The Vision for Founders @ UIUC
From the Founder
Eric Mills is a 2014 computer science graduate from UIUC. He is a software engineer, serial entrepreneur, YCombinator alumni (W17), and the founder of Founders. (ericmills.io)
You cannot create a student organization named Founders and not write a story about its founding. Started back in 2013 with the help of many bright individuals, Founders (founders.illinois.edu) is the leading student organization for entrepreneurship at UIUC. Lest we forget the original vision, this article intends to codify the mission of Founders.
The University of Illinois is a well-respected institution with a strong engineering department and a long history of successful entrepreneurs. I was fortunate to be part of the entrepreneurship community my freshman year. The Technology Entrepreneur Center (TEC) provided a host of resources for my first startup including Cozad, the Silicon Valley Workshop, and connections with entrepreneurs in residence. After being involved with TEC, they offered me an internship in-house. Taking this internship was the best decision of my college career. It put me in touch with the best technologists and forward-thinking people the University could offer. I had a constant beat on the latest developments in entrepreneurship.
In my junior year, I realized there was something missing from the community. Student involvement with entrepreneurship was low. Three student entrepreneurship organizations existed prior to 2013. Sadly, they all failed as senior leaders left the university. We had people participating in TEC events and resources, but students never took responsibility to be creators of awesome events and to be involved on a deeper level. The community required more activists to take initiative. I figured this should be an easy task for a bunch of entrepreneurs.
I created an event for TEC called PitchFest in 2012. PitchFest was a small group event where a handful of students brought in ideas and pitched the audience. The outcome was underwhelming. I had ownership over the event, but no way to empower others to take part. People are multipliers for success and I had no one. (I was an intern. It wasn’t like I could hire people.)
There are some things a university-run program can’t do that a student organization can. Politics halts a university’s ability to get things done. Not true for students. Your bank accounts are not tied up with institutional funding and you can take more risk with events and marketing. Students are more willing to deal with uncertainty than a person receiving a salary. Student organizations can scale with minimal funding and foundational recruiting efforts.
Knowing all this, I needed to do more. I was uniquely positioned between TEC, a network of student innovators, and a disengaged community with no student groups left. So what’s next? What could I do to have the biggest impact?
All signs pointed to starting a student-led organization focused on entrepreneurship. But … I had to do it right. The aforementioned experiences inspired me to launch what is now Founders.
What Problems is the Organization Solving?
There is little reason to create an organization without first distilling the problem you are trying to solve. Community members and I witnessed four key pains:
- The three student organizations that existed died when seniors graduated. They had limited social reach, poor brand awareness, and weak structure. Succession planning was overlooked. Why did we need multiple organizations anyway? I wanted everything under a unified group.
- The community lacked student activism. Legitimate programming was all led by University employees. There is no substitute for young and ambitious students. Students are more capable of planning and attending late night events week after week.
- There was no central hub for students to work on their startups. We needed a space to pop into between classes, encouraging spontaneous interactions and the exchange of ideas.
- Ephemeral memory of student organizations. Every new generation of students in an organization needs to be re-taught culture, mission, and re-connected into the network.
From the issues discovered, I began to pace out a vision to foster an organization on campus. I sat down with my friend, Najia, who helped establish the vision and find a team. The following core goals were identified:
- Increase student involvement in running entrepreneurial programming and expose more students to entrepreneurship.
- Unify entrepreneurship on campus.
- Provide access to co-working space for students on and off campus.
- Bonus: Strengthen ties between the University, alumni, and entrepreneurs in Chicago.
The current Founders team added one more:
- Provide resources to existing student startups while giving them the freedom to grow on their own (ex. Microgrants).
This simple framework has guided Founders since 2013. Carried on by the likes of Jay Bensal, Ben Ng, Subarna Bhattacharjee, Ali Afridi, Ryan Chen, Alek Festekjian, Niraj Pant, Matthew Rastovac, Bryan Sun, Michelle Tam, Shivani Gupta, and so many others.
I’m so proud of where it is now and that I was a part of its founding. It’s my only “startup” that’s survived so far, and I hope it lives on for a long time. I love that I can be sidelined and watch this impactful group push forward. I reach out to the new leadership each year and ensure the group isn’t struggling, but they captain the [entrepreneur]ship. All past, present, and future members will go on to be incredibly successful. The compounding impact these students have on the growth of themselves and others is astronomical. Founders will be a force to be reckoned with in coming years.
Thanks for review and editing: Jay Bensal, Billy Joe Mills, Samantha Kyrkostas Mills, and my dad.
What is Founders?
Founders is a student entrepreneurship organization at the University of Illinois. In past years, entrepreneurial efforts on campus have been disconnected and scattered. Founders unifies the lost organizations across campus. We have strong ties with the Technology Entrepreneur Center to ensure a cohesive entrepreneurial experience.
How can I get involved?
Contact the current leaders of the group by emailing email@example.com. Also follow Founders on Medium and on Facebook. The current members are far more ambitious about where Founders can go than me, which makes me so excited.
Why are you writing this now?
I’ve had this article in rough draft for 2 years. I’m not a writer, but I found it necessary to get over fears and share the Founders’s vision. There are more articles to follow about how to effectively run a student-led organization like Founders.