their focus away from traditional paths to launch their careers in startup. The Kairos Society, an entrepreneurial community founded in 2008 by Wharton undergrad Ankur Jain, has rapidly spread to top campuses across the United States and abroad. Its stated mission: to “bring together top students from around the world in an effort to foster the next generation of leaders to develop globally impactful innovations.” The annual conference was held in New York this past February and featured 50 of the most innovative ventures pulled from their ranks. The selection included ventures whose primary focus is to generate social profits instead of financial ones such as Moneythink—founded in U. Chicago by undergrad Ted Gonder which seeks to spread the business education concentrated within top schools into underserved high schools that surround them—and Powerhouse NYC—founded at NYU by undergrad Amanda Raposo which provides housing and job training to young pregnant single women. Kairos Society’s rapid growth, bolstered by the strength of the students and ventures under its umbrella, reflects the hunger with which undergrads are embracing these opportunities.
As explained by Rubicon Property CEO Jason Haber in a keynote address to a group of social entrepreneurs (yes, social entrepreneurship is still entrepreneurship Mr. Lenihan!) crammed into the back of a Greenwich Village sushi restaurant last week to celebrate the launch of The Village Social Entrepreneur Exchange—an NYU rooted undergraduate social entrepreneur community—today’s Millenials have been conditioned to expect immediate access to their desires, and this extends to their desires to change the world. Why squander two years in corporate when you can start changing the world today! The folklore of Millenial legends such as Mark Zuckerberg don’t help matters much.
Then there startup savants like billionaire Peter Thiel who in 2010 offered 20 students under the age of 20 a $100,000 grant to drop out of school (dubbed stopping out of school) to focus on entrepreneurial ventures full time. Thiel’s proposal reflects the growing media attention on what has been called a higher-education bubble: the claim amount of money being invested by students around the United States for increasingly expensive college degrees has begun to eclipse the value return promised by this investment. Without sound fundamentals backing up the investment (some debt-laden graduates wonder why they bothered with college), and a volatile global economy that has banished many bright graduates back into their parents’ houses, the argument that college as a necessary step towards success is starting to ring hollow.
Back in T200
Back in room T200, the tension in the air is electric. For an entire semester, guided by the firm hand of Professors Lenihan and Gosher (although the pair operate more as basketball coaches than professors—steadfastly grooming the teams to success with tough love), student entrepreneurs have developed, tested, and pivoted their ideas into serious ventures on par with any the professors may come across during their day jobs. From women’s fashion to urban real estate, artisan food to the Brazilian bus industry, nobody is safe from the clutches of these soon to be world-dominators.
Over the next two class sessions, fourteen groups presented their ventures in 25 minute pitches with time built in for the professors to grill the groups on glossed angles or untenable assumptions. These presentations are qualitatively different from anything I’ve witnessed during my four years at Stern; the professionalism they exude is rooted not in the shininess of the Power Point, but the commitment of the presenters.
Market testing, product roll-out roadmaps, customer acquisition strategies—all based on continual implementation and refinement—these aren’t pseudo-solutions for a faceless Fortune 500. The reward for a successful presentation isn’t a pat on the back but the chance to pitch your idea in front of Lenihan’s VC firm; the reward for a successful venture could be the birth of a new billion-dollar corporation.
Years ago I was fulfilling my national service requirement by training with the army in Singapore. After three months of proving myself in boot camp I was selected to join an elite group of recruits headed for Officer Cadet School. We were elated: the cream of the crop picked from across the Singapore Armed Forces’ infantry companies. We believed ourselves to be the pinnacle of personal military achievement. That is, until three months later we were joined by a new group of recruits: the commandos. For the next six months we witnessed in awe a radically higher standard of mental endurance and physical toughness; the bar had been undoubtedly raised and we were—though slightly overwhelmed—nothing but grateful for the chance to set our sights higher.
That’s what Ready, Fire, Aim! is when compared to other experiences in business education. Every single one of these students, whether they go on to startups, work in corporate, or pursue some other path entirely, will forever have their sights set higher, and will be far more potent, than when they first stepped into classroom T200.
I present to you: the commandos of the business world.
Education > Recruitment
Nate Berkopec, Eugene Joseph, Alex Klokus, Lisa Zhang
Elite students trying to enter professional fields have difficulty differentiating themselves—they all have high GPAs, solid internship experience and have held leadership roles. Top firms are also unable to discern the cream of the cream.
SOLUTION:JudoJobs provides 3rd party certification by testing students on real knowledge and sorting them in to rankings within the context of an online community.
Financial Services > Savings
Alex Crosby, Josh Martin, Rebecca Zhou
Saving for Millenials is easier said than done. Also, coming up with the right gift for your friends is a challenge.
SOLUTION:MyOneThing provides users with an e-commerce profile that displays their current saving objective—including what they want to purchase and how far they have progressed towards achieving their goal—and allows them to share it with friends who would like to contribute.
Travel > Student
Emily Chesler, Jacob Laufer, Andrew Oved, Alex Rusinowitz, Michael Sutich
Universities have empty spaces in their study abroad programs, students have no access to this information to find the best opportunity for them.
SOLUTION:TripScore provides a niche database to resolve the information asymmetry between students interested in a study abroad experience and universities looking to fill their extra spaces. It also offers a centralized location for students to exchange relevant information about study abroad locations.
Software > Mobile
Hursh Agrawal, Boian Filev, Zac Novatt, Nolan Lindeke, Zen Endo
Information inefficiency between mobile app users, developers and advertisers.
SOLUTION:WinLabs is developing a mobile API to mitigate this inefficiency using in-house developed games as an initial vector.
NOTE: As happens extremely frequently in the volatile world of startup, WinLabs was forced to pivot their product multiple times. The mobile API is the latest iteration of a concept that was redeveloped only two days prior to the presentation resulting in less coherent results. Their energy, however, remains unflagged in the spirit of true entrepreneurship. Group member Zen Endo commented: “This is a good team but we haven’t had the best track record. It was really bad—we pivoted a ton and couldn’t stick to one thing. That said, I’ve been in a lot of group projects at Stern and have never enjoyed any of them as much as I have this one. We have a truly amazing team. By the way, if you have an android phone, use this QR code to play our first game.”
5. Closet Collective
Fashion > Rental
Bridget Sheehy, Christine Waters
University women don’t have money, but do have busy social calendars. Purchasing more clothes results in over-stuffed closets.
SOLUTION:Closet Collective provides access to an entire secure network of other students’ closets—a style-network. Closets are itemized, displayed online, and available for rent allowing each user to create an online boutique with their own clothes.
Real Estate > Urban Gardening
Hayley Knafel, Carlina Yu, Claire Fuller
Limited green spaces in urban areas to enjoy the outdoors. Those that are available become extremely crowded on popular days.
SOLUTION:VertaCulture creates more sustainable urban environments by providing productive outdoor space via “upyards” (backyards that are on top of buildings).
Social Networking > Urban
Tushar Jain, Sukoon Manekia, Dillon Krug
Neighbors provide a lot of value information and help. Minimal interaction between neighbors in urban setting increases the difficulty of living in a city. People are unable to access hyperlocal collective knowledge due to high social barriers.
SOLUTION:Neighbr.ly is a social network based not on friends or content, but on location.
Food > Artisan
Alexandra Kleiman, Jake Siegal
Intersection of three trends has left an emerging customer segment underserved: growing interest in artisan and sustainable foods, local discovery via foursquare and Groupon, growing desire for curated sampling opportunities.
SOLUTION:Samplrs offers a monthly, subscription based curated sampling of the best artisan food products New York State has to offer.
9. Melitix Systems
Software > Education
Michael Ibragimchayev, Samantha Smith, Eddie Mamiye, Kyle Samani, Justin Iso
University students deal with email overload from the dozens of campus groups they may have casually subscribed to making it tedious to sift through them to find relevant information.
SOLUTION:Melitix Systems provides a central aggregator for campus groups to feed their events into, thus allowing students a simple way to subscribe to relevant groups and scan through interesting events and activities.
10. Fit To Flick
Fashion > Hats
Hannah Bomze, Ruchi Sharma, John Swope
Wearing a warm hat with a ponytail is uncomfortable and looks unattractive (creating what is called an “alien bump”), especially for female travelers who value both comfort and style for photographs they will look back on.
SOLUTION:Fit To Flick offers a range of stylish hats with a 3.5 inch slit in the back for a ponytail to fall through. When a ponytail is not worn, the slit is negligible.
11. Albright Tutors
Education > Online
Xiaoya Li, Jason Park, Jordan Ackerman, Sung Won Kim
Parents are looking for tutors from brand name colleges; tutors invest uncompensated time and money in transportation to and from the location.
SOLUTION:Albright Tutors offers an online platform with advanced collaboration technology to connect brand name tutors, students, and parents.
Transportation > Bus > Brazil
Natan Amaral, Paul Freiman, Neal Perlman
The bus industry in Brazil is incredibly fractured, with 222 independent bus companies in operation. With 140 million bus rides in 2010, the World Cup coming in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016, this is an operational nightmare.
SOLUTION:Vaidebusao is a meta-portal for bus travel in Brazil, aggregating fares and schedules into a simple, user-friendly system.
Max Stoller, Tal Safran
NOTE: As per the founders’ wishes (who mentioned in class “don’t tweet about this!”) I will not be adding my own commentary to this rapidly evolving venture. Please check out their website if you would like to learn more!
Nightlife > Event Management
Justin Samra, Kevin Eom, Jimi Lee
The perennial issue of deciding where to go next weekend. Also venue management don't have a tool to accurately gauge their demographic with high precision.
SOLUTION:NiteRite is a social platform between city exploring individuals and the venues that serve them. By offering detailed customer statistics for different venues, users can better plan which venues to patronize, and venue owners have a better idea of what sort of demographic they are targeting.