Academy helps students get down to business
A generation ago, all an entrepreneur needed was an idea and a garage. Now, entrepreneurs need little more than an Internet connection – and, for UI students, the help of a unit on campus that can guide them as they turn their ideas into full-fledged businesses.
The Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership offers entrepreneurial resources to UI students and faculty and community members. Affiliated with the College of Business, the academy aims to connect students to the “entrepreneurial ecosystem” available on the Urbana campus, says John F. Clarke, the executive director of the academy and an assistant dean of the College of Business.
“One of the things we do is link students with all the resources that are available in the campus community,” Clarke said. “We organize boot camps and workshops where we take students and introduce them to people in the entrepreneurial community both here and in Chicago. That way, we’re able to bring in a lot of alumni and other successful entrepreneurs and business people.”
One of those students is Muhammed Fazeel, a senior from Chicago majoring in integrative biology. He created a company called Tabule. Frustrated with the outmoded way professors taught in class, Fazeel, along with his business partner Neil Gupta, of the Illinois Institute of Technology, created a service to facilitate better classroom interaction.
“Everybody has a laptop, tablet or cellphone in class,” Fazeel said. “Why not use that to engage professors and students?”
Some computer science classes at Illinois already are using Tabule, and professors from the College of Business and the College of Engineering are using it during the spring semester.
“We’ve already had students come back to us and ask how they can get this in their other classes,” Fazeel said.
Fazeel, who transferred from Illinois Institute of Technology during his junior year, says Illinois has vast resources for a would-be entrepreneur. Thanks to all the mentor meetings arranged through the academy, he has been able to grow Tabule from a simple concept to a more comprehensive service.
“As a community, Illinois is very conducive to innovation,” he said. “I know that innovation is a word that gets thrown around a lot, but if you have an idea and you’re open to feedback, it’s the place to be.”
Illinois also has a legacy of inventors and entrepreneurs – Fazeel cites Marc Andreessen, of Netscape; Max Levchin, of PayPal, and Jawed Karim, of YouTube, in particular – that places it ahead of its geographical peers.
“For an entrepreneur, that’s really helpful,” Fazeel said. “When I go to a meeting, the name always resonates with people in the room because we have such a good track record of producing the next big thing. Not too many schools in the Midwest can say that.”
Fazeel hopes to emulate the success of Tiesta Tea, a start-up founded by Patrick Tannous and Dan Klein, both former UI students.
After a study abroad trip to Europe in the spring of 2009, Tannous and Klein wanted to bring home their newfound love of the tea houses they encountered in Prague.
With seed money and support from the academy, they started Tiesta in a dorm room, and have been growing ever since.
In fact, they’re now selling tea in more than 150 stores on two continents.
“It’s crazy to see how quickly things can grow,” Tannous said.
Before they came to the academy for guidance, Tannous says the only thing the partners had was an idea.
“People don’t innately know how to start a company,” he said. “It’s not self-explanatory, and it’s certainly not easy. When you have an idea, that’s pretty much all you have. And when you’re a student, you don’t really know where to go from the idea stage, or how to take that idea and turn it into an actual business.
“So we listened to our advisers and mentors because there was one thing we knew – we knew we didn’t know anything about starting and running a business.”
But with its resources, the academy helped the co-founders find the right tools to take Tiesta to “the next level,” Tannous says.
“The academy was able to show us the roadmap, because there is no direct route for any type of business,” he said. “They said, ‘We’ll help you out, but we want to see commitment on your end.’ They believed in us, and through their belief we were able to do something with our business. It also helped that our advisers were experienced and patient.”
And they’re still getting help from both the academy and the UI, hiring Nate Nasralla, a junior from Batavia, Ill., majoring in finance, as the face of the company.
As an account manager, Nasralla is charged with generating new business for Tiesta. He says the academy has continued to provide support to him and the company, including access to a network of knowledgeable people in the food and beverage industry.
“One of the ways they’ve helped is that they provide the experience of seasoned industry professionals,” he said. “In my job at Tiesta, I’ve been able to interact with different people in the academy’s network to improve my capabilities – how to develop new sales leads and how to approach new clients. They’ve provided a whole toolbox of resources.”
According to Nasralla, his experience working for Tiesta has informed his education, providing a valuable real-world application of his studies.
“It’s certainly given me a new appreciation for the material that I’m being taught in my classes,” he said. “If I’m studying for a marketing test, or when I’m reading about supply-chain logistics, at the same time I’m thinking about the experiences I’ve had. So it helps me take in the material and understand it and apply it that much better. It’s a completely new dynamic when you’re learning something and, at the same time, applying it in your own business life. It creates a whole new connection to the material.”
The experience has made Nasralla that much more disciplined in his studies, he says.
“I have to be very intentional about how I used my time during normal business hours in order to fulfill both obligations,” he said. “It’s helped my time-management skills tremendously.”
In a weak economy, student entrepreneurship is on the rise, Clarke said.
“What we’re seeing is that there are lot of students who have ideas, and would like to start businesses,” he said. “What we’re doing is providing them with an infrastructure to help them as they pursue those ideas and, hopefully, realize them.”
With traditional employment viewed by this generation of students as almost as risky as starting a business, why not build a start-up like Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and hope to catch lightning in a bottle?
“In the post-war U.S., there’s been a big focus on a lot of people joining big companies and that was their career,” Clarke said. “But I think the world now is quite different for a couple of reasons. For one thing, you don’t even need a garage anymore to start a technology company. Eventually, cloud computing will continue that trend by lowering the cost barrier for creating a new business even further.”
And that’s a good thing, because “it’s not the big companies that innovate anymore,” Clarke says.
“We need entrepreneurs, and parents shouldn’t be scared to encourage their kids to do that even if it’s foreign to them,” he said. “If we don’t have enough young people willing to take a risk, we won’t have a vibrant economy or the innovations that change the world in which we live for the better. We won’t tackle the problems that desperately need to be solved.”
“If you have a student who wants to come here and wants to be an entrepreneur, there are certainly more than enough resources here to help him or her out,” Fazeel said. “From patenting to office space to mentors to a network of helpful alumni, it’s fantastic. The business incubator here is in the Top 10 in the U.S., which is huge. We may not be very close geographically to Silicon Valley, but we’re still able to compete against them, which is amazing.”