One June evening, nine burgeoning entrepreneurs in otherwise-quiet Neill Hall pitched their start-up concepts:

  • CoBo, an online marketplace ala Craigslist, but just for college communities

  • MacSitters, a babysitting and tutoring platform for Macalester students offering services to the surrounding neighborhood

  • postModern Mailing, a more efficient and eco-friendly package-processing web app

  • Yours & By You, an e-commerce platform where customers design and order their own leather handbags

“Memorize your pitch, you can’t read it from your smartphone,” coached Mac Startups founder and coordinator Petar Petrovic ’14 (Veliko Gradiste, Serbia). “How do you differentiate your product from the competition? You need a 20-second version, a one-minute, a five-minute. If you have five minutes, you can get into finances and your operation plan.”

Over the 11 weeks of the Mac Startups pilot entrepreneurship program, the teams met as a group for semiweekly meetings, sharing information and learning from each other.

After pitches, the meeting continued with team updates—Who obtained a mentor? What did the mentor advise? What did you learn about the competition in your research? Then, because teamwork is so important: When can we have the BBQ?

That required discussion because while participants received free room and board, some were also working part-time jobs in addition to developing their startup as part of Macalester’s first tech incubator. Each team received $2,000 for project development expenses.

Macathon, Macalester’s startup competition and computer hackathon, spawned student interest in taking entrepreneurship on campus to the next level. Out of that enthusiasm was born the Entrepreneurship Club, a group of students infused with entrepreneurial spirit and the desire to get started right now, not after graduation. The summer program Mac Startups developed out of that.

When Petrovic, an economics and international studies major, initially pitched the idea to President Brian Rosenberg, he found a receptive ear. “Frankly,” said President Rosenberg, “his enthusiasm for the project was infectious and his energy was impossible not to admire.”

Recognizing a promising initiative, generous alumni stepped up, offering financial support and expertise. The Twin Cities-based members of Lean Startup Machine welcomed Mac students to join and learn from them. helped students publicize their request for mentorship from technology enthusiasts. Potential student entrepreneurs applied and nine were chosen for the pilot project.

Each team had its own workspace in Neill Hall but gathered on Tuesdays and Thursdays for 30-minute standing meetings to share progress. At that June meeting, Petrovic told team members that colleagues from DevJam were willing to do a tech check on their code in three weeks. “Tell me what languages you’re using, so they can line up the right people to review your code,” said Petrovic.

One team member reported on his unsuccessful attempt to contact a third party seller who might advertise on their site. It was his first cold call. “It went badly,” he admitted, “and I just ended up on voice mail.” The group—sympathetic, amused and curious—brainstormed how to make difficult calls more successful.

Andrew Hansen ’14, a physics major from Milwaukee, Wis., reported that Sam Schroeder of Code42 recommended Ruby on Rails (open source web framework) and had agreed to be a mentor for MacSitters. “He said he can recommend people who would write the code for a couple hundred dollars,” said Hansen.

Teammate Avielle Suria ’15, an art major from Bayamon, Puerto Rico, reported that Schroeder suggested which pages to build next and advised, “It’s better to have good function first, then make it pretty.”

PostModern Mailing team member Ben Bernard ’14, an economics major from Concord, Mass., reported on their team’s research. He worked in the Macalester mailroom and estimated savings for the Macalester post office at $8,500—$2,500 in paper savings and $6,000 in time. With teammate Charles Hyun Park ’16 (East Lansing, Mich.), a computer science and applied mathematics major, they surveyed package handling at other colleges and determined that they would need to have postModern Mailing on 24 college campuses to break even.

“We’re grateful for the support of President Rosenberg, who was willing to stick his neck out and support what was a new initiative for Macalester,” says Petrovic. “I hope this is the beginning of many more opportunities for student entrepreneurs.”

The depth of support for entrepreneurship at Macalester was clearly evident at Mac Startups’ Demo Day, August 7, when more than 100 interested people from campus and the tech community came to hear the teams pitch their products.

Seth Levine ’94 of Foundry Group came from Boulder, Colo., to see the teams in action. He has worked in and with early stage businesses for almost 20 years and was an early supporter and fundraiser for the incubator project.

“Entrepreneurship is consistent with what people want out of their college experience,” said President Rosenberg in his remarks at Demo Day. “They are paying attention, for good reason, to the value proposition of attending college.”

The vision for entrepreneurship at the college is not limited to business and technology, but includes social and scientific entrepreneurship. It’s about focusing energy and expertise to address a need, whatever the need may be.

“My goal,” said Rosenberg, “is for us to be able to look back in 10 to 15 years and see entrepreneurship as a defining element of this institution, just as we see internationalism today.”

December 1 2014

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