As we prepare to celebrate the fourth Annual UT Entrepreneurship Week, it seems appropriate to reflect on how and why we started the organization that produces the event. Touching thousands of students every year, the Longhorn Entrepreneurship Agency of Student Government has built the largest entrepreneurial community ever on the 40 Acres. Being appointed the first director of LEA could possibly be the largest honor I’ll ever receive.
UT Entrepreneurship Week was started in 2012 and was organized by an informal student group. Our intent was to create a free version of SXSW for students since SXSW is during UT’s spring break and badges are too expensive for a college budget. Therefore, we positioned UTEWeek to take place the week before SXSW and spring break. The week of events consisted of keynote speakers, workshops and parties.
The catalyst of UT Austin’s new startup community was UTEWeek. After the community was established, we needed a way to sustain the community throughout the year. I met Thor Lund and Wills Brown while they were on the Student Government campaign trail and convinced them to add entrepreneurship to their platform. The Lund-Brown campaign deserves a Texan column of its own but all that matters here is that they won.
Lund and Brown followed through on their promise to advance entrepreneurship in Student Government. After inviting Professor of Innovation Bob Metcalfe to endorse the concept, the Assembly passed AB2 – Creation of the Longhorn Entrepreneurship Agency in September 2012. Shortly after I was appointed the first director and we put out an application for students volunteers to serve the agency.
Over 50 students applied, and we selected 21 of them to serve as co-founders of the agency. The initial leadership team consisted of Jacob Deshaies, Grant Heimer and Hannah Hutyra. Our first duty was to produce the second Annual UT Entrepreneurship Week in March 2013. The second UTEWeek doubled in size and we welcomed President William Powers Jr. as one of our lead sponsors. The president’s sponsorship enabled us to create the UT Austin Student, Faculty and Alumni Entrepreneur of the Year awards.
Once the Agency successfully hosted our second UTEWeek, we started planning for the succession of our initial leadership. Grant Heimer was appointed the second LEA Director in April 2013 and I moved into a vice-presidential role. Grant did an incredible job optimizing LEA’s operations. My position as VP of Innovation allowed me to launch a new program of LEA called Freshman Founders.
The premise of Freshman Founders was that students were taking nearly all four years to recognize the opportunities in Austin around startups and entrepreneurship. Our goal was to accelerate the discovery of Austin’s startup community into one semester for any interested freshman. We enlisted all-star entrepreneurs like John Arrow and Metcalfe to serve as mentors for the freshmen. Our mentors were invited to a series of events where 30 freshmen were able to wrestle with entrepreneurial questions and challenges with the mentors support. Along the way we taught them about the entrepreneurial organizations and resources in Austin.
The first Freshman Founders experience wrapped up with the third UTEWeek in March 2014. Heimer and I were graduating in May, and we appointed Amanda Barrington as the third LEA Director. Even though my time as a student was coming to a close, I felt like there was a lot more for me to do for the startup community. Knowing what I was doing through LEA was very valuable to the University; I successfully proposed the institution create a job for me to continue my mission.
Liberal Arts Career Services hired me full-time as the Student Ventures Coordinator in June 2014. My duties are broad but most of what I do on staff is in collaboration with LEA. In this position I was able to build a new track of Freshman Founders. This new track, Freshman Founders Launchpad, is the only startup accelerator for freshman-founded companies in the United States. We help freshmen launch companies through more intense mentoring, workshops and Freshman Founders Demo Day, where they will pitch to a crowd of hundreds.
While the growth of LEA’s programs is important, the students actually starting a company create the most value. Above all, I think what LEA has done is make entrepreneurship more encouraged and celebrated among our student body. Notable startups that have emerged from UT Austin since LEA was founded include Favor, Beatbox Beverages and Burpy. Hundreds of other student startups have come and gone as well.
While these startups are interesting, the full impact of the culture LEA is creating won’t reveal itself for decades. Most student startups won’t even make it to market, but that doesn’t mean the ventures aren’t worth undertaking. The experience gained from pursuing your own startup is the best education an aspiring entrepreneur can receive.
For the most part, the innovation that student entrepreneurs are driving today won’t be incredibly successful. Rather, it’s the innovation that today’s student entrepreneurs will deliver 50 years from now that will truly change the world. The relationships and experience built through programs like UTEWeek and Freshman Founders will significantly increase an individual’s ability to innovate in the long run.
Think back and imagine the great entrepreneurs that have come from UT Austin in the past. The list is long, but you’ll think of people like Michael Dell, Brett Hurt and Arrow. Now imagine the entrepreneurs that will emerge from the 40 Acres in the next 50 years. When the next generation of great Longhorn entrepreneurs reminisce about their time at UT Austin, they will remember how the budding entrepreneur inside them was embraced and supported by the campus community. I believe this difference will prove a profound impact on the University and the world.
Spiller is student ventures coordinator for the College of Liberal Arts.