From aspiring philanthropists to future captains of industry, students navigate new economy, launch startups with help from UCI’s ANTrepreneur CenterBy Rosemary McClure | Photos by Steve Zylius
Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are living proof that you don’t have to wait until after college graduation to launch a business. So are Olaoluwa Adesanya, Zachary Little and Crystal Sanchez, who are among hundreds of UCI students who have founded campus-based businesses in the three years since UCI’s ANTrepreneur Center opened its doors.
“We want to help you develop whatever kind of company you want to build,” Executive Director David Ochi tells Anteaters. “Entrepreneurship is just a means of allowing you to live the kind of life you want to live and have the impact you want to have.”
The center, in collaboration with UCI Applied Innovation, focuses on turning student ideas, research discoveries and technological breakthroughs into successful businesses that can count on UCI for support.
It’s a crucial goal, given today’s economy, since students no longer can depend on finding full-time employment directly after graduation.
“Your odds of being self-employed at some point within five years of graduating from college are almost 50-50,” Ochi says.
The numbers fluctuate depending on major. A recent study by Vanderbilt University showed that 6 in 10 arts grads, for example, were self-employed after graduation.
“If you’re a trombonist or a dancer or an artist, it’s virtually guaranteed that you’re going to be a contract employee at best,” he says. “You could play for the New York Philharmonic, but you’re still going to be a contract employee.”
Ochi calls it “the age of the 1099” – referring to the IRS form used to report self-employment earnings.
“The world of the W-2 is diminishing,” he says. “The contract employee is becoming the norm. You need to be able to market yourself as a contractor and understand basic things such as invoicing and marketing.”
Enter the ANTrepreneur Center, which helps build those skills.
“Schools have realized that we need to teach these things as much as we need to teach students how to write a résumé,” Ochi says.
The center recruits students through social media, classroom outreach, partnerships with campus organizations and booths on campus, where anything from a dancing Snapchat ghost to an inflatable dinosaur costume draw the attention of intrigued passers-by along Ring Mall.
Once engaged, students benefit from the center’s ongoing digital content and more than 200 events per year, including daily lunchtime events, which offer a never-ending supply of learning opportunities for those curious about or working on a startup.
A Risk-Free Place
It’s Talk-O Tuesday at the ANTrepreneur Center, and a dozen students are lounging on chairs and couches talking to each other, laptops nearby. A pile of wrapped tacos is also nearby, but it’s shrinking quickly as the minutes tick by.
The center is located in the Phineas Banning House, a comfortable, high-ceilinged space that once served as the alumni center. It’s in a pastoral area of the campus where pepper trees shade walkways. Roses and purple morning glories grow in planters and climb up lattices.
Until recently, the center’s staff was crowded into a 200-square-foot area on the opposite side of campus. Now the two paid employees, Ochi and Assistant Director Breanna Hale, and 24 interns and volunteers have 2,200 square feet, making things much more comfortable.
The building is also more conducive to educational meetings like the one that’s going on today. Talk-O Tuesday gatherings focus on developing soft skills and learning how to network.
Senior Olaoluwa Adesanya is showing a prototype of a newly created product to a fellow student. It’s an interactive glove that makes it possible for blind people to learn how to play music on a piano or woodwind instrument.
“We’ve been working on it a long time. I hope it takes off,” says Adesanya, CEO of the UCI startup Air Notes.
Has the ANTrepreneur Center offered guidance?
“It’s made a big difference,” he says. “Ever since I found this place, I’ve been connecting with people who can help.”
In addition to myriad networking opportunities, the center offers a risk-free environment to start a business.
“The ANTrepreneur Center provides a safe space for students to explore entrepreneurship even if they do not have that winning idea yet,” says Michael Dennin, vice provost for teaching and learning and dean of the Division of Undergraduate Education. “Many of our students are interested in entrepreneurship, though they may not know what it fully means or what they can do in that space.”
And if a student goes on to become an employee instead of an employer, he or she has acquired a valuable mindset and expertise, Dennin adds: “The skills that make a good entrepreneur are applicable to so many other areas of success that we hope all students will develop them.”
Learning Survival Skills
Ten students are taking advantage of a Workshop Wednesday lunch-hour gathering on campus, listening to a speaker and noshing on pizza at the Beall Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship. The room, located within The Paul Merage School of Business, isn’t large, but it’s a perfect fit for this group, which is paying close attention to Srini Pagidyala.
“Entrepreneurship is just a means of allowing you to live the kind of life you want to live and have the impact you want to have.”
“For any business, finding the right stewards – people who are accountable and adaptable – is imperative,” says Pagidyala, a longtime entrepreneur and a Harvard Business School alum. Today he’s giving advice from his recent book, Growth Confidential: The Secret SPICE for the Exponential Growth of a Company in the Digital Economy. In addition to discussing how to hire employees, he talks about how to position a company, develop values, price a product and create platforms.
Students ask questions, take notes and then cluster around him when the lecture ends. They’re not here because they have to be; they’re here because they want to learn the survival skills he’s teaching.
The ANTrepreneur Center opened its doors in 2014, funded by alumni donors Carol and Eugene Choi of Irvine and a grant from the Blackstone Charitable Foundation. It was modeled after a successful project at the University of Miami that generated hundreds of business proposals and new jobs.
The goal was – and is – to introduce entrepreneurship as a viable career option and provide students, regardless of major, with a support system and a network of venture coaches.
UCI’s program eventually moved away from Blackstone, piggybacking onto the university’s much larger Applied Innovation institute, housed just off campus on California Avenue.
“If you’re in the community and want to be involved in entrepreneurship, Applied Innovation is the place,” Ochi says. “If you’re a student, the ANTrepreneur Center is a great place to start.”
Ochi is a UCI graduate himself – earning bachelor’s degrees in political science and biological sciences in 1997 and an MBA in 1999 – and also an entrepreneur. He launched his first enterprise, a tutoring company called A’s Unlimited, at the age of 13. “This job is the first time I’ve worked for someone,” Ochi says. “That took some getting used to.”
But he appreciated the potential. “Lauching the center at my alma mater is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to apply my entrepreneur skills for the next generation. It has been the most fulfilling career choice of my life.”
How does he motivate students?
“My first question to them,” he says, “is ‘Do you want to earn $25 an hour when you’re in college or work at a fast-food restaurant for minimum wage?’”
Then Ochi poses a challenge.
“What if you spent 10 hours a week for 10 weeks developing your own business? Your goal would be to earn $1,000 in that 10-week period,” he tells them.
Fourteen students took him up on the initial challenge, creating tutoring businesses or finding other low-cost ways to earn money. Twelve hit the target, Ochi says, and the others were close. And they all learned a lot, he notes.
He estimates that more than 5,000 students have utilized the center’s resources. A few receive small grants for things as basic as printing business cards or flyers. But financial assistance is a minor part of the program. Fostering a new skill set by providing free mentorship and learning opportunities is key.
The center’s ANTrepreneurs are as varied as UCI’s student body. Some want to set up nonprofits for philanthropic reasons; others want to become captains of industry. Still others have modest goals: They understand that finding work is increasingly difficult and want to know how to go it alone.
◾ Zachary Little, a 20-year-old junior, loves to talk about his startup, is company, HisVanguard Products, which sells items such as infrared thermometers, massage balls, hot yoga towels and kitchen scissors on Amazon.com. He has three partners, a team of advisers and remarkable plans for his own future.
When Little first came to the ANTrepreneur Center as a freshman, he says, “I had lots of grand ideas about what kind of companies I wanted to build,” but he didn’t know how to carry out those ambitions. “Now, almost two years later,” Little says, “I am one of the center’s business consultants helping other young entrepreneurs, and my company has consistent daily sales and is producing revenue.” His eventual goal? “To have $5 million in investment accounts generating 5 percent to 8 percent yearly before my 30th birthday,” he says. “This will give me the freedom to create social change in the world.”
◾ Crystal Sanchez was already on her way to success when she entered UCI as a freshman in 2015. That year, she was named the nation’s top student entrepreneur for her business plan for Guardian Locket, an attractive piece of jewelry she developed that can issue a security signal if the wearer is in danger. Her motivation was a sexual assault on her best friend. “Being with her after it happened made me want to help others avoid it,” Sanchez says. Now a junior, she’s an intern at the ANTrepreneur Center and helps other students. In addition, “I’m making connections and learning to network,” she says. “It opens you up to so many new ideas. It lights a fire in you.”
◾ Kristie Lin and Alec Kriebel launched their company, InstantCustom, a year ago, manufacturing and selling personalized goods such as mugs, posters, buttons and cards. The two friends, who received undergraduate degrees in June 2017 and now run their company from the Bay Area, credit the ANTrepreneur Center’s “supportive mentorship and resources for helping us scale the business and gain a wide entrepreneurial network.”
You don’t have to be enrolled at UCI to find help at the ANTrepreneur Center, but you do need a connection to the campus.
Chad Trainer, a UC Santa Barbara grad, was able to work with the center when he teamed up with Ilja Goushcha, a UCI student at the time, and another friend from UC Berkeley to take on the legal services industry with the startup Esqalate.
Trainer says the business focuses on bridging the access-to-justice gap: Esqalate’s solution is a couple of web platforms that will help low-income clients get free or affordable legal help. Eventually, they hope, these platforms will make legal assistance available nationwide.
Says Trainer: “The ANTrepreneur Center provided us with tremendous guidance and connected us with startup opportunities that we otherwise might not have discovered.”
‘Entrepreneurship Is the Way’
More than half the students at UCI either come from families that are low-income or are the first in their families to go to college. The ANTrepreneur Center – with its one-on-one consultations, mentoring, advice and networking opportunities – aims to turn their dreams into reality.
“I tell students that entrepreneurship is a tool, a way to live the life you want to live,” Ochi says. “If you say, ‘I want to help the people of Namibia,’ entrepreneurship is the way. If you say, ‘I want to be the richest guy on earth,’ entrepreneurship is the way. If you’re working for a company, and you’re launching a new division, entrepreneurship is the way to do that too.”
He adds, “Truly, if you want to have global human impact while fostering your community, entrepreneurship is the way.”