How to Be a Big CEO on Campus

More and more, campus CEOs are creating companies while still in school. After graduation, they have great experience, a proven track record and a business to call their own.

Michael Simmons started his first business, Princeton WebSolutions, when he was 16. Then as a business school student at New York University, he created Extreme Entrepreneurship Education, which was incorporated after he graduated and now helps college students get into an entrepreneurial mindset.

Today, Simmons’ student-startup gets 100,000 hits a month on its Web site and he preparing to take his materials and perspective on the road to 50 schools across the country.

The country’s full of people like Simmons – young upstarts whose school-based endeavors blossom into profitable careers.

The reason? Students have little to lose. StartupNation’s founders, the Sloan brothers, ate lots of meals at their folks’ house and endured piles of PB&J sandwiches to get their Battery Buddy project off the ground. Rich Sloan was in college when he and brother Jeff launched.

Simmons explains the student advantage: “The worst thing that could happen if your business fails is you get a job, have an incredible credential on your resume and have experience that will increase your chances of success in the future.

“The best thing that can happen is you’ll become the next Microsoft. That’s better than choosing between no job and jobs that you’re in just for the money.”

Randal Pinkett, entrepreneur and author of Campus CEO: The Student Entrepreneur’s Guide to Launching a Multimillion- Dollar Business (Kaplan, 2007, $16.95), agrees.

“It’s easier to take a risk when you’re young,” says Pinkett, who won NBC’s The Apprentice, season four. His own company, Newark, N.J.-based BCT Partners, grew out of a student startup. He and three friends sold CDs out of a dormitory, using the profits to reach out to “underserved high school students.” Pinkett describes it as a “socially-responsible consulting firm” with multimillion-dollar results.

It helps that colleges are creating study tracks in entrepreneurship. Some even devote entire dorms to startup students.

“In the past, universities didn’t touch entrepreneurship,” Pinkett says. “Now, they’re very, very organized and disciplined in how they’re providing the fundamentals and tools to become a business owner.”

He explains that today’s students have no illusions about the new corporate world that waits after graduation.

They “are the sons and daughters of [people who] experienced downsizing and layoffs in big numbers,” Pinkett says. “It broke the implicit contract between employers and employees – that if you work hard, you can work your whole career here.”

Twin brothers De’On and De’Juan Collins, 21, started Collins Capital Investments in 2005 while attending business school at Texas Tech University. “The major benefit to starting while in college is that you give yourself options upon graduation,” the say. “You can hold out for a better job offer or continue running your own company.”

The Collins’ company invests in undervalued and distressed real estate, buying decaying properties and overhauling them. After college, they turned their startup into a full-time successful business.

A bold spirit is overtaking campuses, creating entrepreneurs out of Birkenstocks wearers and science geeks alike. Everyone is gaining confidence and signing on to the idea that they can create something great from nothing.

That entrepreneurial spirit, say the Collins brothers, comes from “healthy competition and the desire to succeed on their own terms.”

Successful companies started by students are everywhere

  • Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard to start Microsoft.
  • Michael Dell started a computer company called PCs Limited in his dorm room at the University of Texas-Austin. He dropped out a year later to run Dell Computer Corporation full-time.
  • Google was created by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, just after they developed a system of search engines in their dorms at Stanford.
  • Sean “Diddy” Combs went from ticket-selling at Howard University in the 1980s to founding Bad Boy Records and launching a clothing line.
  • Frederick W. Smith came up with the concept for Federal Express as an undergrad at Yale in 1965. He launched the company in 1971.

Want to startup while you’re still in school? Keep these tips in mind

  • Use alumni mentorship programs. You never know who you’ll meet.
  • Visit professors during office hours. Get to know them and be sure they know you.
  • Build relationships with people in the university’s administration, advises Simmons, who was named one of Business Week’s top 25-under-25 entrepreneurs in 2006.
  • Go high tech. With the Internet at your fingertips, you can be up and running in no time – and for little financial outlay.
  • Transfer. If your university isn’t entrepreneur-friendly, switch to one that is. Then take advantage of on-campus resources.
  • Just do it. What do you have to lose?
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