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Destler Dodge

Last October, millionaire entrepreneur and Reddit Co-Founder Alexis Ohanian came to RIT’s campus to lecture about digital entrepreneurship. Although Ingle Auditorium didn’t sell out for the event, it was impressive to see the hundreds of students in attendance, all interested in starting ventures of their own.

“When I was in school, all the cool kids were starting bands. Now all the cool kids are starting startups,” said Ohanian.

Famous entrepreneur and Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham takes a contrasting, pessimistic view on the issue of student startups. In a Stanford lecture on entrepreneurship, Graham made a plea for entrepreneurs not to start too young.

“When it comes to starting startups, a lot of people seem to think they are supposed to start them in college. Are you crazy!? And what are the universities thinking?” said Graham. One might be inclined to point out the stratospheric successes of Facebook and the like, but to be fair to Graham, Facebook and many other college startups are certainly exceptions to the rule.

While Alexis’s assessment of entrepreneurship is one of hope and excitement, Graham's is focused on the probability of success. It’s not much of a surprise when you consider their backgrounds; one is a college kid who made his dream a reality and the other is venture capitalist who began his most successful startup well into his career. It is hard to argue that college students have the skills necessary to start successful companies. However, they do have some other significant advantages. In his Stanford talk, Graham conceded that it is much easier to spend obscene hours on risky startups before settling down. He compares having a kid to starting a company in the sense that they both “change your life irrevocably.” This decision, he argues, is better suited for when individuals are older and know what they want in life, and how to achieve it.

Startups often don't succeed, but that doesn’t mean there is no value in pursuing them. This notion is particularly true for college students. Do the film students make money on their films? Do engineers make money on computer programs that trigger chimes to replicate Seven Nation Army by the White Stripes? Generally speaking, no. They do these things so that they can learn, solve problems, and have fun doing so. After all, college is based on the idea that what we learn today will have some value in the future.

For RIT the argument over the value of startups is a significant one. Is the Simone Center, RIT’s premier investment in entrepreneurship, a safe haven for the “cool kids”? Or is it a trap waiting to crush the dreams of young entrepreneurs?

When asked whether Graham or Ohanan was right, fourth year Industrial Design major and co-director of RIT's Innovator’s Hour club Justin Callaghan provided a simple answer.

“They both are,” he said. For him, there are plenty of reasons to start a company, and plenty of reasons not to. When talking about why he would try to start a company in school, Callaghan said, “Because you’ll fail.” 

Those interested in entrepreneurship are probably all too familiar with the 'fail early fail often' mentality. For others, Callaghan may seem a bit off his rocker. But the entrepreneur offered some explanation for why failure is so important.

“You can be real smart, have the 4.0 GPA and everything, but if you don’t fail until later in life it can be devastating,” said Callaghan. One of Callaghan's current projects — a protein-shake dispensing vending machine — started off with a healthy dose of failure. The early stage concept was rejected from Tiger Tank, RIT's spinoff of the popular television series Shark Tank. Although Callaghan readily describes it as a failure, he is very far from bitter about it. Being rejected from the competition forced Callaghan to think about what went wrong. Some months later, Callaghan and two co-founders in RIT’s Kate Gleason College of Engineering were accepted to RIT’s competitive Summer Start program. Progress has slowed as the team looks for funding, but the concept is still alive and well. Failure can be much more natural and beneficial than people are inclined to think.

All this talk of “failure” is important; after all, it is a foundation of entrepreneurship and one of the best ways to learn about anything, not just startups. But this obsession with the virtues of failure discounts one very important and very real possibility: what if things take off?

A notable RIT success story, StrongArm, recently partnered with 3M to get further investment after winning thousands in regional startup competitions. The company is now based in Brooklyn, N.Y. and has been thriving since the pair of RIT students graduated in 2013. Student startups from across the world are also experiencing huge levels of success. Dublin City University's UStart program has been the launching pad for some especially inspiring student run companies. Dublin City University student Karl O'Brien started the company Effector with the help of the UStart program. By the time O'Brien graduates, he will have a healthy company with a wide range of clients — and more than enough to pay the bills. Another UStart graduate runs marketing campaigns for UFC’s most famous fighter and Dublin native, Conor McGregor.

Regardless of the result — failure or profit — entrepreneurship can be a source of many intangible benefits, and while learning is one of the most important , entrepreneurship can also be a lot of fun.