The “Y” entrepreneurs: learning to think “out of the box”

Region – Penn State senior drop-out David Rusenko, co-founder of Weebly, a software company that “makes a web creation tool that doesn’t suck,” and SnapAds, which provide display ad optimization, returned to his almost alma mater this year to do a presentation for an IST course in which student teams create “pitches” for the university’s start-up competition.

“David really connected with the students, and it was very interesting to see a 20-something year old dude, talking about angel funding, venture capital, risk mitigation, bookkeeping, and cooperative agreements,” said Jim Jansen, Penn State IST assistant professor, on Blogger.

In 2006, while sitting in an IST class, Rusenko came up with the idea for a new web application that he and his fellow students Dan Veltri and Chris Fanini would turn into a hot new startup company a year later.

His software solution addressed the difficulty Penn State students had using Microsoft FrontPage to create their e-portfolios, which contain online resumes, photos, and multimedia presentations.

Rusenko realized the software had a wider application beyond the university, because Websites are difficult for the average person to create.

The next steps were to find some seed capital and a place to work. Those opportunities came knocking at 2:00 a.m. during the fall of 2007 when Rusenko was reading Slashdot (“news for nerds”), which had information about Y Combinator, a California venture firm specializing in funding early stage software and web services start-ups.

Rusenko called Veltri and Fanini and asked if they wanted to do the unthinkable – drop out of school a couple months before graduation and move to San Francisco to start up their software company Weebly. They answered, “Totally!”

Three million people are now using Weebly to easily create personal websites, blogs, or establish web presences for their businesses, weddings, classrooms, churches, art portfolios, etc.

Weebly is one of many student start-ups that have come out of Penn State in the past five years. Some others include: Fuzr, a file sharing Website developed by a 2008 IST graduate; Diamond Back Truck Covers, which have up to 1,600 lb. top load capacity; and Mashavu, a telemedicine service that connects medical professionals in Kenya via cell phone to developing communities.

This summer, Penn State will host six student start-ups in an on-campus “business accelerator,” sponsored by Lion Launch Pad, a nonprofit designed to provide seed money, office space, mentors, and networking opportunities for undergraduate entrepreneurs.

The idea stemmed from Penn State graduate (’07) Rob Shedd’s honors thesis, which concluded that while traditional business incubators were helpful to practicing business people, students didn’t fit the qualifying criteria and the programs weren’t geared to their needs.

Sheed based Lion Launch Pad in State College so the impact of business growth could be felt locally, and so students could continue their education while developing their businesses.

Robert Macy, Clinical Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship at the Farrell Center for Corporate Innovation & Entrepreneurship, is co-chair of the business accelerator along with Liz Kisenwether, assistant professor of Engineering.

“All our undergraduate entrepreneurship and innovation courses are cross listed with Engineering and IST,” said Macy.

“We push the cross functional nature of our coursework so we can get business, engineering, and IST students in the same room, talking to each other and forging relationships across the disciplines.

“You can have an engineer who has a brilliant idea but he isn’t sure if there’s a market for it, or if it’s just cool science,” said Macy.

Although entrepreneurship courses are also offered to MBA students, 90 percent of Penn State MBAs go on to secure jobs in large corporations.

“Gen Y twenty-somethings are more self-assured than the previous generation was; they have an attitude of don’t tell me what to do, I’ll figure it out for myself,” said Macy. “They also have a higher tolerance for ambiguity, which is an essential entrepreneur trait.”

Juniata College, Lock Haven University, St. Francis University, IUP, and other higher learning institutions in Pennsylvania also have entrepreneurship programs, and some are producing student start-ups.

IUP’s B.S. in Management, Entrepreneurship, and Small Business has been in existence for about 20 years.

“When I came to IUP fifteen years ago, we had about 40 entrepreneur track majors; last year, we had 190,” said Joette Wisnieski, associate professor of Management in charge of IUP’s entrepreneurship programs.

“The growing number of entrepreneurship programs on college campuses and the increase of enrollees in these programs reflect the new realty that we’re no longer living in an age where the IBMs and Exxons are the engines of job growth, but rather these small start-ups with a handful of employees.”

Wisnieski also cites “modern cowboys” such as Bill Gates and Michael Dell, who trail blazed small ventures to fame and fortune, as influencing young people to start their own businesses.

IUP’s ExcEL Center—Excellence in Entrepreneurial Leadership—was established in 2008 to enhance the culture of entrepreneurship, innovation, and new venture creation throughout the university and local community.

In a free course sponsored by ExcEL, students present their business plan to a group of judges made up of local businesspeople, and winning students receive seed money. For example, one of the students started an online business for custom-made jeans with $500 and free incubator space for six months.

From June 22 until June 26, the ExcEL Center, in conjunction with Junior Achievement of Western Pennsylvania, will hold its first Entrepreneur-in-Training Camp at no charge to local high school students.

Participants will have the opportunity to hear from successful entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and other business professionals while competing for $1,500 in prizes, including cash.

“The camp will expose aspiring future business leaders to a variety of business concepts such as leadership, business planning, and financial management, while also teaching them to ‘think outside the box,’” said Eric Palmer, Director of the ExcEL Center.

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