Entrepreneurship Can Start in College: Here's How It's Done

A college degree is no longer a sure fire way to get a job. Ask the many millenials who are on their second or third unpaid internship after graduating from college. Or, better yet, ask the employers who say the top skills they look for in a new applicant is not only what they know, but what they know how to do. Many savvy graduates today will start their own companies while they are still in college.

In Thomas Friedman's article "Need a Job? Invent It," Friedman cites Tony Wagner's work that the outcome of classroom learning needs to shift from preparing students to be "college ready" to preparing them to be "innovation ready." Why? Because academic learning alone is not enough in our competitive, ever-changing 21st century world.

For many young innovators, this might mean starting their own company. In 2009, graduate student Shama Kabani started her social media consulting company when social media was just gaining momentum. The now 28-year-old entrepreneur projects that her business, which sprouted from $1,500 of her own money, will be a multimillion dollar business by the end of the year. Or take Jason Lucash and Mike Szymczak who travelled a lot for work and got tired of hauling speakers around with them to listen to music. They invented the OrigAudio, a light-weight battery-powered audio system that took off after being profiled in Time magazine as one of the best inventions in 2009. The two 26-year-olds quit their jobs at JanSport soon after.

And entrepreneurship is only on the rise. A recent study found that while 64 percent of Generation Y (Millenials) wants to start a business someday, 72 percent of Generation Z says the same. The growth and their expected success as entrepreneurs can be attributed in part to the increase of entrepreneurial curriculums in K-12, the explosion of MOOCs, and exposure to innovators in popular media.

Having an entrepreneurial spirit can be useful in creating jobs, but it's also a skill set that is valuable to many of today's employers. Thomas Friedman recently interviewed Adam Bryant, the head of hiring at Google to find out how to get a job with the tech giant. The company has determined "GPA's are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless." You'd never know that by the amount of time most high school students spend studying for the ACT and SAT, participating in the $2 billion testing industry and furthering the gap between students who can afford standardized test prep and those who can't.

Angela Duckworth, a leading psychologist behind research on grit and success, says "character is at least as important as intellect." Over the last few decades, psychologists like Duckworth have analyzed success in the context of five aspects, or the Big Five. They are agreeableness, extraversion, neuroticism, openness to experience, and conscientiousness.

The Big Five share similarities with Google's own five hiring criteria, which have proven to be an accurate measurement of how someone will do on the job once hired:

  • Cognitive ability
  • Leadership
  • Ownership
  • Humility
  • Expertise

Dan Oltersdorf, a first-generation-to-college student who was enrolled in a pre-med program at Colorado State University, exhibited all of these qualities. Among his odd jobs as a college student, Dan worked as a resident assistant (RA) where he learned he loved working with college students.

As a sophomore, Dan faced a dilemma with two years in pre-med coursework and parents who wanted him to be a doctor. But Dan was most fulfilled as a resident assistant, serving as a confidant, mentor, advisor, and friend. His junior year, Dan evaluated his options and decided to take the risk to change gears from a pre-med major to human development and family studies. His cognitive ability - or rather not what a person knows, but their capacity to learn more - was not only evident when he was accepted into the pre-med program at CSU, but even more obvious later in his ability to change his path.

Energized by the vision of working with young people, Dan started the website ResidentAssistant.com, an online sourcebook for RAs. This risk paid off, as the website soon became the go-to resource for RAs nationally. Here Dan displayed another skill that Google praises: emergent leadership. Dan found a hole in the RA market and knew when and how to fill it, while making the sacrifices needed to grow his company, balance his academic work, and still have a social life.

Dan also showed the ability to take ownership and show humility. Dan wasn't afraid to put a stake in the ground and find the resources he needed to make his dream come true. "The key is to be passionate but willing to change direction," says Dan. "It was scary to change my major as a junior, but these experiences have led me to places I never thought I would be." Dan was able to listen to his own judgment and heed the direction of his own inner compass.

By listening to his own strengths and weaknesses he also showed his humility through stepping away from his pre-med education and redirecting to an ostensibly less-esteemed career in college residences. Little did he know then, that he would someday have the same earning potential that he would on the medical path.

Google says the least important attribute on the list is expertise. If the talent has all the prior attributes going for them, expertise should fall into place. Dan, however, was able to leverage his career with the expertise he built in this new frontier. His company was so valuable to RAs, Campus Advantage bought his company. Currently, Dan serves as a Senior Vice President at Campus Advantage where he is spending the next six months working in Russia. Forging a new frontier of global relations and effective campus housing, Dan remains a role model for college students who create their own business prior to graduation, as well as to all first-generation students: the ability to follow your dreams are within reach.

You can read more about Dan and many other college and career role models in KEYS TO COLLEGE SUCCESS 8th edition by Carol Carter and Sarah Kravits, published by Pearson Education. Watch for other role models for college and career success in the coming days.