Trend. Millennial generation Industry. Education Key. Entrepreneurship is popular on campus.
In fall 2014, Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers quietly opened its entrepreneurship program to all students.
Until then, the entrepreneurship program had enrolled 200 students within the Lutgert College of Business. The response was immediate and overwhelming: “We now have about 800 students,” says Sandra Kauanui, director of the Institute for Entrepreneurship at FGCU.
Set aside any preconceived notions you may have of the millennial generation and visit any university campus on the Gulf Coast. Entrepreneurship is so cool that colleges can barely keep up with the demand.
There are many reasons for the high demand, but chief among them is that the millennial generation saw their parents laid off by corporations during the recession. Combine that with advances in technology and the generation's desire for meaningful work and it's no surprise many want to be entrepreneurs.
Even though they didn't advertise it in the student handbook, the response at FGCU was enthusiastic. “I added classes as fast and furious as I could,” Kauanui says. For example, the four Introduction to Entrepreneurship classes fill up within five minutes when registration opened online at 6 a.m.
When she asks students in the introductory classes whether they've ever started a business, nearly half the students raise their hands. “Their perspective of the world is very different,” Kauanui says.
Widespread layoffs during the recession made a big mark on the millennial generation, much like the children who grew up during the Great Depression.
“These kids have grown up during a time when corporations have stopped being a pathway to retirement and a wonderful life,” says Rebecca White, director of the John P. Lowth Entrepreneurship Center at the University of Tampa.
Millennials view corporations with a jaundiced eye. While they may consider working for someone else for a few years to build some savings, many of them realize they need entrepreneurial skills that will help them survive the next downturn. Michael Fountain, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of South Florida in Tampa, says students think: “I've got to be prepared and be a constant, life-long learner.”
Still, some parents aren't ready to let their children grow up to be entrepreneurs. “They are very wary about me being an entrepreneur,” says Amy Ridgway, a graduate student at FGCU who is developing a software company that makes products to help autistic children. “They want me to be secure,” she says.
But for many millennials, entrepreneurship promises a more secure future. White says students tell her: “I watched my parents dedicate their life to a corporate environment and get downsized. I decided I didn't want to put my life in the hands of anyone else and control my life and career.”
Some millennials have seen their entrepreneurial parents struggle, too, because they didn't have the business skills they needed. For example, Dixie Villaraga, 25, a senior at FGCU majoring in special education, watched her own mother's entrepreneurial struggles. “I want to open my own clinic one day,” she says. “I feel like entrepreneurship is connected to everything in life.”
Courville, the FGCU student, puts working for a corporation this way: “You're playing someone else's game.”
Plus, millennials want to use their skills for a good cause. “They try to have a positive impact through enterprise and venture creation,” Fountain says. For example, some students are involved in developing new inexpensive water-purification and solar technology for use in poor countries. “They're socially responsible in solving problems,” he says.
All across campus
The entrepreneur programs at universities on the Gulf Coast attract students from a wide variety of majors, from anthropology to zoology. “Entrepreneurship is not just for business,” says Kauanui.
At FGCU, for example, 45% of students choosing the entrepreneurship minor don't attend the College of Business. Health sciences, engineering and other schools at FGCU steer students who want to start a business in their fields, too.
Likewise, the USF Center for Entrepreneurship has always been multi-disciplinary, open to all students. “They approach problem-solving in ways our business students may not,” says Fountain.
At the University of Tampa, one student who studies dance and psychology is starting a dance-therapy studio. “She's created a dance-curriculum program,” says White.
Technology brings many of these entrepreneurial students together. “They're so well connected with technology and each other, they see opportunities where we didn't,” says Fountain.
For example, Caleb Courville, a junior at FGCU who is studying computer information systems, pitched an idea in his freshman speech class to make it easier to store phone numbers on a cell phone using a QR code. “Now I'm working with three friends,” says Courville, who enrolled in the entrepreneurship program at FGCU to help develop it. “We have a product that's going to launch this summer,” he says.
Technology brings obvious low-cost advantages, such as an instant marketplace for new products via the Internet. But they can also cast a wide net for building their companies. “They realize that a company doesn't have to be physically located in one location,” Fountain says. “They can build teams from around the world.”
No need for students to beg for a bank loan to start their business, either. “Now these students can go after crowd sourcing,” Fountain says.
Universities on the Gulf Coast are keen to see entrepreneurship students succeed with their ideas and put them to work.
For example, USF has a student innovation incubator, office space in which students can get training, mentoring and learning from guest entrepreneurs who volunteer their time.
Currently, there are 39 student-created companies at the incubator who are selected from a panel of entrepreneurs. “They have to pitch their way in,” Fountain says.
To remain in the incubator, students have to show progress and pitch again. “We don't kick them out, but we do require they reapply the second year,” Fountain says.
Fountain estimates that graduates of USF's entrepreneurship program have created more than 300 companies. “They're really having an impact,” Fountain says. “The ones who have stayed here are doing exceedingly well and they're giving back now. That's the legacy.”
At the University of Tampa's entrepreneurship program, 16 student-led businesses are operating from the program's new building that opened on campus last fall. “The center offers experiential opportunities: start companies, practice pitches, get mentors,” says White.
Besides mentoring students, successful entrepreneurs on the Gulf Coast are giving substantial funds to these kinds of programs. For example, Naples entrepreneurs Frank and Ellen Daveler recently gave $2.9 million to USF to help undergraduate students prepare to launch successful businesses. “Our first group of scholars will be selected in the spring,” Fountain says.