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Start Me Up

Student entrepreneurship takes many forms at UVA

HackCville Sarah Dodge

The bug bit Daniel Willson when he was in New York City with other aspiring entrepreneurs.

“I remember walking into the Uncubed office the first time and thinking, ‘Whoa, things are happening here,’” says Willson (Col ’16), a fourth-year student studying computer science. “It was four people—a ragtag team—in a supercramped office in the middle of Manhattan, and I thought, ‘I want to be a part of something like this. I don’t want to be a cog in a machine somewhere.’”

Co-founded by Tarek Pertew (Com ’04) in 2012, Uncubed works with experts from companies like Vimeo, BuzzFeed and Twitter to offer training courses for entrepreneurs in everything from job hunting to brand management. Pertew says Uncubed has created more than 60 training videos and plans to film more.

The grittiness, the excitement and the potential of Uncubed are what drew Willson into a rapidly growing segment of students devouring information about startups, inside and outside the classroom.

“I think there’s a growing interest in trying to find jobs and careers where they can have, No. 1, autonomy over their work; and No. 2, the ability to make an impact on the company and what it’s doing,” Willson says.

He is one of 10 leaders of the student-run nonprofit HackCville, an organization that’s quickly outgrowing its “clubhouse” at 9 Elliewood Ave. because of the popularity of the entrepreneurship-oriented workshops it offers.

Students can apply to join one of three semesterlong extracurricular programs, each costing $40. Willson says there were 60 to 70 applications for HackCville’s inaugural class a few years ago and about 120 applications last fall.

HackCville also offers free weekly standalone workshops that focus on various topics—pitching ideas, videography, web design, marketing and screen printing, among others.

About 420 students attended workshops in spring 2015, Willson says, and this past semester, HackCville hit 1,200 workshop participants.

David Touve

A few years ago, professors started to notice students like Willson who were interested in learning about entrepreneurship, says David Touve, director of the Galant Center for Entrepreneurship at the McIntire School of Commerce.

“Students were completing something like a minor, but there wasn’t a minor,” Touve says. “There were a number of classes across Grounds, and students were taking those courses and putting them together in a way that suited their needs.”

Faculty went to their deans and the deans went to administrators for permission to formalize a minor in entrepreneurship—but with a twist. Typically, entrepreneurship courses are offered in silos, Touve says. For example, the classes may all be housed in the business school.

Last fall, UVA launched an interdisciplinary minor that spans six schools within the University: Commerce, Engineering and Applied Science, Leadership and Public Policy, Arts and Sciences, Education and Architecture.

Thirty classes are offered among the six schools; it takes six classes to earn the minor. “We feel like we’re going to see much better results from an interdisciplinary program that encourages intellectual collisions among students,” Touve says.

Even before the program launched, it was not uncommon for every entrepreneurship course on Grounds to have a waiting list. Touve says he admitted more than 150 students to the minor for the 2015-16 academic year.

Student interest in entrepreneurship has increased over the past several years, but the creation of startups has been relatively flat, Touve says. (Why? That’s an oddity that may best be explained in a dissertation, he says.) According to the Kauffman Index, which tracks startup activity nationwide, a startup is a business that is less than 1 year old and employs at least two people, including the business owner. The index shows that the number of new businesses per 100,000 people plummeted to 128.8 in 2014 from its peak of 188.3 in 2009. It climbed to 130.6 last year, ending a 6-year contraction.

But the skills students learn in the program—problem-solving, communication, working with limited resources—are applicable beyond startups, Touve says.

“Even large companies pursue new problems,” he says. “That means they have to start a venture.”

This year, the National Venture Capital Association ranked Charlottesville the fastest-growing ecosystem for companies receiving venture capital funding in the United States.

Sean Carr (Darden ’03,  ’13), executive director of the Batten Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Darden School of Business, says the honor is a testament to the entrepreneurial energy at UVA and in Charlottesville and to the share of viable ideas that are emerging from the ecosystem.

i.Lab@UVA Jack Looney

A major component of that ecosystem is UVA’s i.Lab, which helps companies get off the ground, Carr says. Students and faculty from any school, as well as community members, can apply to use the 9,000-square-foot facility, managed by the Batten Institute.

“It’s a place where entrepreneurship gets real,” he says.

The i.Lab’s alumni companies include 501 Auctions, which runs charity auctions, mobile bidding and event management for nonprofits; Branch Basics, a natural products retailer; and Leftover Luxuries, a consignment store that “blurs the line between retail and resale.”

Pertew, the Uncubed executive in Manhattan, says UVA hasn’t always been eager to promote entrepreneurship. In his experience, the schools didn’t seem open to cooperating with one another because of financial concerns.

But he’s seen the changes firsthand as a member of the UVA Career Center advisory board, and he says he’s “impressed with their progress.”

“I think the students really had a big impact on the school needing to change,” he says, “and they appear to be responding.”