Your Student Organization is a Startup

In college most students are involved with some student organization; they bring diversity, fun, and multidimensional purpose to our time at university. During my time at Rice University, I've been involved with two such organizations:

  1. I was the co-president (2012-2013) and treasurer (2011-2012) of the South Asian Society (SAS), a cultural organization that seeks to raise awareness of South Asian culture on campus and around Houston.
  2. I was the co-editor-in-chief (2012-2013) and an executive editor (2011-2012) of Catalyst, Rice's undergraduate science research journal that allows students to express their views on scientific topics.

In another world, I've also worked on the engineering team (with around 12 people at the time) at Plum District, a startup in San Francisco. Furthermore, Hacker News provides me with numerous accounts of startup life, advice, and experiences. Getting a chance to see what goes behind the scenes, I've discovered an interesting relation:

Student organizations are extremely constrained startups.

Why? Generally speaking, student organizations have similar goals within the context of a college campus or beyond as startups do in the industry. Therefore, you should aim for similar goals at the heart of your organization:

  • Do something that matters, and focus on a vision. Leaders and founders of student organizations identify and address a need in a way that will impact people. As the organization develops, set and maintain a vision of what your organization seeks to embody.
  • Get a good team. Your team members should commit equally to your vision. One person unilaterally spearheading an effort is neither desirable nor sustainable. The success of a student organization depends on the intense but distributed effort of many individuals.
  • Recruit convincingly. Why should someone join your organization among the many at your school? Do you appeal to a limited demographic? What do you bring to the table that will attract a motivated audience to join your crew?
  • Raise money. Most student organizations struggle to generate the funds necessary to sustain the basic activities of the organization. If you're lucky, you'll have accumulated money from smart spending habits of the club (as was the case with SAS), but often times you will start from the ground up with nothing but a vision and some preexisting infrastructure (as was the case with Catalyst).
  • Learn from failures. As much as I hate the phrase "failing fast" that plagues Silicon Valley lately, recognize that the path to a sucessful student organization is long and messy. When you fail, stop immediately, acknowledge the failure, and evaluate how you can improve for the future. This will benefit not only you, but also your successors.

Unfortunately, student organizations face additional challenges that startups do not need to consider. However, if you recognize these early, you can start devising incentives and plans to address them and make your organization successful.

  • You're not getting paid; this is not your job. Student organizations are extracurricular activities. By definition, this means that they exist as a supplement to things which are more integral in the traditional college experience: classes, research, and socializing. However, the last two can be integrated into your student organization if you desire, as happened to be the case with Catalyst and SAS, respectively.
  • People graduate. This provides student organizations with a "rolling calendar" and is a constant reminder that the leadership and constituency of a student organization is not usually static. Maintaining effective communication and changeover processes is crucial to the long-term success of a student organization.
  • People are part of multiple student organizations. In the industry, unless you're Elon Musk and particularly if you're involved in startups, you will most likely be handling one or two major commitments/companies. On the other hand, a student can be a cursory member of numerous clubs without investing a significant amount of effort in any of them. This makes building a passionate and effective team difficult.
  • Students don't always join organizations because they are interested. Most startup employees are entranced by the vision of what the company wants to pursue. They usually leave big-name companies or uproot themselves from comfortable environments to risk their livelihood on an idea. On the other hand, students sometimes join organizations to pad their resumes, not to contribute. Dealing with such members, particularly in situations when participation and group cohesiveness is crucial, is vital to the health of the organization and is intimately tied to how you recruit people and market yourself as an organization.

After working in both domains, these are the most prominent similarities and differences that I have noticed between student organizations and startups. Of course, the disadvantages presented above are not universal, and even in their presence, student organizations are worth pursuing. If you can recognize the challenges you will face and address them early on in an organized manner, you will undoubtedly craft a successful, functional organization.

Were you part of a student organization in college? Get in touch with me; I'd love to hear your thoughts!