Originally posted in the Portland Business Journal on February 14, 2014. Read the original article here.
Jason Bolt had every intention of becoming a doctor. He got sidetracked by sunglasses.
Bolt dropped out of the University of Oregon’s two-year pre-med program after founding his own company, Society43, a Portland-based maker of collegiate and NBA-licensed sunglasses.
“There was security in the track I was on,” said Bolt of his pre-med ambitions. “But there was much more excitement and opportunity in the business I started.”
From left, Society43’ s Jason Bolt,
Grace Andrews and
and Nat Parker,
Bolt is among a number of “early-onset” entrepreneurs in Portland who started companies while still in college. That list of companies includes some of the region’s most promising startups, including software-makers GraphAlchemist and GlobeSherpa, and educational social network BuddyUp.
These young entrepreneurs are hiring employees, bringing new dollars to the region and adding to Portland’s culture of technological innovation. These “campus CEOs” are becoming active job creators far earlier than previous generations. The ripple effects are already apparent.
“You have a culture now to do entrepreneurship at a lower level,” spurred by the lower barrier to entry to start a business today, said John Hull, executive director of the Business Innovation Institute at the University of Oregon’s Lundquist College of Business.
Age is more than a number
Nat Parker founded GlobeSherpa while in graduate school at PSU. The company, which creates mobile-ticketing systems for transit systems, was born out of failure. Parker and his founding team tried several other apps before settling on a ticketing platform.
That sort of experimentation is frowned upon in the real world but encouraged in a college environment.
“Starting in school there is a natural acceptance for failure,” Parker said. “In school you can learn from it, which we certainly did.”
The company now has 17 employees and transit agency clients in a handful of states. Portland’s Tri-Met is a customer.
For Brian Forrester, CEO of BuddyUp, it was the realization that he could start a business and learn just as much in that endeavor as the books he was studying at Portland State University’s Honors program. Forrester’s startup, an online service that helps students find and create study groups, was created from his own academic experience.
At 25, Forrester believes his youthfulness is an asset, especially when pitching to investors.
“I think in some ways they take me more seriously because of the Zuckerberg syndrome,” he said, referring to Facebook’s young founder and CEO. “People have come to appreciate how differently young people think and the different approach to problems. Investors understand there is value in that.”
Both the University of Oregon and Portland State University are developing programs designed to kickstart the entrepreneurial ambitions of its students.
Portland State University’s Center for Entrepreneurship is in the process of developing an entrepreneurship certificate program that should be available next year. Students have also created an Entrepreneurship Club.
Nationwide, the number of formal entrepreneurship courses offered on college campuses has gone from 250 in 1985 to more than 5,000 by 2008, according to the latest data from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which studies entrepreneurship. According to Kauffman, more than 400,000 students a year take courses in entrepreneurship and roughly 9,000 faculty members teach it.
The importance of entrepreneurship and young companies has been reinforced as research finds that companies fewer than 5 years old are the engines of job growth. A 2012 Kauffman report notes that companies less than 2 years old and with fewer than 19 employees account for 70 percent of gross job creation nationwide.
“I see entrepreneurship in college as a way of being with the world which helps you be more self actualized in whatever you choose to do,” said Angela Jackson, director of PSU’s entrepreneurship program and managing director of the Portland Seed Fund, a successful city-backed startup incubator program. “People who find themselves in entrepreneurship classes or clubs at school become potentially able to do more with their lives because they are able to get to the meat of it quicker.”
Forrester, Parker and Huston Hedinger — who co-founded data-analysis company GraphAlchemist as a graduate student at the Monterey Institute of International Studies — all finished their degrees they were working on when they started their companies.
Bolt did not.
While he was at his first Ducks football game he was struck by the enthusiasm of fans and the gear they wore. The one missing element was sunglasses in the team’s colors.
He investigated the market and figured out a way to get green and yellow sunglasses manufactured cheap enough but with high enough quality that college kids would be able to not only buy them but want to wear them.
He had about 10 prototypes, and when he was offered $100 for a pair he knew there was a business opportunity. He ordered more and was able to secure official licensing and placement in the Duck Store. He eventually chose the excitement of being an entrepreneur over the security of medical school. Plus, mentors reminded him he could always go back to school.
Bolt hasn’t looked back. Last year, the company moved its headquarters from Eugene to Portland and now employs 13 people. The company recently reached an agreement with the National Basketball Association to supply sunglasses for each team.
“When you find an opportunity that has the chance to be successful you need to give it your full attention,” Bolt said. “Or someone else will.”
At the University of Oregon, about 20 percent of the undergraduate business students indicate an interest in entrepreneurship. UO averages roughly one student-founded company coming out of the school a year.
At PSU, an estimated 1,000 people have attended the school’s entrepreneurial events.