Are We Making Progress in Retaining our Students?

It is pretty crazy when you stop to think about how many amazing, world class academic institutions exist in the Boston area. It is truly a major competitive advantage for this region.

Yet, for so many years, there was very minimal communication between the business community and the student population. They were two different silos with no cross pollination. Most students spent their academic years here and then left, that is save the few who may have grown up in the area.

Last Friday, I attended the MassTLC unConference, which is always fantastic. What makes the unConference event so special is the people who attend. Yes, there are lots of founders, investors, and professionals there; however, I have noticed an increasing number of students attending this event over the past couple of years.  I’ve met students from several schools:  Tufts, Northeastern, Boston University, Harvard, MIT, Boston College, Babson, Olin, etc.

At Friday’s event, there was a session called: Keeping Students in Boston. – which raised the question, "What can Boston do to retain our students and attract them to our local tech scene?"

Matt Bilotti, who is part of the Dorm Room Fund and a student at Northeastern, did some great work by pulling together all of his notes from the session and putting them in a Google doc, which can be found here.

During the session, I made the comment that Boston has made significant progress over the past three years, as it relates to retaining our studens.  Here are some reasons why:

1.  Student Focused Investment Funds

Bilal Zuberi, Nitesh Banta, Peter Boyce and General Catalyst deserve a lot of thanks for launching Rough Draft Ventures. This fund pulled together students from across all the campuses and enabled them to make investments in student entrepreneurs.  Recently, First Round Capital’s Dorm Room Fund launched in Boston with a similar initiative. These funds ultimately take down the walls between the college campuses and allows entrepreneurial minded students to interact with other like-minded students.  

Plus, if a company receives a seed stage investment from one of these funds and gets some traction, I’m thinking it is more likely that (sorry to use the over used cliché) a Mark Zuckerberg-type would raise capital in Boston and get the support he needs to build a company.

2.  The Boston Tech Scene is More Dense

The majority of the action is now back in the city. Most of the companies, both large and small, are located in Cambridge (Kendall Sq.) and Boston (Innovation District and surrounding neighborhood). This dense population of startups and established companies helps bring the community as a whole together, which then trickles down to the students. Plus, it makes it easier for students to get involved, as they can use public transportation.

3.  Boston is Starting to Develop Some “Cool” Brands

One of the points that was mentioned at the unConference session by the students is that Boston doesn’t have the same “cool” anchor companies like the bay area has with Google, Twitter, Facebook, Dropbox, etc.

Boston is making major progress as it relates to building larger consumer oriented brands. Wayfair, TripAdvisor, RunKeeper, Rue La La,, Gemvara, CustomMade are some examples of consumer brands that are rapidly growing in the Boston area and are competing for talent.

Boston also has strengths in many, many other areas like Big Data, Analytics, SaaS, Ad Tech, Ed Tech, Security, etc.  While these companies don’t have the brand recognition as the consumer oriented services, they win because they are challenging their employees to solve really complex problems, as opposed to building another photo sharing app.

4.  Cross Pollination of Campuses

More than ever, I have seen a variety of events where participation across different campuses is encouraged. For example, MIT hosted HackMIT, which was open to undergrads from all universities (not just Boston-based either) and ended up having over 1,000 people participate.

5.  Entrepreneurship is Growing on Campus

Did you know that the Northeastern Entrepreneurs Club has 1,500 members? Wow! Pretty much every campus now has some sort of entrepreneurship club, like MIT’s StartLabs or Boston College’s Entrepreneurs Society. Entrepreneurship is spreading and that is a very good thing for Boston and our country.

6.  People are Willing to Help

The Boston tech community is ultra-supportive and people are willing to help. Whether you are a student or a first-time entrepreneur looking for advice, there are people in Boston that will go out of their way to help you out. When you go to networking events, it is not difficult to meet people and start to find your way across the eco-system.

If you need to get in front of investors (both VC and angels), they are out there and visible at events. If you need a mentor, there are ample people that are paying it forward like Steve Papa, Bob Mason, Sean Lindsay, David Chang, Matt Lauzon, and Bill Warner, just to name a few.

You are also seeing more CEOs and Founders of companies in the Boston area speaking on campuses sharing their success stories and lessons learned. Northeastern pretty much has a different Founder/CEO speaking at their school every week.

Is it working?

Well… I can share one example, which I know doesn’t translate into a macro-trend by any stretch of the imagination, but I caught up with Emma Tangoren at the unConference event on Friday. She is a Partner at Rough Draft Ventures and a senior at Boston University. She is a go-getter who has interned at Foursquare, Uber, Etsy, and General Assembly. Basically, she is one of the brilliant entrepreneurial minds that this city can’t afford to lose.

I had previously met her at last year’s unConference event and at that point in time, there wasn’t a chance in hell that she was going to stick around Boston after she graduated from school. However, when I saw her on Friday, her tone on the city had changed significantly, and she is strongly considering staying in Boston.

She provided me with some info in an email last night that outlines the factors influencing her decisions to potentially stay in Boston. Here are the details:

I think we're starting to see a shift in Boston. A new wave of students are getting excited about the startup scene here, and they're engaging sooner. That energy just wasn't there a few years ago. Initiatives like Rough Draft Ventures have shown me that there are in fact a lot of students in Boston, and young people in Boston, pursuing these ideas.

I also think at some point, the cycle of "leaving Boston" has to stop. There's always going to be that natural trend of leaving the city in which you attended university, but it isn't a requirement. Boston is, in fact, a good city.

While there are definitely things I'd like to change-- MBTA operating hours, segmented communities within the city itself--I'm starting to realize the benefit of Boston as a post-grad option, and I think others are too.

Additionally, companies here are engaging more with students. Speaking on campuses, offering tours, answering emails... That trend wasn't as common as it was a few years back. Connecting with college students sooner is the best way to raise awareness and spark interest in our tech scene. I think Boston is starting to wake-up, in a sense, and recognize just how badly we're losing the talent war. Recruiting efforts on campuses here are growing and helping make Boston a more viable option.

Last point-- I think Boston's confidence is on the rise. The city is starting to murmur with conviction and excitement around the startup ecosystem here, and I'm not sure if I'm ready to leave that yet!

What’s Next?

Yes, progress has been made, which is the good news. However, there is still a lot that needs to be done.  Here are my thoughts:

1.  Companies Need to Be Even More Vocal!!!

One of the biggest issues for the Boston tech community is that it’s a very humble group that doesn’t show off. I’m a humble person myself, but if you are not promoting the amazing things that are going on in the Boston area, then it will never be heard on campus.

For example, why can’t LogMeIn have the same allure that working at Dropbox does? LogMeIn made the move from Woburn to the Innovation District with very cool, hip offices (amazing roof deck and even an Irish pub).  They are a very innovative company and millions of people use their product, and yet , many don’t even know that they are using one of their products.  For example, did you know that their product has over 100M (yes 100,000,000) users? If was a stand-alone company in the Bay Area, it would be getting Dropbox-like billion dollar valuations.

This is why we created the BizzPages section on VentureFizz, as a way for companies to showcase their companies in terms of their products, team, culture, jobs, investors, thought leadership all is one spot. This is a way to help market companies and build up their employment brands locally. 

2.  Branding

I think it would be a lot easier if Boston and Cambridge had one name that referred to the whole area.  The Innovation District is a cool name, but it is confusing where it technically begins and ends. Having a singular brand that everyone can refer to would be a step in the right direction.

3.  Showing Up

There has been improvement with companies interacting with students earlier, yet there is still a major gap in this regard.  Michael Gaiss recently had a great blog post titled: "The Battle for Boston’s Students is Being Fought Right Now."  In this post, he talks about this issue and refers to the HackMIT event. Out of the 70 or so sponsors, only ten were Boston-based companies. All the other companies were from the Bay Area or NYC.  Imagine if 50% of the sponsor list was littered with Boston logos and there were representatives from each of the local companies there all weekend?

We need to continue the trend of having Founder/CEOs and investors speaking at schools. Michael Skok has his Startup Secrets series that he does at the Harvard iLab, Bijan Sabet recently spoke at Tufts, Jeff Bussgang is a regular at HBS, and Rob Go visited Boston College. This trend needs to continue!

These are my initial thoughts. I’m sure a lot of people have other observations and ideas as well. So please, share them in the comments below.

Keith Cline is the Founder of VentureFizz.  You can follow him on Twitter (@kcline6) by clicking here.