By Dianna Douglas
Photo by Anne Ryan

Jerry Huang is surrounded by brilliant ideas for new businesses. He hears them all day long from UChicago students who are considering novel career paths.

As the new Assistant Director for Entrepreneurship in the office of Career Advancement, Huang’s job is to guide students with startup ideas toward the resources on campus for starting a successful business.

“This is an extremely promising time to be an innovator in Chicago,” Huang says.

The University is developing more avenues to help students grow their new businesses. This quarter, a popular College startup competition expanded and joined the New Venture Challenge at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, with generous prizes for the best startups. A new Accelerator Program at the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship is intended to infuse young businesses with capital and mentors. Add to these factors Chicago’s healthy community of angel investors, who are seeking the best new startup opportunities from bright students.

“The barriers to entry for starting a company are much lower than they once were,” says Vicki Peng, fourth-year in political science and president of the UChicago Entrepreneurship Society, a student organization that promotes entrepreneurship education at the University.

A major goal of the Career Advancement office is to infuse entrepreneurship into the preparation and guidance that students receive for many different career paths. Huang says it can take students awhile to understand how the creativity needed to start a new business can apply to their own disciplines and potential careers.

“Students in the College are sometimes turned off from entrepreneurship because they fear that it’s too business-oriented,” Huang says. “But if you’re an artist, you’re an entrepreneur. If you’re a writer, you’re an entrepreneur. If you go into private practice as a doctor or lawyer, you’re starting a business.”

Every Student An Entrepreneur

The business ideas circulating among College and graduate students may soon join many other successful businesses with roots at UChicago. They range from the tech ventures Groupon and GrubHub to the mission-driven alltuition, which connects students to financial aid and tools for repaying their student loans.

Huang comes to the University of Chicago from a long career in startups and new ventures, and eagerly shares his experience and his connections with any student who comes to Career Advancement. He believes there will be many more big opportunities for UChicago entrepreneurs, and he sees new ways to ignite interest among students. “A lot of people think of startups as primarily digital. I want to bring the conversation back to business ideas that aren’t so sexy,” Huang says.

To jump-start the academic year, event organizers gave $100 to every curious entrepreneur who attended the opening information session for the College New Venture Challenge on Oct. 23, as part of a new initiative called the UChicago $100 Challenge.

“You can invest $100 in your own project, pool it with other students for a larger project, invest in someone else, invest in the community—basically there are very few strings attached to what you do with the money,” Huang told the students.

“We want to debunk the idea that you need a lot of capital to start businesses,” Huang says. While it may not sound like a lot, Huang says the seed money in the UChicago $100 Challenge can be used to create financial and social impact.

In May, students in the College working on business plans will compete in the College New Venture Challenge. The winning entrepreneurs will win $10,000, as well as the option for a summer of mentoring and polishing with the experts at Booth, and another $10,000 at the end of the summer.

The Polsky Center also will work this year with IT Services and UChicagoTech to host a Mobile App Challenge. It is open to faculty, students and staff who may not know how to write programs but have great ideas for apps.

Vicki Peng says her peers are even more open to experimenting with startups and non-traditional career paths in the wake of the economic downturn and the visibility of new and successful tech companies.

“We grew up with entrepreneurship. It takes a lot of time and energy, but not necessarily a lot of money,” Peng says.

Growing a business through success and setbacks

Last summer, a few students from the College were admitted into the Polsky Center's first Summer Accelerator Program, a lab for young businesses on campus, where their ideas and business plans are tested and stretched with the help of world-class mentors and teachers.

Ted Gonder, SB’12, was among them. He started Moneythink as a student club to teach basic financial skills to students in the Chicago Public Schools. As the club grew, Gonder felt ready to turn it into a professional business, but didn’t quite know the steps to take.

“The Summer Accelerator gave us some breathing room to think through how to move our company forward in a smart way,” he says. Through the Accelerator, Moneythink got the mentoring, time, and money it needed to hire its first employee, pull in a team of highly capable interns, and formulate a long-term strategy.

“To stay in Hyde Park for the summer, and have access to the Booth network, and a little bit of seed capital was an incredible way to extend the runway for our company to take off,” Gonder says.

Another group from the College that entered the Accelerator Program is Kip Solutions, which fourth-year Patrick Ip started with some friends to help non-profit organizations make the best use of social media sites like Twitter.

“For all the public goodwill toward non-profits, they often don’t know how to tell their own story on social media, and they don’t know how to find the people who care about them,” Ip said.  

In their first year, they’ve gained more than a dozen non-profit clients around the world. By entering the Accelerator Program, Ip and his co-founders were hoping to build a program that would automate some of the advice they give their clients.

Learning to benefit from occasional failures is an essential feature of any robust startup culture. After putting work into the program during the Accelerator Program, the group found that their business model was too service-oriented to start selling a product.

“Once we realized the product wouldn’t work, we knew where we should focus all of our efforts,” Ip says. “The accelerator saved us from a year of setbacks.”

Ip plans to work for his own company full-time when he graduates next spring, following a path that many before him have taken. He says the mentoring and connections he gained during his summer at Booth have helped him see that his goals for the company are within reach.

“Any UChicago student is capable of running a successful business,” Ip says.