Morgan Moe never thought she’d start a business in school – it’s hard enough to keep up with classwork – but in her last year of university she did just that. The University of Calgary alumna, who graduated last April, was earning her bachelor of science in kinesiology when she came up with a novel idea to help stroke patients with their recovery.
In her last year of university she, along with three others, began creating a soon-to-be released iPad app that gives patients regular rehab exercises and allows them to monitor their progress and even create exercises of their own. “It’s an application to empower stroke survivors,” she says. Moe, now the chief information officer of the company, called StrokeLink, is part of a growing cohort of students who are adding “business owner” to their résumé before graduating from school.
She didn’t start a company because she had a burning desire to be an entrepreneur, though. The 23-year-old knows that in today’s rocky job environment you have to do something great to get noticed. “You need to set yourself apart,” she says.
School has always been a breeding ground for entrepreneurship, but only in the past few years has it become “less nerdy” to be a young business owner, says Stewart Thornhill, the executive director of the Pierre L. Morrissette Institute for Entrepreneurship at the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario. In university you make more connections and you’re exposed to new ideas. “The explosion of stimulus and input is something most people will never have experienced before or even after that four-year period,” he says.
The Mark Zuckerbergs of the world (he started Facebook while at Harvard) and programs such as Dragons’ Den have made student entrepreneurship “sexy,” Thornhill says. Two decades ago no one was talking about entrepreneurship on campuses, he says, and in the past 10 years, Ivey and other schools across Canada have developed programs specifically geared toward budding business owners. “In the last decade we’ve built an institute and quadrupled the faculty teaching entrepreneurship courses,” he says. “And that’s what we’re seeing across Canada and the U.S.”
Being a student entrepreneur, though, presents challenges. Brian Scudamore, founder and CEO of 1-800-Got-Junk, started his company in Vancouver in 1988 during his first year of university. He dropped out after the third year. He found it too hard to manage a company and focus on school at the same time. “I was trying to concentrate on school while also focusing on my business,” he says. “And doing neither very well.”
He had to excuse himself to answer phone calls – he was one of the only people at his school to have a cellphone – and eventually had to hire a manager to run his company while he was in class. He also found that he knew more about business than some of his teachers. “I was learning from marketing professors who had never done marketing,” he says. “I remember getting asked to do presentations on what it was like to hire people. I was being presented as an expert.”
Running a business and going to school is a lot of work, but even so, young people make ideal entrepreneurs, says Christian Lassonde, the chief venture adviser for Next 36, a Toronto-based business incubator that helps student entrepreneurs get their ideas off the ground. Most have time to do both and, unlike someone in their 40s or 50s, they have nothing to lose if a business does fail. “The downside risk is very low and the upside potential is high,” he says. “People well into their career risk losing their house. So it makes sense to support students – they don’t have kids and don’t have a mortgage.”
Incubators like Next 36 are popping up all over the country, Lassonde says. His organization provides seed money, access to mentors and workshops taught by professors from Harvard, MIT and other schools to the 35 people enrolled in the program. Moe is a Next 36 participant; it is working with nine ventures, including hers, that Lassonde hopes will become viable, long-term businesses.
With greater emphasis on entrepreneurship in the postsecondary world, Moe thinks more people in her generation will work for themselves after school ends. “[We] don’t want to just get into another regular salary job,” she says. “Now there are opportunities to differentiate yourself and do something that has a much larger impact.”