As one of the early creators of entrepreneurship programming in the liberal arts, Oberlin has been pushing the boundaries. Today, student and alumni entrepreneurs are making advances in critical areas of global concern and economic opportunity, with particular strengths in sustainability, design, media, social ventures, and the arts.
The Creativity & Leadership Program helps students design and launch their ventures through academic courses, internships, and competitive grants. More recently, Oberlin’s venture accelerator, LaunchU, has extended the opportunity for alumni, faculty, families, and their external partners to compete for seed funding and expert coaching.
In 2007, Oberlin was one of five undergraduate colleges awarded $1 million in seed funding from the Morgan Foundation, co-funded by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, to develop entrepreneurship programming. The Burton D. Morgan Foundation has continued this support with a $500,000 endowment pledge in 2014.
“Our entrepreneurship programs build on Oberlin’s unique strengths as an undergraduate institution,” says Matt Utterback, Oberlin’s new director of entrepreneurship. “The Oberlin community combines passion for real change with excellence. It’s a potent mix. We are helping the Oberlin community make our passion for change a reality. The support from the Burton D. Morgan Foundation, our alumni, and families is remarkable. The breadth of activities, depth of commitment, and the amount of grants we’re awarding are starting to have a huge impact – out in the world in the form of new ventures, and in the classroom.”
With that momentum, Utterback and his team are connecting with alumni, families, and friends of Oberlin in key cities to recruit participants, raise awareness, and gain support. To succeed, Utterback explains, aspiring entrepreneurs need all the help they can get. “LaunchU is our platform to do that. We have current students and young alumni launching their ventures, yet we also have alums in their 40s and 50s starting new things. LaunchU is our platform through which everyone can collaborate, give back, and get help in return.”
One such supporter is Andy Klingenstein, an Oberlin parent with 20 years of experience investing in and providing legal and business assistance to start-up companies in the Washington, D.C., area. His daughter, Emma, graduated in 2012 with a degree in politics. He says he became involved with LaunchU because he was drawn to the passion and idealism of the Oberlin community. “My ties were fairly thin, yet I feel like I have a direct connection.”
Klingenstein is among several key supporters participating in a D.C.-area alumni event to promote LaunchU on November 13. The event will be hosted by Cynthia Hogan ’79 and Mark Katz ’79. Hogan was recently named the NFL’s Senior Vice President of Public Policy and Government Affairs. In that position, she will develop and implement the league’s public policy and legislative initiatives and work with NFL teams on local and state issues. Katz is chair of Arent Fox. His principal areas of focus are commercial real estate matters, private equity transactional work, joint ventures, finance, loan workouts and restructurings.
“I hope the enterprise of LaunchU uses the full extent of the Oberlin community, so that people know this opportunity is out there,” says Klingenstein.
“There are many ways you can do this. I define entrepreneurship as the ability and skill to take risks by taking an active role and building something. You can be entrepreneurial within a large company, or someone who’s working in a corner of a big company and starting a new venture. You can start a nonprofit company. You can start a business that you want to grow into a large business. You may want to be ready to receive venture capital. You might want to pursue a more local business which may never get outside capital, but be self-sufficient. Even if a fraction of the community takes advantage of it, I want everyone to know what’s possible–the opportunity for profound change–to provide the skills, training, and support to realize your passions.”
Recent Oberlin ventures and recipients of accelerator funding include Chai Energy, an app that tracks energy use in homes in real time, cofounded by Cole Hershkowitz ’11; social ventureLumenEd, a solar-powered educational tool for use in developing countries launched by five students; and independent record label and music collective Stereocure.