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Deshpande Symposium Looks to the Future

Educators Seek to Encourage Risk-averse Millennial Entrepreneurs

In her Deshpande Symposium keynote speech Amy Nelson, CEO of Venture for America, told the crowd that creating entrepreneurs will be a challenge but a necessary one. Photo by Sandy Hill
In her Deshpande Symposium keynote speech, Venture for America CEO Amy Nelson said the U.S. needs to produce more entrepreneurs.

By David Perry

The need to promote entrepreneurship among risk-averse millennials is a challenge facing colleges and universities across the country.

That’s the message that Amy Nelson, CEO of Venture for America, delivered to attendees of the eighth annual Deshpande Symposium on Innovation & Entrepreneurship in Higher Education at the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center. 

In her keynote talk, Nelson said her organization, a fellowship program that hires and mobilizes college graduates to help launch a new generation of entrepreneurs, is trying to counter a bleak landscape. Current college students are likely to be more skittish when it comes to entrepreneurship,  having watched their families negotiate the realities of the 2008 recession and having grown used to startups being defined by the likes of Facebook. Saddled with student debt, millennials are less likely to follow their dreams as entrepreneurs, she said.

As a result, college programs encouraging entrepreneurship and innovation are needed more than ever, Nelson said.

“We need to encourage those crazy dreams,” she said.

Nelson, 36, said part of her work is to “demystify the process of being an entrepreneur. You don’t have to be a special unicorn. These are just people who took a risk.”

In the ‘80s and ‘90s, the United States was adding about 100,000 new companies each year, but no more, she said.

“We’ve produced negative numbers since the recession in 2008. We are closing up shop quicker than we are actually starting companies,” said Nelson. “There is this perception that millennials are going to save us – that they all know how to code and they’re all in a basement somewhere and are going to create apps that are going to transform our economy. The fact of the matter is, the data does not bear this out. Millennials are on track to become the least entrepreneurial generation in American history.”

In 1989, she said, 10.6 percent of all private businesses were owned by people 30 years and younger. Now, it’s less than 4 percent.

Without programs encouraging entrepreneurship and risk, “this is only going to get worse,” said Nelson.

Venture for America “creates a pathway for young people to become entrepreneurs,” offering training and sending the graduates into 14 mostly Midwestern urban areas facing economic hardship.

Last year, 2,500 graduates from across the country applied for just 200 positions.

“These are folks who were maybe 10 years old in 2008. They saw their parents underwater with their mortgages; they lived through the recession. They saw the stress that creates on their family. The No. 1 thing they are seeking is security. We believe they are going to be even less entrepreneurial than my generation,” Nelson said.

The Deshpande Symposium drew more than 270 attendees from more than 100 colleges and universities across the globe, including China and the country of Georgia.

Participants chose from nearly three dozen workshops over three days, under four categories: Culture & Ecosystems, Entrepreneurship in the Curriculum, Research Commercialization and Emerging Trends.

One of the main draws for participants is sharing best practices, discussing fresh ideas and forming collaborative threads, said Tom O’Donnell, senior director of innovation initiatives and director of the UMass Lowell Innovation Hub.

Conference speakers discussed an initiative that took the lessons of the Deshpande Symposium on a road trip to northeast Ohio, home to 21 colleges and universities.

The aptly named “On the Road” program was a pilot program, said Raj Melville, executive director of the Deshpande Foundation. 

“Here, people listen to people talk about programs and ideas, but it’s in some ways very abstract – you can’t touch or feel it. So we said, let’s go out to where the action is, so people can see this hands-on,” Mellville said. 

Teams visited workplaces and job incubators, comparing notes. Those who participated called it a success – a way to see how and why theory works. The Deshpande steering committee will consider a follow-up journey in the coming months.

The Deshpande Symposium was launched in 2012 by UMass Lowell Chancellor Jacquie Moloney and Gururaj “Desh” Deshpande, a technology entrepreneur. Moloney told the group Tuesday morning that the university’s entrepreneurship thrust and its DifferenceMaker program have transformed UML’s culture. Students have launched companies, developed products and raised venture funding.

The university’s endowment has also benefited. “When we started, we had $30 million in our endowment, and now we have $95 million,” said Moloney. “Desh and Raj encouraged us and told me, ‘If you go down this path, it will resonate with your alumni.’ They were right.”