In summary

Student entrepreneurs, undaunted by the COVID-19 pandemic, are prepared to adapt and turn their ideas into successful businesses.

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By Amy Stursberg

Amy Stursberg serves as the executive director of the Blackstone Charitable Foundation,

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Victoria Slivkoff, Special to CalMatters

Victoria Slivkoff is the Global Head of Innovation & Entrepreneurship for the University of California system,

When the University of California partnered with Blackstone LaunchPad & Techstars in September 2019 to expand the student entrepreneurship network to eight UC campuses, no one anticipated that the first year would be defined by a global pandemic. 

The shift was quickly made to a virtual model. Based on data from LaunchPad’s first Entrepreneurship Outlook Survey, entrepreneurship can thrive in a remote environment, while helping students develop resilience in response to challenging circumstances. 

Results from the survey showed the pandemic did not cause students to lose hope. Eighty-two percent reported optimism about the future of entrepreneurship in the U.S.; 76% accelerated or changed their business plans because of COVID-19, while less than 2% shut down, and perseverance was named the most important skill for student entrepreneurs.

Lindsey Hoell, a student at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and founder and CEO of Dispatch Goods, was one of 22 UC LaunchPad students to participate in a cross-campus accelerator program. Prior to the pandemic, Dispatch Goods, which provides reusable containers for food takeout and delivery, worked with restaurants and companies like Yelp to pick up, clean and return containers to restaurants. When COVID-19 struck, Hoell pivoted to working directly with restaurants and individuals for both pickup and delivery, ensuring zero-waste delivery for people working from home.

Eighty-four percent of survey respondents indicated that mentorship was the most critical resource for their success. The first Summer Startup Fellowship reflected this as 11 UC LaunchPad teams participated in an eight-week virtual program with other teams from across the network. Seventy-three percent of the UC teams had a diverse founder, including 54% with a female founder. Two teams were led by veterans, and more than half were social-impact ventures. 

Virtual programming increased students’ access to high-quality mentors. Speakers who were not available to attend in person, including Allbirds co-founder and CEO Tim Brown, spoke to students in biweekly virtual fireside chats. More than 160 virtual meetings were held with mentors from the Blackstone, Techstars and Future Founders networks.

Meeting virtually also enabled socially isolated students to connect with peers from other UC schools and across the LaunchPad network. When surveyed, 72% of students indicated that a supportive network is second only to mentorship as the most critical resource. As UCLA student Luke Allera, co-founder and CEO of Protean Surgical Instruments, said: “Connecting with a diverse group of entrepreneurs helped us improve our presentation for a wider audience.”

As we enter the second year of our partnership with the Blackstone Charitable Foundation’s program, we will continue to provide online programming to connect students with peers and mentors. 

UC San Diego’s entrepreneurship center, The Basement, has already shifted online, using technology developed by UCSD student Monal Parmar, founder of Educational Visions Technologies. Support for cross-campus programming will continue. In October, UC San Francisco hosted a virtual workshop. Currently, 15 UC student teams (73% with a diverse founding member, 67% with a female founder) are participating in an eight-week virtual program for social impact founders, who are turning entrepreneurial efforts in health care, education, mental health and sustainability toward helping communities respond to COVID-19.

No one can predict what next year will bring, but it is clear that young entrepreneurs are undaunted by the global pandemic and prepared to adapt, whether online or otherwise, to turn their ideas into successful businesses.

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