A College Startup: SLU’s Student Experience in Entrepreneurship

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“We believe all students can think outside the box and every student can become an entrepreneur,” says SLU Entrepreneurs’ Club president, Jonathan Hwang, a junior in Analytics and Enterprise Systems in the John Cook School of Business at Saint Louis University.

With inclusion in mind, the club encourages students from all majors across campus to get involved with its mission: to “introduce, engage and inspire student entrepreneurs to create a better world through entrepreneurship.” Each of these words: introduce, engage, inspire and create are steps along the path SLU Entrepreneurs’ Club members follow to get more comfortable and more involved with entrepreneurship. These words also create the pillars for different events and programs the club puts on every year.

The first step in the mission is to be introduced to the different entrepreneurial organizations on campus, of which there are many. The SLU Entrepreneurs’ Club recently put together the Pipeline, a four-week process to “funnel” students interested in entrepreneurship to these different organizations such as MEDLaunch, Social Launch, Billiken Ventures, the Blue Diamonds Accelerator.

“Not everyone interested in entrepreneurship wants to start a business, so the Pipeline will help us direct students to get involved exactly where they want to be,” Hwang says. “Whether they want to just help facilitate a startup or whether they want to create a new business altogether, there is an entrepreneurial program on campus for them, and we want to help them find it.”

In fact, Hwang’s passion is with computers, and while entrepreneurship gives him a much needed outlet for creativity, “at the end of the day, I still have corporate dreams.”

Engage and Be Inspired at Billicon Valley

“As Austin and I were discussing things we could do to improve the club, Austin said “Why not start our own Venture Cafe at SLU?’” Hwang says. Venture Cafe is a global movement to bring innovators and entrepreneurs together with a weekly gathering for “serendipitous collisions to occur.” The gathering also incorporates breakout sessions for attendees to engage with each other with a specific focus. And hence, the club’s flagship event, and step two and three along their mission, Billicon Valley, was born.

Much like what Venture Cafe does for the global startup ecosystem, Billicon Valley does for SLU students. Hosted two times a semester, the SLU Entrepreneurs’ Club brings in startup companies and organizations from the community for students to engage with and share ideas. And since they believe that every student can be an entrepreneur, they inspire all students to attend the event with the one thing that speaks to all students: free food! “We don’t just order from anywhere. We make sure the food is unique enough to incentivize students to come,” says Hwang.

And of course, the food always comes from a startup or a company that used to be a startup, like Pi Pizza and Strange Donuts.

“This works in getting students exposed to St. Louis startup companies as well as being exposed to the world of entrepreneurs in general. It also connects the community to the students,” says Hwang.

Billicon Valley is open to the public and welcomes everyone. The next Billicon Valley event is scheduled for Feb. 23, from 5 to 7 p.m. with community companies and organizations such as Pieces STL, OpenAG, Saint Louis Science Center and St. Louis County Libraries to be in attendance. “Our vision for Billicon Valley is for SLU students,  high school students and professionals from the St. Louis community to come to the event and mingle,” says Hwang. To learn more about the event, contact Jonathan Hwang at hwangj@slu.edu.

St. Louis University Student Entrepreneurship Club.
A 2016 Billicon Valley event hosted by St. Louis University Student Entrepreneurship Club.

Along with Billicon Valley, the SLU Entrepreneurs’ Club works to inspire young entrepreneurs by bringing in speakers once a semester. Last semester at October’s Billicon Valley, Michael Strong, co-founder of FLOW, presented to more than 100 students. This year they are working on bringing in St. Louis native Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter and CEO of Square.

Beyond Inspiration to Creation: The Blue Diamonds Accelerator Program

The final step in the club’s mission is to create. And while currently the club leaves this last step up to the individual, they hope to add on to the club to be able to facilitate a student from idea generation to creating a viable business through the club. In the meantime, there are other organizations on campus that students can turn to get help in bringing their ideas to fruition. One of those programs is the Blue Diamonds Accelerator program.

The program recognizes three students each semester to mentor, train and support in building a existing idea or growing an existing company. Students in the program receive $1,500, but “probably the most rewarding perk is the mentorship” says former Diamond in the Rough, Summer Albarcha.

First class of the Blue Diamond Accelerator Program

In 2012, Summer was a rising high school entrepreneur with her blog Hipster Hijabis, now SummerAlbarcha.com, where she shared her love of modest fashion for people in her community, but when she found Instagram and searched the hashtag #modestfashion, her worldview changed and so did her business.

“When Instagram was new, there were not many influencers which made it easy to gain followers,” Albarcha says. “My Instagram account grew from a small hobby to full-time work.” While she didn’t feel like what she was doing was good enough to be considered a real business, in 2014, as a SLU student and VP of Freshmen in Business, Albarcha was encouraged to apply for what was then called Diamonds in the Rough and was accepted into the elite program.

The Blue Diamonds Accelerator program is a two-semester commitment in which the first semester is focused on the foundational pieces of running a business.

“We help the students make sure their business model makes sense, that their marketing strategies are in place and that their strategy for doing business is sound,” says Tyler Sondag, a 2012 SLU grad of entrepreneurship and faculty advisor for the Blue Diamonds Accelerator Program and SLU Entrepreneurs’ Club.

Albarcha says, “I don’t know where I’d be now without them.” Every month she met with her mentor to set up goals for her business and met people out in the community who gave her advice on how to set up a business model and how to charge companies for posts. When she met with a mentor from ALIVE magazine, she realized that she wasn’t charging companies enough for their posts, while giving them access to her 325,000 followers. “It was nice to have someone from my own school and community care about my personal business and help me grow.”

In the second semester of the program, Diamonds are required to come back as mentors for the new batch of students so there is a continuous cycle of new student entrepreneurs and student mentors. Of course, after two semesters, the mentoring doesn’t really end. Albarcha is now a junior and is still actively involved in mentoring others and receiving mentorship in the program.

“None of this was around when I graduated,” Sondag says. “It’s rewarding to come out of school and start changing things and being a part of helping students with things I wish were available when I was a student.”

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Erin Vehige has more than 15 years of experience in the writing field as an instructor and tutor of writing as well as a freelance writer and a member of a blog editing team. She has written for several different markets from entertainment to education and many others in between. She obtained her undergraduate degree from Eastern Illinois University and went on to complete a Masters Degree program in English from University of Illinois Springfield. In addition to writing, she also teaches a variety of yoga classes around the metro area, an activity that has turned into a passion over the last few years. Originally an Illinois girl, she's called South City STL home since 2007.