A Student-Athlete Model for Undergraduate Entrepreneurship

After several interesting conversations about the challenges faced by undergraduate entrepreneurs and many weeks of my brain apparently mulling the the various support systems for these students (including for myself as a non-traditional graduate student), I had an idea based upon a system that plays out across the nation each and every academic year. A student-athlete model for undergraduate entrepreneurship.

Student-athletes, in many universities (though not all), are provided with myriad resources and a support network that allows them to undertake both academics and their athletic pursuits at the same time, arguably with the ability to be successful at both, or at least to graduate with reasonable opportunities when their athletic career comes to a close. The NCAA suggests that 8 out of 10 athletes graduate (a higher rate than non-athlete peers), and they are afforded scholarships, access to specialized advisors, coaching staff, premium team medical care, tutoring, technology support for classes, top-of-the-line facilities for training and games… and not to mention, flexibility in their coursework when they have to travel to games.

While many universities now have some type of entrepreneurship program, accelerator or business plan competitions, how many truly support undergraduate entrepreneurs when it comes time to balance a new venture with coursework? The messaging these students get from schools is that they need to continue their education. On the opposite side, some may feel pressure either from investors (if they have any at this stage) or from customers to prioritize and choose which path to take.

I unfortunately do not have a lot of data to back this up, but it would be interesting to dive into more research and do an inventory of resources that are available to undergraduate entrepreneurs. I limit this initially to undergraduate, because in my experience graduate students and faculty have access to a wider scope of resources, publicity and funding connections due to the fact that they are often licensing technology that they have created at the university (which holds the IP). Therefore, it is of mutual benefit that they work together towards commercialization. Undergraduates, on the other hand, often retain all IP rights to companies they start while on campus, unless their work was created in a university lab or with other university property/resources.

Universities face challenges in supporting undergraduate entrepreneurship due to the inherent conflict in mission if they were to suggest all students drop out once a business was getting off the ground or became viable enough that students faced time pressures to manage both. However, I would suggest that if they treated these student innovators like they do student-athletes, they would be able to support them through graduation, maintain their graduation rates, work towards their mission, and promote a reputation as a full-supporter of the wider innovation economy. One easy way to do this would be allowing academic credits for work completed on a business. Many universities offer independent studies across academic disciplines including business, communication, technology, etc. And for those worried that students would not be learning, I argue they will learn far more in a semester running a business than any textbook can teach them… however, traditionalists can rest assured that professors would still have learning expectations that would translate to the official academic credit requirements. This is not something that would be difficult to implement… independent study and co-op or internship credit courses already exist.

Going back to student-athletes, in most cases they are prized graduates who are sought after at many companies because of their work-ethic, teamwork and leadership skills. Similarly, student-entrepreneurs (if they don’t continue with their own venture) could be prized in the workforce as potential “intra-preneurs” and innovators who bring new life to old business models… not to mention the same work-ethic, teamwork and leadership skills that are necessary to run a business.

So I have a challenge to any university or anyone who is a part of or supports student entrepreneurship. Let’s look deeper into this model, let’s dig into the research surrounding student entrepreneurship and let’s find a way to support our young innovators at campuses across the nation the same way we do our student athletes and top scholars. They put in the work, they put in the time, and I believe that they deserve similar support to those that are out on the playing fields.

Afterall, in either case you may strike out more than you get on base, but there’s certainly equal opportunity to hit a home run…