A new program at Virginia Commonwealth University will provide financial support to entrepreneurial students who have promising business ideas and the ambition to launch their own companies.
The Go For It! program will provide qualifying students in the College of Humanities and Sciences with a stipend of up to $5,000 in private funds over the summer to take part in an intensive pre-acceleration program that aims to help them develop their business plans and get their companies or products off the ground.
“Creating your own job by being an entrepreneur requires both passion and taking personal risks,” said Jim Coleman, Ph.D., dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences. “But many VCU students don’t have the financial flexibility to take an entrepreneurial jump, needing to work, often in low-wage jobs, to finance their tuition and living costs. We hope that the Go For It! program will provide just enough of a safety net for passionate and driven students to take the jump and to learn how to start a business by doing.”
The program, which will launch this summer, is open to any enrolled student who is pursuing or has a degree from the College of Humanities and Sciences, which includes roughly 14,000 currently enrolled students, including just under 60 percent of all undergraduates at VCU and just under 50 percent of all VCU students. Additionally, many students who received a degree in the College of Humanities and Sciences are now pursuing graduate or professional degrees in VCU’s other schools, such as the School of Medicine. Students may apply beginning in March.
“Lighthouse Labs had some awesome success in the regional accelerator. It’s gaining a lot of traction,” said Nicole Colomb, enterprise and economic development executive at VCU Innovation Gateway. “Having a pre-accelerator program for the region is important, and we’re piloting it here at VCU.”
As part of the program, which will run from early May to the beginning of August, participants will take part in a series of labs focusing on topics such as customer development, defining a minimal viable product, prototype development, customer validation and how to develop a pitch to investors.
Each of the students will be partnered with a dedicated mentor, all of whom will be entrepreneurs or investors from the Richmond region. They will also be introduced to various other mentors as part of each lab.
The pre-acceleration program will conclude with a demo day, in which each of the participants will present the idea they have developed and pitch it to a room of local entrepreneurs, investors and faculty from VCU.
“It’ll essentially be just like an investor pitch,” Colomb said.
Go For It! is part of the university’s VCU Squared strategy to enhance the culture of entrepreneurship at VCU and harness the entrepreneurial talent of VCU faculty and students.
It is also a key part of the College of Humanities and Sciences’ strategic plan, called Pathways for Transformation, which aims to support students’ cocurricular activities, such as undergraduate research, studying abroad, doing community service, working at an internship, or becoming an entrepreneur.
Go For It! is being funded by philanthropic gifts from alumni, friends and Advisory Board members of the College of Humanities and Sciences at VCU.
Mark Hansan, a graduate of what is now the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences, and co-founder of CareMetx, a technology and specialty hub services company serving drug and device manufacturers, is among the key supporters of Go For It! The program, he said, will offer valuable support to young VCU entrepreneurs.
“An entrepreneur is sometimes viewed as a solitary individual creating a new business from scratch,” Hansan said. “In reality, there are many people along the journey who are influential and provide a boost to every new company. I am thrilled to see VCU stepping up to provide valuable financial support and encouragement for students at what is really the most difficult time — the beginning of a new company.”
Entrepreneur Eric Edwards, M.D., Ph.D., an alumnus of the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, said programs such as Go For It! are “critical for shaping a community and culture of entrepreneurship on campus.”
“Things have shifted dramatically over the past few years at VCU as students across disciplines are being encouraged and empowered to innovate, gain skills in entrepreneurship and create ventures,” said Edwards, the chief medical officer and vice president of research and development for the pharmaceutical firm Kaléo.
“As a diverse, urban university where opportunities for mentorship, networking, creativity and entrepreneurial education are becoming increasingly a part of VCU’s DNA, Go For It! is another example of a program sending a strong message that VCU is serious about being seen as a leader in the development of a university-based entrepreneurship ecosystem,” he added.
Interest in entrepreneurship is high among VCU students. A survey conducted in 2014 found that 51 percent of VCU students had a high or moderate interest in starting their own company, and 15 percent had already launched a company or were actively trying to launch a company.
The College of Humanities and Sciences has the largest number of first-generation and nontraditional students within VCU. A significant proportion of students in the College of Humanities and Sciences work at least part time to pay for tuition and to support themselves or their families. Go For It! is meant to ensure that all students can pursue the dream of entrepreneurship, no matter their financial situation.
Colomb said she expects that many of the inaugural Go For It! applicants will have already taken part in VCU’s existing entrepreneurship programs, but she also is hoping that it will open opportunities for other students interested in launching a company.
“We’ve been seeing a huge uptick in participation, in student engagement and in the number of students who are interested in entrepreneurship who are getting support while they’re at VCU,” Colomb said. “But statistically we’re only scratching the surface of what’s possible.”