San Francisco tech tycoon Peter Thiel is paying people not to go to college. He may be on to something.
Thiel isn’t paying just any bunch of slackers to avoid ivy-covered walls, however. He’s awarding $100,000 each to two-dozen young entrepreneurs whom he believes will help society more by chasing their dreams than by chasing a diploma.
His foundation is called “20 under 20,” which is supported by money Thiel made through his co-founding of PayPal, an online payment service, and his early investment in Facebook. It’s his way of saying entrepreneurs can and should come from all walks of life – not just the ranks of the college-educated. If you don’t believe that’s true, just ask Bill Gates and Michael Dell, two college drop-outs who did pretty well for themselves.
Then again, going to college shouldn’t be a barrier to entrepreneurism. Inside the University of Wisconsin System, for example, more students are taking courses that could put them on the path to starting their own companies. Others are starting companies while pursuing their degrees.
At the UW-Madison alone, more than 1,300 students were involved in entrepreneurship courses across the 42,000-student campus during the 2009-2010 academic year, according to a report to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. About 1,000 students took part in entrepreneurship events, such as the “100-Hour Challenge” and business plan competitions. One such competition is the G. Steven Burrill contest, which attracted 22 teams and 45 students in 2011 alone.
The best indicator is that Wisconsin college students are launching real companies. At the UW-Madison, nearly 30 student-run companies were started in the last two years. Not all will survive, of course, but many will based on past performances.
The same trend is accelerating at other UW System campuses, where many students are realizing the best way to find a job in today’s job market is to create your own.
The June 7-8 Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference in Milwaukee will offer tangible examples of how student entrepreneurs are hitting the mark. One panel discussion will feature working examples of recent college start-ups such as ZoomShift, BadgerBites and NoMoreDorms. The 24 finalists in the Governor’s Business Plan Contest will include a handful of student plans that emerged from competitions at UW-Madison, Marquette, UW-Milwaukee and other campuses.
The conference at Milwaukee’s Pfister Hotel will also feature the “Start-up Café,” a hands-on, student-focused incubator that will build a software company during the two-day event while offering advice to entrepreneurs. The Start-up Café will also host a team of software entrepreneurs, designers and engineers who will build and launch a company during the conference.
“We’ll demonstrate how lean start-up techniques can get a company up and going quickly and at less cost,” said Greg Meier of Spreenkler Talent Labs, which will coordinate the Start-up Café. “We want people to learn how this is possible and interact with team members as they explain how the lean start-up process works.” Fueled by more than $1 million in private commitments and modeled in part after California’s Y Combinator, an incubator that has launched scores of companies over time, Spreenkler Talent Labs will help launch 10 to 15 start-up companies per year, mainly in the web, social, mobile and software design spaces.
With incubators in Milwaukee and Madison, Spreenkler Talent Labs will work primarily with college students and recent graduates. Those selected by Spreenkler’s board of advisers will get the tools and seed funding they need to produce a working prototype and a business plan within 12 weeks.
Thiel is right: Not all entrepreneurs are college graduates and they often don’t need to be. People who start companies have diverse backgrounds, as the Entrepreneurs’ Conference will once again demonstrate. But more students are earning a degree while getting a head start on building their own companies, a powerful combination that may offer the best of both worlds.