ST. PETERSBURG — It's a career choice often overlooked by academia. But a new program here at the University of South Florida is giving young entrepreneurs a real shot at starting their own businesses — sometimes well before they graduate.
Already, 50 students have declared a major in entrepreneurship, an opportunity that opened to students at the St. Petersburg campus just last fall.
USF St. Petersburg is only the second state university to offer the major, said Bill Jackson, director of the school's Sustainable Entrepreneurship & Innovation Alliance. (The other is Florida State University.)
"We're probably one of the most innovative programs in the state, if not the nation,'' he said. "Most higher education does not impart on our students that going out and starting their own business is a viable option.''
Entrepreneurship is risky, said the professor, who helped design the entrepreneurship program. But it's a valuable opportunity not only for the business owner but the community, he said.
"True job growth and economic growth, in general, come from high-growth entrepreneurial firms,'' Jackson said. "Our students are leaving here ready to start a venture now.''
An example: the five members of the school's 18-month-old Entrepreneurship Club who won first prize last month for their online simulation of a computer business. The Collegiate Entrepreneurs' Organization, a university network with more than 240 chapters nationwide, sponsors the annual contest, which required participants to track their company's growth.
Michael Anadiotis, Lazar Anderson, Christopher Carpentier, Brown Charite and Mark Lombardi-Nelson will share $1,000, mentoring from some of the country's top entrepreneurs, and a Rolodex full of contacts when they pick up the award in Chicago in November.
The team's simulation, which featured the mock computer company HEAD Electronics, beat out those of 25 other universities, including Louisiana State University and the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Lombardi-Nelson, a 19-year-old sophomore from Spring Hill, said the competition really inspired him.
"It was exciting knowing if you want to start a business, you can,'' he said.
But wait, there's more
Meanwhile, some students, like sophomore Evan Koteles, have an invention that's on its way to becoming a reality. The Tampa resident placed third at a recent Student Pitch Competition for his Spunnel, a cross between a spoon and a funnel.
"It's the 'no more pour revolution'!'' he told judges.
The 23-year-old entrepreneurial major and lead guitarist for the band 10th Concession came up with the idea while helping his mom make soup. "Mom loves it,'' Koteles said.
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With help from an engineer at USF's Gazelle Lab, a virtual-business-accelerator lab on campus that pairs students with community professionals, a prototype of the Spunnel is in the works.
"Most people have ignored what true entrepreneurship is about,'' Jackson said. "Most focus on the nuts and bolts, the functionality.''
USF St. Petersburg's entrepreneurship program offers core courses like accounting and finance. But it also has one of the nation's first classes on scalability — how to grow a company, Jackson said.
There's also the cutting-edge class "Creativity and Innovation in Entrepreneurial Firms," which is devoted to creative problem solving.
"That class changed my life completely,'' said Lombardi-Nelson, who learned to communicate more effectively and hone his "pitch'' — the spiel to get others to support his ideas — in front of real professionals in the community.
The result: "I love business,'' the finance and entrepreneurship major said. "I've gotten addicted to it.''
A jolt of Schwagler
Lombardi-Nelson and others credit their heightened enthusiasm in all things business to Nathan Schwagler, USF's creative-in-residence and visiting instructor of entrepreneurship.
"It's just the passion that he has,'' said Carpentier, who placed third during Startup Weekend Tampa a few weeks ago. "The event is for entrepreneurs, marketers, developers and anyone who wants to build a business. Participants form teams and share ideas with each other. The motto is 'No talk, all action.' "
Carpentier won for his website idea, SchoolCal, an interactive calendar that tells students about events on and around campus.
"A lot of college sites are just lists,'' he said. "Students just don't use them.''
His site also would sell advertising for venues off campus and donate 10 percent of the proceeds to university organizations running the events.
Carpentier, 18, said his confidence to pitch the idea got a boost from Schwagler.
"He really wants to change our lives,'' said the freshman from Orlando.
That's because the world today is a different place for these students, said Schwagler, a former research administrator at USF St. Petersburg.
"No company is going to be around 50 years, 70 years to take care of them,'' he said.
Students have to figure that out, Schwagler said, and it has never been easier to start a business than it is right now.
"With $100 and a credit card, you're up and running,'' he said. "This is the age of entrepreneurship. It really is.''