Incubators, accelerators and hackathons make entrepreneurship feel like a 21st century phenomenon, but it is as old as the human imagination. The first blacksmith found an untapped market in farming villages when he took a risk and set up shop. Christopher Columbus had angel investors. Middle Eastern merchants 4,000 years ago knew the concepts of supply and demand well.
Yet there is something about entrepreneurship today that feels different. You can see it on campus and among our new graduates. The rules of the game are being rewritten on an individual basis.
Management and Human Resources Professor Deborah Brazeal, who has taught at Cal Poly Pomona for more than 20 years, has an idea. Profitability is not the only measure of success for students and alumni who have started their own ventures.
“The old model compartmentalized our lives,” Brazeal says. “We earned our paycheck at work and found personal fulfillment elsewhere.
“Generation Y doesn’t want to live by that standard.”
Gen Y, or millennials, are a group born in the 1980s and ’90s, and they are using entrepreneurship as a way to fuse their professional and personal interests, Brazeal says.
Cal Poly Pomona is helping students achieve work/life harmony. While students receive a comprehensive knowledge of business, from accounting to marketing, there is also an emphasis on creativity, Brazeal says. She has taught creativity classes in the College of Business Administration for several years and, while the phrase “thinking outside the box” may be trite, it is necessary. Creativity is what produced viral marketing and crowdfunding, and Brazeal constantly pushes her students to think differently.
The college also nurtures the entrepreneurial aspirations of current students with its Bronco Startup Challenge, which is funded through alumni and private donations. The event is open to students of all majors and awards up to $10,000 in cash prizes. While the event provides welcome seed money for the top finishers, all contestants gain skills necessary in today’s startup culture, including learning how to draft a business plan, receiving advice from an industry mentor, and learning the art of the fast pitch.
With a Microsoft internship on his resume and a computer programming award from MIT, Bryan Thornbury is a corporate recruiter’s dream candidate. But if Thornbury has his way, he won’t be attending job fairs any time soon.
He wants a shot at running his own tech startup.
“When you work for a company, you’re focusing on the company’s interests and not what interests you professionally,” says Thornbury, who doesn’t find climbing corporate ladders or collecting anniversary pins appealing. “For me, being an entrepreneur is about freedom.”
The computer science student is off to a good start. Thornbury and a high school friend created Food2Fork, a website that enables users to search for recipes based on ingredients. Four months after the launch, the team nabbed second place in the College of Business Administration’s Bronco Startup Challenge. Since then, the friends have been enhancing Food2Fork’s search capabilities and have opened their application program interface (API) to other Web developers. By offering their API, Thornbury and his friend are allowing others to use their recipe database and ingredient search function and incorporate them into other websites and mobile apps. Currently, more than 400 developers are using Food2Fork’s API.
In his spare time, Thornbury creates mobile apps that range from golf to games. His top three ad-supported mobile apps have generated 560,000 downloads. The apps, coupled with Food2Fork, are helping Thornbury realize his goal of becoming financially independent by the time he graduates in 2015.
Cal Poly Pomona’s entrepreneur community has helped Thornbury became more savvy in his creations. For instance, he had never written a business plan until he competed in the Bronco Startup Challenge and learned important concepts such as target markets and trademarks. Participating in the challenge also introduced Thornbury to PolyFounders, an entrepreneurship club.
“It’s an awesome society,” Thornbury says. “We bounce ideas off each other all the time. I can offer advice about programming, and someone else will talk about branding, which is something I don’t know about.”
Calculated risk defines much of Amanda Smith’s first four years out of college. A few unconventional turns have led her to own and operate a gluten-free bakery and carve out a niche market of health-conscious athletes.
Soon after graduation, the 2010 marketing and public relations alumna moved to Washington, D.C., and landed a job with LivingSocial. The dot-com had all the trappings to make a 20-something excited to work. She managed 30 people and took home a hefty paycheck. Yoga balls, unlimited snacks, hipsters and cool work spaces were among the perks of the job.
“It was a really fun environment, but I gave up holidays and weekends,” Smith says. “I started to think, ‘If I’m going to work this hard, I want to work for my own aspirations.’”
Drawing from a deep well of interests and professional skills she picked up at Cal Poly Pomona, the former Bronco heptathlete identified a niche market in the health-conscious CrossFit community. She adopted a paleo diet, which adheres to the premise that people should eat what humans in the Paleolithic era would have eaten. Fresh fruits, vegetables and meat are in. Processed foods, most grains and dairy are out. Some call it the caveman diet. This largely gluten-free regimen can make picking up a quick snack difficult. Maybe out of her own hunger, but most likely from of a stroke of creative problem-solving, Smith decided to focus on feeding hungry athletes.
“I gave myself a year to figure it out,” she says. With the moral support of friends and family, she bore the sting of losing the stability she had with LivingSocial.
She worked for two food trucks, and though it was unglamorous and sans yoga balls, it helped her pick up real-world experience to go with her business and communications acumen. She also started a blog, Curious Cavemanda, where she shared paleo recipes and began to develop a personal brand. “I was working two jobs and freelancing, and I was the poorest I have ever been.”
During that time, she met Jennifer Lassiter, who had founded Out of the Box Bakery. Within another year, Smith became the majority owner of the gluten-free bakery and has a growing list of retail clients. She sells more than 1,000 items a week and works between 60 and 70 hours handling sales, marketing, baking, purchasing, packaging and more. The next big move will be to expand her staff in order to manage the company from a higher perch.
“It’s a numbers game right now. I’m juggling how much can we risk to grow,” she says.
When she was a student, Smith worked as a communications assistant at The Collins College of Hospitality Management, where she gained insight into the hospitality industry, but she is far from a classically trained pastry chef or restaurateur. She’s had to learn on the job — a quality she honed at Cal Poly Pomona.
“The biggest part of being successful is not learned in books, but from your own failures and experiences,” she says. “I learn by doing on a daily basis.”
This story was written by Marisa Demers and Lisa McPheron.