Longhorn Entrepreneurship Agency

As we prepare to celebrate the fourth Annual UT Entrepreneurship Week, it seems appropriate to reflect on how and why we started the organization that produces the event. Touching thousands of students every year, the Longhorn Entrepreneurship Agency of Student Government has built the largest entrepreneurial community ever on the 40 Acres. Being appointed the first director of LEA could possibly be the largest honor I’ll ever receive.

UT Entrepreneurship Week was started in 2012 and was organized by an informal student group. Our intent was to create a free version of SXSW for students since SXSW is during UT’s spring break and badges are too expensive for a college budget. Therefore, we positioned UTEWeek to take place the week before SXSW and spring break. The week of events consisted of keynote speakers, workshops and parties.

The catalyst of UT Austin’s new startup community was UTEWeek. After the community was established, we needed a way to sustain the community throughout the year. I met Thor Lund and Wills Brown while they were on the Student Government campaign trail and convinced them to add entrepreneurship to their platform. The Lund-Brown campaign deserves a Texan column of its own but all that matters here is that they won.  

Lund and Brown followed through on their promise to advance entrepreneurship in Student Government. After inviting Professor of Innovation Bob Metcalfe to endorse the concept, the Assembly passed AB2 – Creation of the Longhorn Entrepreneurship Agency in September 2012. Shortly after I was appointed the first director and we put out an application for students volunteers to serve the agency.

Over 50 students applied, and we selected 21 of them to serve as co-founders of the agency. The initial leadership team consisted of Jacob Deshaies, Grant Heimer and Hannah Hutyra.  Our first duty was to produce the second Annual UT Entrepreneurship Week in March 2013. The second UTEWeek doubled in size and we welcomed President William Powers Jr. as one of our lead sponsors. The president’s sponsorship enabled us to create the UT Austin Student, Faculty and Alumni Entrepreneur of the Year awards.

Once the Agency successfully hosted our second UTEWeek, we started planning for the succession of our initial leadership. Grant Heimer was appointed the second LEA Director in April 2013 and I moved into a vice-presidential role. Grant did an incredible job optimizing LEA’s operations. My position as VP of Innovation allowed me to launch a new program of LEA called Freshman Founders.

The premise of Freshman Founders was that students were taking nearly all four years to recognize the opportunities in Austin around startups and entrepreneurship. Our goal was to accelerate the discovery of Austin’s startup community into one semester for any interested freshman. We enlisted all-star entrepreneurs like John Arrow and Metcalfe to serve as mentors for the freshmen. Our mentors were invited to a series of events where 30 freshmen were able to wrestle with entrepreneurial questions and challenges with the mentors support. Along the way we taught them about the entrepreneurial organizations and resources in Austin.

The first Freshman Founders experience wrapped up with the third UTEWeek in March 2014. Heimer and I were graduating in May, and we appointed Amanda Barrington as the third LEA Director. Even though my time as a student was coming to a close, I felt like there was a lot more for me to do for the startup community. Knowing what I was doing through LEA was very valuable to the University; I successfully proposed the institution create a job for me to continue my mission.

Liberal Arts Career Services hired me full-time as the Student Ventures Coordinator in June 2014. My duties are broad but most of what I do on staff is in collaboration with LEA. In this position I was able to build a new track of Freshman Founders. This new track, Freshman Founders Launchpad, is the only startup accelerator for freshman-founded companies in the United States. We help freshmen launch companies through more intense mentoring, workshops and Freshman Founders Demo Day, where they will pitch to a crowd of hundreds.

While the growth of LEA’s programs is important, the students actually starting a company create the most value.  Above all, I think what LEA has done is make entrepreneurship more encouraged and celebrated among our student body. Notable startups that have emerged from UT Austin since LEA was founded include Favor, Beatbox Beverages and Burpy. Hundreds of other student startups have come and gone as well.

While these startups are interesting, the full impact of the culture LEA is creating won’t reveal itself for decades. Most student startups won’t even make it to market, but that doesn’t mean the ventures aren’t worth undertaking. The experience gained from pursuing your own startup is the best education an aspiring entrepreneur can receive. 

For the most part, the innovation that student entrepreneurs are driving today won’t be incredibly successful. Rather, it’s the innovation that today’s student entrepreneurs will deliver 50 years from now that will truly change the world. The relationships and experience built through programs like UTEWeek and Freshman Founders will significantly increase an individual’s ability to innovate in the long run.

Think back and imagine the great entrepreneurs that have come from UT Austin in the past. The list is long, but you’ll think of people like Michael Dell, Brett Hurt and Arrow. Now imagine the entrepreneurs that will emerge from the 40 Acres in the next 50 years. When the next generation of great Longhorn entrepreneurs reminisce about their time at UT Austin, they will remember how the budding entrepreneur inside them was embraced and supported by the campus community. I believe this difference will prove a profound impact on the University and the world.

Spiller is student ventures coordinator for the College of Liberal Arts.

Attendees mingle at the second Startup Job Fair on Friday. Thirty Austin startups came to recruit UT students from all majors.

Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of Nick Spiller | Daily Texan Staff

UT Austin’s Startup Job Fair on Friday welcomed 30 Austin startups that are interested in enlisting Longhorns to their teams. The fair was created and is hosted by the Longhorn Entrepreneurship Agency (LEA) of Student Government and is sponsored by my office, Liberal Arts Career Services (LACS). Last Friday’s fair was only our second ever but we plan on hosting them every semester. The next fair is planned for March 10th, 2015 during UT Entrepreneurship Week. 

The first thing Bob Metcalfe, UT Austin’s Professor of Innovation, did when he walked into the fair last Friday was tell LEA Director Amanda Barrington and me why he loved the idea of this event. He referred back to when two Y-Combinator partners visited his Longhorn Startup Seminar in October. They told the group of about 100 students interested in entrepreneurship that they probably aren’t the best positioned for being the core founder of a new business. 

Instead, entrepreneurial students should consider working at a well-funded startup like one of the 27 that their Y-Combinator has produced that are worth over $100 million (according to a 11/21 tweet by Y-Combinator President Sam Altman). Typical college students are committed to a full class load, a few student organizations, a precious social life and recruiting. You can’t just throw your own startup on top of that unless you sacrifice something else. Plus, being paid to work at a startup allows you to learn the entrepreneurial process on someone else’s dime. 

Working for a startup also gives you the opportunity to play a real role in a special mission to change the world. At our breakfast this semester, I told fellow UT Friar Society members one thing when it was my turn to speak. “If you are in this room, have graduated in the last 5 years and are a consultant then you should quit your job and help start something.” The reason I said that was to combat a disheartening idea put forth by Peter Thiel, one of the most powerful people in Silicon Valley, in his book “Zero to One.” 

Thiel describes our society as one that thinks optimistically about an indefinite future. Our best graduates are going into fields where they’ll create few concrete plans to build a better world but still expect it to be better in the future. Management consultants go from project to project implementing operational efficiency procedures with no long-term interest in the future of the business. Lawyers step in and solve other people’s problems then get out of the way. Investment bankers rely on the tenet that nobody knows whether the market will go up and down and therefore rely on diversification of assets. 

This indefinite optimism is inherently unsustainable according to Thiel. How does the future get better when nobody plans for the improvement? 

I’ll admit the quickest route to what we traditionally consider success (financial security, job prestige, etc.) is probably a career in consulting, investment banking or law. In that sense, it makes sense the best students are pursuing these fields. However, at a University that prides itself on producing people that will change the world, shouldn’t our graduates enter fields with more agency over the future? 

Working for a startup, you will have agency not only over your life but a new part of the world. Startups develop a vision for the future and grind it out to make that vision a reality. Founders play the leading role in this but, of course, it couldn’t be done without help. Employees contribute directly to the success or failure of every startup while still earning a consistent salary that can help pay bills and student debt. Good startups set aside stock to offer their employees as an incentive to offset lower salaries. Then once the startup takes off, you can cash those stock options in and use those funds to launch your own company. 

Hundreds of students visited the Startup Job Fair last Friday in search of a startup to join. If you missed the fair, there is a startup networking event (or ten) happening every night in Austin. Otherwise, join us during UT Entrepreneurship Week on March 10th for the next UT Austin Startup Job Fair.

Spiller is a rhetoric and writing alumnus. While a student, he founded the Longhorn Entrepreneurship Agency of Student Government. and worked as a Daily Texan opinion columnist. He writes about UT entrepreneurship on his blog at UThinkTankNick.com and can be found on Twitter @Nick_Spiller.  

Electrical engineering professor Bob Metcalfe speaks during a Student Government meeting Tuesday evening.

Photo Credit: Shelby Tauber | Daily Texan Staff

UT Student Government is focusing on entrepreneurship on campus, working to create a Longhorn Entrepreneurship Agency that will support students interested in innovation.

SG discussed the legislation in its meeting Tuesday night. Electrical engineering professor Bob Metcalfe opened the meeting and spoke about the importance of entrepreneurship. In addition to supporting students, the agency would also connect different entrepreneurship groups across campus. There are currently six different student organizations listed in the registered student organization database that are related to entrepreneurship issues.

Although the assembly debated voting on the agency, it decided to postpone the vote until next week. Josh Gold, student affairs committee chair, said he supported voting Tuesday.

“I think we should pass this,” Gold said. “Bob Metcalfe came today and took time out of his busy schedule to talk to us. It went to the committee. It passed the committee. If anyone wanted to make changes, they could do it now in this meeting.”

Some were concerned that the student assembly had not been given enough time to consider and make suggestions on the legislation. The assembly eventually voted to delay the decision a week, and a vote has been scheduled for next Tuesday night.

SG vice president Wills Brown said he did not think there would be any problem passing legislation supporting the agency next week.

“No one questioned the bill itself; they questioned the process to how it got here,” Brown said, referring to claims that not all of SG was able to offer input on the bill. “So it’s fine. It will pass next week.”

Metcalfe, who is the inventor of the Ethernet, came to Tuesday night’s meeting to advocate for the Longhorn Entrepreneurship Agency.

“What we need [the agency] for is to kindle and fuel entrepreneurial interest among the student body,” Metcalfe said. He also said the agency could serve to affect entrepreneurship policy on campus. Metcalfe said while the University has supported entrepreneurship groups, he hopes the support would increase.

“It’s my goal that our entrepreneurship students be as supported and as celebrated as our football players,” Metcalfe said.