Boston College Expands Efforts to Graduate ‘Startup Ready’ Students
If you think of the top Boston-area colleges and universities that consistently churn out entrepreneurs year after year, Harvard, MIT, Northeastern, and Babson probably come to mind.
You might not think of Boston College.
BC’s Carroll School of Management—which was ranked the third best undergraduate business school in the country this year by Bloomberg—is highly regarded for producing successful investment bankers and consultants. But it isn’t as well-known for spawning tech startups.
“BC has been doing a little bit in entrepreneurship for a long time,” said Jere Doyle, the executive director of BC’s new Shea Center for Entrepreneurship and managing director at Sigma Prime Ventures in Boston. “But over the past decade, there’s really been this push by students, faculty, and alumni to get more students involved with startup companies.”
Following a generous gift from the family of the late entrepreneur and VC, Edmund H. Shea, Jr., BC launched the Shea Center for Entrepreneurship last September. Previously, there was not a lot of institutional support for students interested in entrepreneurship at the university. The formalization of the Shea Center has taken that to the next level.
Together with Kelsey Kinton, the assistant director of the Shea Center, Doyle is giving BC students the resources and mentorship needed to start or join a company. Their goal is not for students to create ventures at BC—but rather for students to be what they described as “startup ready.”
“We have the perfect type of students to go on and work at a startup or be a co-founder,” Kinton said. “We recognize that we’re not going to be producing hundreds of companies each year. But we want students to learn what entrepreneurship is, and learn to think like an entrepreneur. That mindset can allow you to be disruptive in any industry after graduation.”
Armed with a new hub on campus and a group of passionate alumni, BC is getting more students interested in joining startup companies than ever before. The Shea Center has put BC on the map in terms of entrepreneurship—and it’s out to prove that startups aren’t just Harvard and MIT’s game.
BORN OUT OF BC
Nick Rellas reached for a beer in his dorm room at BC only only to find an empty fridge.
He sent his friend and former classmate Justin Robinson a text, asking why he couldn’t get alcohol delivered from his smartphone. The two stayed up all night researching, and determined that alcohol delivery was perfectly legal—just nobody had done it correctly.
Soon the idea for Drizly was born. The on-demand alcohol delivery service officially launched in Boston in 2013, and has since expanded to 23 different markets across the country. Drizly has raised $32.8M over the past four years, including a $15M Series B round of financing announced earlier this month.
Rellas and Robinson graduated from BC in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Both attributed much of their success to their time and formation at BC, including support from professors. But they added that there was not much infrastructure or institutional support at the time to help launch Drizly.
“It seemed like we were way behind what other universities were doing, which was frustrating,” Robinson said. “There really wasn’t a path for us to follow, but we made the most of it given the resources we had.”
Drizly is part of a recent wave of startups that have emerged out of BC. Over the past five years, startups launched by recent BC grads have received over $100M in funding. Many have participated in elite accelerator programs, including Y-combinator, TechStars, MassChallenge, and Summer@Highland.
Companies like WePay, Jebbit, NBD Nano, Wymsee, LocalOn, and Streak Media all have ties to the university. The founders of Jebbit, Drizly, and NBD Nano were also named to the Forbes “30 under 30” List in 2015.
“When Bill and I were at BC, there certainly wasn’t an infrastructure or network for entrepreneurs,” said Rich Aberman, BC ‘07 and co-founder of WePay. “Now that’s changing.”
1-STOP SHOP FOR ENTREPRENEURSHIP
The Shea Center has quickly become the university-wide focal point for entrepreneurship at BC over the past year.
Doyle and Kinton are working to get students of all majors across the university involved with their programs. That includes working with students with business ideas, teaching them what it takes to produce a business plan, and most of all, teaching them what it's like to work at a startup.
“For the most part, 22 year olds are not ready to start their own companies,” Doyle said. “I went and worked for a startup after I graduated from BC, but that was very unusual at the time and I had no formal training. So we want to make sure our students are startup ready.”
The Shea Center currently offers a variety of programs and resources for students interested in learning about entrepreneurship—from educational to experiential training. It recently created an entrepreneurship co-concentration within the Carroll School of Management, which includes a cluster of classes dedicated to learning about the fundamentals of non-traditional business.
The Center offers a number of co-curricular programs, including a speaker series, female founders’ day, and weekly lunches with an entrepreneur. It has also partnered with BC’s popular Tech Trek programs, which introduce students to tech executives, entrepreneurs and VCs in San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Seattle, Boston, New York, and Ghana. The Shea Center also hosts a startup fair in the spring, which brought in 35 different companies offering internships and full-time positions this past year.
“The launch of the Center has helped put us on the map in terms of our external audience as well,” Kinton said. “So when startups want to come recruit for their businesses, BC is a great place to start.”
WePay CEO and co-founder Bill Clerico formed the Boston College Venture Competition (BCVC) during his senior year in 2007, hoping to create a like-minded community of students interested in entrepreneurship. The competition has quickly grown in popularity, and now offers grand prizes of $10K to both its for-profit and social enterprise competitions.
“Entrepreneurship at BC has really accelerated over the past seven to 10 years,” said Peter Bell, a BC trustee and senior advisor at Highland Capital Partners. “The WePay guys really started a movement when they decided to form the venture competition as students.”
The Shea Center also hosts an annual elevator pitch competition, and it launched a six- week accelerator program this past year. Additionally, the Center launched its Internship Program this summer, which gave 25 students a $1K stipend to get hands-on experience at a startup.
“A lot of startups can’t afford to pay students,” Kinton said. “We realize this is such a valuable experience to be working at these small companies and contributing to a team, so we wanted to give students a stipend to get real experience in the startup world.”
A PASSIONATE ALUMNI NETWORK
Doyle hopes the Shea Center can impact all 9K of BC’s undergrads in some capacity during their time at the university. Part of that effort includes bringing more BC alumni back to campus to share the stories and lessons they’ve learned as entrepreneurs.
“Part of what makes BC special is the alumni network, and the fact that so many alums want to help other alums out,” Bell said.
Bell has worked closely with the WePay team over the past several years, both as an investor and board member. He also co-founded the BC Tech & Entrepreneurship Council in 2001. It is one of the biggest and most impactful organizations building bridges between BC undergrads and the alumni community.
Bell is accompanied by other prominent investors from various VC firms on the council, including Highland Capital Partners, Spark Capital, Sequoia Capital, Shea Ventures, and Flare Capital Partners. Many are plugged into the BC startup ecosystem, and regularly support companies born out of the university. For example, Jebbit CEO Tom Coburn co-founded the Soaring Startup Circle (SSC) two years ago, which is a rotating accelerator program specifically designed to help BC students take their businesses to new heights. The SSC provides office space, experience, and networks for a few BC teams during the summer.
BC is different from many other local colleges and universities in the fact it does not have an engineering school. BC is a Jesuit, Catholic university that prides itself on its liberal arts curriculum—and many alumni are grateful for that.
“I’ve truly seen BC’s motto of ‘Ever to Excel’ and the Jesuit motto of being ‘Men and Women for Others’ play out in the startup world,” said Pat Grady, BC ‘04. “If you’re going to do something, you do it right. And I’ve seen that in the culture of the types of people who succeed in startups.”
Grady is a partner at Sequoia Capital in San Francisco. Out of Sequoia’s team of 30 investors, four are BC grads. That’s not a coincidence.
“I’ve been able to plug a BC grad into any role and see them succeed,” he said. “Now more and more people are thinking about joining startups after school. As alums, we’re here to help with that.”
All photos courtesy of The Heights