As a sophomore in the Isenberg School of Management and the Founder and President of the UMass Amherst Entrepreneurship Club, I witnessed the enormous potential of a collaborative working environment. Where students are intellectually divided, an environment that fosters multi-disciplinary innovation will enable students to become leaders of change, out of the box thinkers, and teach them the necessary entrepreneurial skills to succeed in today’s modern world, which cannot effectively be taught in the classroom. To reach this goal I worked to create the UMass Entrepreneurship Club (EC).
What an accelerator is:
Accelerators, or incubators, essentially act as a supporting environment where young ventures can be mentored and guided towards success. Without an accelerator, or a supportive entrepreneurial community, it is extremely difficult for ventures to succeed.
There are many accelerators around the world, with startups competing their way into the best. Where privatized accelerators such as MassChallenge and Y Combinator cater to well-established individuals who understand the global entrepreneurial ecosystem, have a lot of free time, and have developed ideas, accelerators at the university level typically look to inspire and promote budding entrepreneurs.
Tiered like professional athletics, some universities (Harvard, Babson, Northeastern, MIT, University of Michigan) have “A” level world-renowned accelerator programs that come close or even exceed the success of the best private accelerator programs. These university-level accelerators are considered to be the best because they see the most student ventures succeed, have the strongest alumni/ mentor/ community networks, and have the strongest technical facilities to offer to their student-run ventures. To establish a successful university accelerator program takes time, but the first step is easy: someone needs the drive, passion and time commitment to start it.
Much to the administration’s dismay, the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass) is famously labeled The Zoo. This name most often refers to the fact that a portion of the student body acts wild, while being contained by the University, but recently a new definition has become clear. With 90 majors, approximately 29,000 students, and 12 independent colleges, UMass Amherst is like a zoo because it is so divided. Each college, like its own animal enclosure, holds interesting students with extremely varied ways of thinking and studies, but students from these various colleges/ enclosures rarely meet or engage.
For example: students from Isenberg typically stay in Isenberg, take part in Isenberg classes and clubs, and rarely engage with students from other majors on an intellectual level. UMass Amherst has created institutional bubbles that do not mirror the diversity of how the modern company operates. The modern world is being built on collaboration, not exclusion. Only through the development of a multidisciplinary, entrepreneurial community, will the walls of “The Zoo” be broken down, and creative passion and spirit be allowed to run free. With the creation of a cross-campus student run accelerator, the resources of the campus will be magnified, and UMass Amherst students will realize they can be catalysts to their future success.
Requirements of a Successful Accelerator Program:
1. The support of the academic administration
2. A group of entrepreneurially minded students and innovative thought leaders who will lead in the formation of the accelerator
3. Students interested in being part of the accelerator
4. A community to draw upon for support.
Prior to my introduction of the idea to the Entrepreneurship club, I had multiple conversations with faculty and members of the academic administration including Professor Birton Cowden, the Associate Director of the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship, the Entrepreneur in Residence at UMass, Steve Willis, the Dean of the Isenberg School of Management. Every member of the administration fully supported the idea, expressed that it would be difficult, and wanted to know how he could be involved.
Because of the sheer size of the UMass Amherst campus, the Colleges of Computer Science, Engineering, and Business, have long been divided. Besides occasionally attending the same meetings, there were few topics faculty from the various colleges could associate on, and thus there has been little cross-campus collaboration. A significant change occurred with the creation of the UMass Innovation Challenge, the largest startup pitch competition on campus. Where this competition was rooted in student entrepreneurship, it was the first real event where students from all of UMass’ colleges gathered and associated on an intellectual level to form teams, construct business ideas, pitch, and network. The success of the Innovation Challenge, and students that participate, revealed the power a multi-disciplinary community.
The world needs help on multiple fronts, the number of available jobs is falling, and people need to start thinking differently. Students are capable of creating great value with the purpose of benefiting numerous lives. Rooted in its origins, the UMass Amherst ecosystem must look to detangle itself, and create a system that encourages innovation rather than inadvertently causing prostration.
Students need to realize they have the power to change the world for the better, rather that being encouraged that success is thinking like and being part of the status quo. Only when students think outside the status quo, and realize that they are capable of creating the change, will they actually look to. A crucial first step in inspiring students that they have the capability to change is the establishment of a progressive student run venture accelerator program than can successfully lead students on an entrepreneurial path.