The undergraduate entrepreneurial ecosystem at MIT

’Tute shows a welcome commitment to supporting entrepreneurs

Entrepreneurship is one of those things that belongs to our generation. Our lives are continually defined by companies that have been started by entrepreneurs our age. Entrepreneurship is something that we all want to try.

As students, we’re fortunate to be in one of the best entrepreneurial ecosystems in the world. In Cambridge, and especially where I live in Central Square, it’s hard to go through a normal day without running into someone who either has started a company or has a strong interest in doing so. The Cambridge/Boston entrepreneurial ecosystem is healthy. There is no dearth of venture capital, networking events, or, most importantly, intelligent people and innovative technologies. At MIT, we have the latter two catalysts of entrepreneurship — people and technology — which is why building a healthy entrepreneurial ecosystem at MIT is a must.

If you enter the realm of professional graduate programs, there is no lack of interest or motivation to start a company. But we need to focus on the undergraduates in this picture. There are a myriad of resources for the business students: MBA tracks in entrepreneurship, exclusive Sloan entrepreneurship courses, and competitions that are run almost exclusively by MBA students. Undergraduates should have the same opportunities to try and learn about entrepreneurship as their graduate counterparts. Not only do they work closely with cutting-edge technologies, but they are passionate, driven, and accustomed to late nights of group tooling. They also need the direction. When soul-searching for career paths and trying to answer the eternal undergraduate question “what am I going to do with my life?”, ‘entrepreneurship’ should be a competitive option, up there with working for a large engineering firm, consulting, or going to graduate school. But as an undergraduate, I failed to tap into the resources MIT had for entrepreneurship.

So why am I writing this article as a graduate student? If, instead of applying to graduate schools and jobs during my senior year at MIT, I had been presented with the opportunity to either start a company or work for a startup, I would’ve taken the offer in a heartbeat. However, I felt totally unprepared to engage in entrepreneurial activities. I had long ago decided that starting a company was on my to-do list at some point in my life, but I was getting tired of telling people that I wanted to work on a startup then feeling foolish for really not knowing where to start.

I’m no expert on entrepreneurship, but I did my share of dabbling in entrepreneurial activities at MIT. I thought that the Sloan entrepreneurship course I took as a sophomore would inspire me and teach me how one exactly goes about starting a company. Ancient case studies and trite guest speakers were actually de-motivational. When I entered a portion of the 100K competition, I was surprised to find it run almost entirely by graduate students. What I really wanted was a club or class that was designed for me — an undergraduate engineer who knew nothing about how to start a company, but just wanted to do something.

So what can we do to change this?

One area that this entrepreneurially-minded Institute should address is the challenge of meeting people to work with outside one’s major. A key to startups is finding people with diverse backgrounds and skill sets who can work cohesively as a team. It becomes increasingly difficult to meet people to work with outside of one’s major as classes become smaller and more specific. Although competitions such as the 100K and IDEAS provide plenty of “mixers” and “idea generator” events, I personally would like to see a resource that connects people with startup interests and isn’t necessarily housed within a competitive setting.

Academic leadership programs, such as the Gordon Engineering Leadership Program, help fulfill this need, although their intent is not to connect students to build companies. Rather, the program brings together peers from a variety of majors and interests and creates an environment in which one works on solving problems and learning about leadership.

And while I was colored unimpressed by my first exposure to an entrepreneurship class at MIT, the Institute does have a number of really exceptional courses on entrepreneurship. What distinguishes these classes from the one that I took is the fact that they focus on active learning — learning by doing. One of these such courses is 6.976 — The Founder’s Journey — which lets students take their ideas through the startup process. The stated objective of the class is to allow you, the engineer, to see if entrepreneurship is a career choice you’d like to pursue. Classes that I’ve also heard great things about are Innovation Teams (15.371), and New Enterprises (15.390).

What 6.976 did for me (and something that entrepreneurship organizations on campus should focus on) was to serve as a gateway to other entrepreneurial activities, not only at MIT, but also in the greater Cambridge/Boston community. There are far too many free, open events with entrepreneurs from all around the city to count. A great resource for keeping track of these is Greenhorn Connect (http://www.greenhornconnect.com/), started by a peer at Northeastern University. I attended my first-ever conference in entrepreneurship in October and loved the energy, intelligence, and collaboration that characterized the group of entrepreneurs.

Although the undergraduate entrepreneurial ecosystem at MIT still needs some TLC and rejuvenation, we actually do have a surprising number of resources available to students. If you’ve ever even remotely contemplated starting a company or working for a startup, I’d suggest taking some of these courses, talking to your peers about a cool idea you have, and getting out into the larger entrepreneurial community that Boston has to offer. Becoming involved in these courses and resources has rejuvenated my desire to start a company, and, unlike before, I feel like it’s a tangible option for the future.

Ariadne G. Smith ’10 graduated in June with a degree in Course II and is currently a graduate student in the Engineering Systems Division.