Campus startups are great, if they’re inclusive

HIGHLANDER/Betteena Marco
HIGHLANDER/Betteena Marco

As a university system that prides itself on shining the light for future generations, the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative launched by UC President Janet Napolitano aims to meet that promise by creating on-campus incubators and accelerators for startups that would bring radical changes to college culture. On September 30, California Governor Jerry Brown approved $22 million of state investment toward the broadening of UC innovation and entrepreneurship infrastructure with the belief that it will return long-term local and state economic benefits. This means each UC campus will receive $2.2 million to fund startup space, tool, training and legal services.

This initiative prioritizes an innovative entrepreneurial culture that would transform the focus of education from finding jobs to creating jobs. Since 1968, UC-affiliated startups have engaged in some of the most iconic sectors like computers, biotechnology, aerospace, agriculture and online social networks. The UC already has three existing incubators and accelerators, the first being a small utility space at UCSF, and the system is now planning to find more spaces across the university system.

The development of these spaces should not be taken lightly; there is hidden red tape in terms of social impact. The fundamental way a startup is different from a corporate job is the lack of structure; it is where risk-taking and being different are celebrated. Mark Zuckerberg and his friends didn’t have to wear suits and ties in their college dorm room to build the now multibillion dollar enterprise that is Facebook. Will campus startup hubs be as off-book and inclusive, tying students of different studies together, or will they be an exclusive “bubble?”

To reflect the spirit of entrepreneurship, these spaces should welcome people with different skillsets. They should also encourage learning instead of reserving spaces for already experienced people. Usually, startups are very accepting of people with a wide range of degrees who work in a small close-knit team, and though each member has a voice in the matter, they are unified by a common vision. Apple founder Steve Jobs ironically “didn’t ever code,” writes Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. “He wasn’t an engineer and he didn’t do any original design, but he was technical enough to alter and change and add to other designs.” Jobs was more of an artist and a business guy and he worked with like-minded people such as Wozniak, who were engineers, to create Apple.

 

Jobs’ startup was driven by an open-mindedness toward different people and ideals. Even a skill like calligraphy, which college dropout Jobs picked up — and which seemingly has nothing to do with computer engineering — later became applicable in the typography of the Macintosh. Similarly, a startup hub at UCR should encourage a team where an art major could be in charge of designing, an engineering major for programming and a business major for dealing with investors. It’s important that the UC pay attention to these details as they build startup hubs. Essentially, these places should be where students can learn from each other and pick up other skills instead of sticking with their majors.

The Silicon Valley gatekeepers are overwhelmingly white males with biases in their selection of newcomers. New research shows that it’s actually women and minority entrepreneurs who benefit the most from the startup culture, so it’s a real concern if they cannot gain access. We want to see women and minority-owned businesses in the high-tech sector, meaning the UC must be extra careful in identifying barriers that are preventing women and minorities in the building of this model: Recruitment, selection bias, program design and culture.

 

Entrepreneurship efforts are impossible if there is a limit on student participation. No one person has all the knowledge to innovate, so this culture must be constructed to be inclusive. Isn’t entrepreneurship a break away from conventional top-down corporate culture? After all, the “think different” philosophy states, “The crazy ones, the misfits the rebels, (and) the troublemakers” can have their place in the world with the requirement of having ideas and passion. These are characteristics that should be embedded in on-campus startup hubs; they should create an atmosphere where wider appreciation for the different avenues exist for finding solutions.

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