Entrepreneurs Create Their Own Job Market

Photo: GreenLight Energy gives its employees the freedom of a young start-up environment, encouraging them to think outside the box for the development of green energy solutions.
Emma Lantos/Staff
GreenLight Energy gives its employees the freedom of a young start-up environment, encouraging them to think outside the box for the development of green energy solutions.

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Jason Stauth wanted to find work after graduate school that would challenge him to think outside the box. He found a source for his creativity when he joined start-up GreenLight Energy, where, besides making solar panels, he says he gets to create something that he truly values.

Stauth, a UC Berkeley alumnus, joined the scores of graduates who, facing stagnant job opportunities, are now considering starting their own companies or joining those of friends, a trend being fostered by a developing entrepreneurial network on campus.

Students have taken their own initiative in forming groups, like Startup @ Berkeley, where budding entrepreneurs meet at the offices of various Berkeley start-ups to throw around innovative ideas and form new partnerships, said UC Berkeley junior Eli Chait. A business major and student representative of venture capital firm Alsop Louie Partners, Chait helps run the biweekly meetings.

Other business and technology programs on campus, which provide students with a taste of what it is like to start a company, have also grown significantly over the past four years.

The Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology, for example, has seen an increase in class enrollment from 80 students at the start of the program to approximately 800 this past year. The center provides a curriculum for both business and engineering majors that introduces the main concepts of entrepreneurship.

The increase in enrollment is due to greater interest among students in finding out what it takes to self-start a company, said the center's executive director Burghardt Tenderich, who added that the program's profile has risen thanks to word-of-mouth exposure.

"The goal is for people to get the entrepreneurship idea, in the same way engineering school provides students with skills that they can use now or later," Tenderich said.

The center's Venture Lab holds competitions for students to present their business idea to venture capitalists and other business entrepreneurs. The prize is $10,000 dollars for each of the four groups and-starting this past year­-office space in the Bechtel Engineering Center-housed Venture Lab. The joint office space has brought about great productivity through brainstorming, said Ikhlaq Sidhu, director of the center.

Sixty-five teams competed in this year's competition, a considerable increase from 15 teams four years ago. To compete, student teams give five-minute "business spiels."

One of this year's winners, Modista, is a Web-based product designed to enhance Internet shopping. Cofounder Arlo Faria said that while Stanford University is at the center of Silicon Valley and is established as a start-up hot spot, UC Berkeley has also been developing its own start-up culture in recent years. Most recently, the engineering school has been developing its own incubator for companies focused specifically on high-tech ventures.

"This is a major effort through the College of Engineering," Faria said. "While there was a business school incubator, now there's a sort of engineering incubator."

David McIntosh, cofounder of start-up Redux, said that after gaining experience from launching his own start-ups, he wanted to help develop a stronger entrepreneurship network within Berkeley.

Redux, an online social network based on University Avenue, actively seeks out UC Berkeley students for summer internships and jobs, giving students a taste of what it is like to work in a start-up. For younger start-ups, the key to success is often how well team members work together.

That is why it is essential for students aspiring to start their own companies to make contacts right now, while they are still in college, said Jerome Engel, executive director of the campus's Lester Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation.

Senior Stephen Liu, a business major and cofounder of 5-week-old Campusmunch.com, said he always threw around ideas with other students who also expressed interest in starting their own businesses, and met his business partners, who include mass communications and economics majors, in this way.

Such diverse partnerships are not unusual in forming a start-up. This year's Bears Breaking Boundaries competition, which funds student groups with original research ideas, saw increased participation from students in majors outside of science and business, said Annie Yeh, program development officer for Big Ideas @ Berkeley.

Yeh said there were many multidisciplinary teams that participated this year, with backgrounds in majors such as music and ethnic studies.

Starting a business can be especially difficult in the current economic downturn, however. While some entrepreneurs say fewer people are investing in companies right now, they also add that now is the best time to acquire employees for your company.

"If you can find a cofounder, then there are a lot of people to hire," Chait said. "It can be a good time to start a company-it's just more difficult to get financing."

The problem of finding investors for start-ups is a prevalent one for small businesses nationwide. According to the National Federation of Independent Business' April survey, 63 percent of small businesses nationwide reported falling profits.

This is partially due to most small business owners using credit cards or home equity loans to fund their start-ups, said Bank of America spokesperson James Pierpoint. Such loans are now falling through.

Yet most students involved in start-ups maintain that they intend to stick with their ventures and weather through the tough economy by being cautious with funds.

UC Berkeley alumnus John Graham, chief operating officer of Wolfire Games, said his company will focus on one or two projects before expanding to gain more funding. In the current economic climate, he said, there is much more responsibility involved in maintaining a company.

"It's both relieving and stressful to have to be your own boss," Graham said.


Christine Chen covers research & ideas. Contact her at [email protected]

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