Student Entrepreneurs Visit White House
12.01.2011 By Laura Donnelly-Smith
The decade that saw the greatest innovation of the past 100 years was the 1930s, and 57 percent of Fortune 500 companies were created during periods of severe economic downturn or recession. Sean Greene, associate administrator for investment and special advisor for innovation at the U.S. Small Business Association, pointed out these figures to emphasize to the young entrepreneurs in the audience at the White House Monday that there is no time like the present for innovation.
Mr. Greene spoke during an entrepreneurship summit organized by the White House Office of Public Engagement. President Obama declared November 2011 as National Entrepreneurship Month. A group of 22 George Washington students and staff members attended the summit, along with representatives from other local colleges and universities and successful young entrepreneurs from a variety of industries.
“Entrepreneurship is a core American value,” said Ronnie Cho, associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement. “It’s presented a tremendous competitive advantage versus every other country in the world. It’s my belief that the folks of this generation, in this room, will unleash innovations and launch companies that will change the world.”
Mr. Cho said free enterprise is the most powerful job-creation force the world has ever seen, and encouraged attendees to think ahead to the jobs they can create in the years to come through their innovative ideas.
During the three-hour summit, members of the Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), a national community of young business owners and entrepreneurs, participated in a panel discussion moderated by Sway Calloway, an MTV on-air reporter and commentator.
Panelists included Jeff Avallon, cofounder of IdeaPaint, which produces dry-erase whiteboard paint; Jeremy Johnson, cofounder of 2tor, an education technology company; Tina Wells, founder and CEO of Buzz Marketing Group; Alexis Ohanian, cofounder of reddit.com; Dina Kaplan, cofounder of Blip.tv; and Nick Friedman, cofounder and president of College Hunks Hauling Junk.
Panelists discussed the challenges and pitfalls they faced as they started and developed their companies, including how they found funding, learned to work effectively with investors and supporters, and found mentors to help them along the way.
“You can’t make withdrawals without making deposits,” Ms. Wells told audience members, encouraging them to volunteer their own expertise to other young entrepreneurs, rather than always asking for help or advice. Mr. Johnson said that while money is always important for a startup, it’s not everything—and capital can sometimes make the bigger picture blurry.
“If you have $14 million in the bank and don’t know what you’re going to do with it, you’ll continue down a path that doesn’t build a business. A business only works if it’s sustainable. You can spend money on a lot of things, but if it’s not sustainable, you will literally kill your chances of success,” he said. “Money is useful when you know what you’ll spend it on. Until then, figure out what works. That requires throwing yourself at a problem and learning as much as you can.”
In a small-group breakout session, the GW entrepreneurs directed specific questions about their own projects to the YEC members. Ara Vehian, a second-year GW medical student, asked about how he and the four cofounders of his startup, Volunteer Alliance, could more effectively make decisions together. YEC members recommended that the group stop trying to work by consensus and start voting on important decisions.
Volunteer Alliance is a social media website and database designed to connect volunteers to each other and to community-based organizations in developing countries. Volunteer Alliance aims to remove the “middle man” between volunteers and organizations that need assistance, saving the volunteers from paying placement fees and ensuring that returned volunteers can communicate with current and future volunteers about organizations’ on-the-ground needs.
“This event was even more beneficial than I had expected,” Mr. Vehian said. “I was impressed by the breadth of knowledge, experiences and advice the panel had to offer, and the breakout session was especially constructive for me and for Volunteer Alliance.”
Sarah Rood, a GW sophomore engineering student and Clark Scholar, asked for advice about how she, as an engineer, could take her ideas and make them marketable. YEC members told her that her main goal should be to develop an idea that people want to pay for—and only then should she consider taking on a business partner with an entrepreneurial background.
“This event made me realize that there is an opportunity for me to take an idea that I have and bring it to market, taking control of my future,” Ms. Rood said. “I think that young people have the energy and ability to take risks that form a basis for entrepreneurship—risks that an older person, with a family or a high income, is less likely to be able to take.”
Summit attendees also learned about the Startup America Partnership, a White House and private-sector alliance that encourages high-growth entrepreneurship throughout the country. Mr. Greene said that two of the Obama administration’s main goals related to entrepreneurship are reducing student loan burdens so recent graduates are able to become entrepreneurs, and helping make it easier for foreign student entrepreneurs on visas to stay in the United States and create innovative businesses.
Jim Chung, director of the GW Office of Entrepreneurship, said the event provided excellent encouragement for students.
“This was a great opportunity for our aspiring student entrepreneurs to see that there is a supportive community of mentors who have done it before and are willing to pay it forward to the next generation of entrepreneurs,” he said. “You really don’t have to go it alone, since there are so many startup resources available at GW and elsewhere.”