Years ago (too many to recount!) when I completed my education and looked to enter the “real” world, my fellow students and I saw great opportunities but somewhat limited choices. We all looked to land good jobs in big companies, big government or a prestigious university. None of us looked at starting our own business. Professors and mentors never mentioned such a pathway and, frankly, it never occurred to me. Looking back I can only wonder what may have been had someone given me a slight nudge in that direction.
Today our world of global competitiveness is much different and at least some of our aspiring graduates look to be captains of their own destiny, choosing riskier but, perhaps, the more rewarding option of creating a new startup of their very own. Institutions such as Stanford and MIT have long understood the opportunities for innovation from their research and education enterprises. In their culture, entering students see themselves as failures if at graduation they aren’t part of a new startup–the next Google or Facebook or whatever.
This message of “growing your own” enterprise has been slower to reach some regions and Universities. Creating an entrepreneurial, innovative culture is not obvious nor automatic. It requires the community at large to be proactive, putting in place certain key elements (Angel and VC investors, incubators, entrepreneurial networks, etc) and offering innovation options and strategies for students (and faculty/teachers) to consider. One strategy is through business plan competitions that challenge student teams to be innovative and create a “model” business plan that could actually become a real startup company.
This weekend (March 9th, 10th), the 4th Camino Real Venture Competition will take place on UTEP’s campus. Ten teams from six universities, four states and two countries in the Camino Real corridor from Colorado to Chihuahua will compete for in-kind and cash prizes of over $15,000. The overall winner will go on to the international Global Moot Corp/Venture Lab Competition in Austin, Texas where hundreds of student teams from around the world will compete for even larger prizes and prestige. More important than simply winning prizes, all of the teams will get a sense of what it’s like to “pitch” an idea to investors, stand-up in front of a large audience and make a “60-second elevator pitch”, and find out what is important in the real world rather than what looks good in the lab or the classroom. Each team will be given one-on-one sessions with their judges–experts in their own right as entrepreneurs, inventors, business owners, etc–to mentor these fledgling entrepreneurs on how to improve their ideas, on what’s important and what’s not, and on how they might further hone their skills to succeed in the real world.
In some instances an actual company may come out of the competition (we have a few from the earlier contests now growing in our region!). At the very least the seeds for new, young entrepreneurs will have been sown. And who knows, but the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs may be among these starry-eyed, innovators looking to win a prize and soon to be launched into the world.–Paul Maxwell
Part II of this series will explore a new initiative to introduce high school students to the world of innovation and entrepreneurship.