Student government presents research on entrepreneurship, innovation
Courtney Becker | Tuesday, October 25, 2016
Student government presented its research on entrepreneurship and innovation at Notre Dame during its semi-annual report to the University Board of Trustees on Oct. 13. Student body president Corey Robinson said this presentation was unique because no other Notre Dame student government administration has presented research on this subject.
“There has been no other type of student government in the past that has talked about entrepreneurship or culture of innovation on campus,” Robinson said. “It’s really run the gamut but [the trustees had] never heard about entrepreneurship before as a student concern in the sense of careers.”
Student body vice president Becca Blais said the focus of the report came about through collaboration with the Board of Trustees.
“The cool thing about the board reports is in the fall [the trustees] actually assign it to us, and then in the spring we get to pick our own,” Blais said. “So in the fall it’s really what they want to hear most about and through our conversations with them this is what came up.”
“It was perfect timing, really, because the University is trying to hire an associate provost and vice president of innovation,” Robinson said. “They’ve been looking for the past year and they’re trying to hire someone very soon … [so] it was a very good time to talk about this.”
This focus on innovation also fits with the platform of the current student government administration, Blais said.
“So far in our administration we have really tried to live by that principle,” she said. “Every project that we’ve done has integrated some principle of innovation, so integrating it into your life and accepting the challenges and the risk that it entails [is part of it].”
Robinson said the major points for the report emerged during discussions with student entrepreneurs on campus.
“There are four things really that student entrepreneurs said, ‘Hey, we need help with this, [it’s] a severe lack on campus,’” he said. “One of those things was workspace. Another was funding, [another] publicity and the last one was mentorship.”
From these points, Robinson said, student government developed the goal of changing the University’s culture surrounding entrepreneurship and innovation.
“Our specific goal was how do you change a culture?” Robinson said. “You have to be able to have alignment of incentives. If only a small niche of students are thinking about it, and then administrators aren’t thinking about it and the trustees don’t even know it exists, that’s going to be very difficult to change the culture.”
Senior Michael Markel, student body chief of staff, said the board report highlights the changes University culture is currently undergoing, which will look different in a few years.
“This board report in itself is encapsulating the change in culture for Notre Dame,” Markel said. “In the next 20 years or so [campus culture is] definitely going to [change] dramatically, at least entrepreneurship and innovation endeavors on campus.”
Blais said student government compiled the report based on extensive research it did, including sending out student surveys, conducting interviews with administrators in a variety of campus departments and examining case studies of existing entrepreneurial endeavors on campus.
“The report as a whole broke down the background where we tied this back to the founding of Notre Dame and how innovation is a part of the tradition and legacy of Notre Dame,” Blais said. “Then we worked on the current resources, then we moved into the case studies, and then from there we pulled together those recommendations.”
One of those recommendations is the implementation of a startup-in-residence program that would expand upon the University’s existing entrepreneurship-in-residence program under the Gigot Center for Entrepreneurship, which Blais said is already a valuable tool for student entrepreneurs.
“Students who are going through the entrepreneurial process … can connect with entrepreneurs who have already been through it,” she said. “These people can offer them advice along every step of the way, whether it’s coming up with their idea or prototyping, finding funding [or] connecting with the right people, and they really serve as a mentor in that sense.”
A startup-in-residence program would entail housing an existing startup on campus designed to offer students collaboration and learning opportunities, Robinson said.
“We thought, ‘What if there was a startup-in-residence program, where we go to Silicon Valley and ask a small-to-medium-size startup to leave Silicon and be housed [in Mendoza] for a semester or for a year?’” he said. “It’s great for them because here we have a thriving University community where ideas are being thrown all over. … Secondly, for students it allows us to have a living, breathing startup within our ecosystem where we then see how it’s done.”
An advantage Robinson discovered in working on the report was his ability to draw from his own experience of starting a nonprofit organization with senior Andrew Helmin.
“Andrew Helmin and I started a nonprofit together, so in a sense I’m also a student founder. So I kind of had a little idea of what the problems look like from ideation to implementation because Andrew and I have already done it,” Robinson said. “I knew what kind of resources existed and what didn’t, but as far as a more traditional startup like a company … I had no idea what resources were out there for that.”
Markel said student government turned to current students and student entrepreneurs for feedback to help them fill in any missing pieces of their report.
“We had a general outline, we filled out that outline, and then we asked some other people for their input,” he said. “We realized that we had to do a little more research and then finally we got to the point where we could present a good, well thought-out presentation that encapsulated all of the resources on campus and really highlighted one of the major issues being communication of those resources.”
Robinson urged students to act on ideas and get involved now rather than waiting until they leave Notre Dame.
“The culture is changing already and anyone can be involved,” he said. “Entrepreneurship isn’t just building companies. Entrepreneurship and innovation is so much more than that. … We don’t have to wait until we graduate to go change the world. We have computers, we have internet access and we’re at one of the best colleges in the world — let’s do something right now.”