Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Liberal arts colleges: Incubators for poets

Small liberal arts colleges in US are reinventing themselves as entrepreneur hatcheries—both for billion-dollar startups and social change makers

Published: Aug 28, 2015 07:27:24 AM IST
Updated: Aug 27, 2015 06:31:51 PM IST
Liberal arts colleges: Incubators for poets
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Duty, honour and a company with a conscience: Emily Núñez Cavness of Sword & Plough

Before her last semester of college Emily Núñez Cavness never imagined starting her own business. On a frigid Vermont evening in late January 2012 the French literature and international studies major attended Middlebury College’s inaugural social entrepreneurship symposium purely out of curiosity. Sitting in the campus’s storied 99-year-old chapel, Cavness listened to keynote speaker Jacqueline Novogratz, founder of nonprofit VC fund Acumen, share examples of social enterprises, including one that recycled coffee waste into fertilisers.

Cavness, an Army ROTC cadet who grew up in a military family, immediately thought of the huge piles of military surplus she saw at the various bases she visited. What if that discarded material could be turned into something beautiful, even salable? What if such a recycling project could bridge the divide between the military and civilians—a handbag or backpack as a constant, functional reminder?

As a liberal arts student, Cavness had little real-world experience, but her elder sister, Betsy, encour- aged her to enter MiddChallenge, Middlebury’s business-plan competition. “I didn’t really know what a business plan was. It was daunting,” Cavness recalls. But her team won first place—and was rewarded with a $3,000 grant.

Since that initial boost, Cavness has taken her ecommerce startup, Sword & Plough, from an idea to a real social enterprise that has sold more than 7,000 stylish bags and accessories, while recycling over 25,000 pounds of military surplus products, supporting 38 new jobs for veterans and donating 10 percent of profits to charitable causes. “Without Middlebury and the Center for Social Entrepreneurship, Sword & Plough would have remained just another interesting idea rather than an exciting reality,” says Cavness, 25, now a first lieutenant.

With annual symposiums, mentorship programmes and funding competitions, Middlebury is one of many small liberal arts colleges reinventing themselves as modern- day startup incubators—geared toward for-profit enterprises and nonprofits alike. Driven by market demand and the idea of teaching practical skills that would create larger impacts outside of traditional liberal arts classrooms, these colleges are encouraging students to pursue entrepreneurship—in particular, social entrepreneurship. Success stories like Sword & Plough are proving that business is no longer the exclusive territory of research universities and specialty colleges.

Liberal arts colleges: Incubators for poets
As many liberal arts colleges have faced a fall-off in enrollment over the years as well as criticism about failing to better prepare students for gainful employment and careers, teaching and encouraging entrepreneurship has emerged as a smart strategy and powerful tool.

“How do you translate the values of liberal arts education, which is about creating innovative ideas, into some- thing actionable after you graduate in this startup economy?” asks Patrick Bultema, executive director at Colo- rado College’s Innovation Institute. “What we create here is to help with that translation exercise.” Colorado College, which this year ranks third on Forbes’s Most Entrepreneurial Colleges list, gives out $50,000 in seed money at its annual The Big Idea pitch competition. The school is not alone: Other colleges shell out small fortunes to encourage student venture ideas. Hampshire College, known for its open curriculum and lack of distribution requirements or grades, for instance, created a $1 million seed fund in 2013 that aims to allocate $200,000 a year for five years.

Middlebury ranks second on this year’s list, boasting more founders and owners among alumni and students on LinkedIn than even UC, Berkeley or Cornell University (adjusted for student body size). How does a tiny school in rural Vermont do that? As an umbrella for the college’s entrepreneurial initiatives, in 2007 Middlebury founded the Programs on Creativity & Innovation, including MiddEntrepreneurs—a one-month intensive, full-time course that focuses on starting a company. Along the way the college converted the Old Stone Mill, a five-storey building in downtown Middlebury, into a co-working space. “It was almost like we were taking these ideas from business schools and figuring out what a Middlebury version would be,” says Associate Dean Elizabeth Robinson, the programme’s founder.

Liberal arts colleges: Incubators for poets
For Cavness, Novogratz’s speech was only the inspiration. On top of the $3,000 grant, the Sword & Plough team raised funding from MiddStart, Middlebury’s internal Kickstarter-like fundraising site, and a seed investment from Alan Hassenfeld, former CEO of Hasbro who endowed the college’s Center for Social Entrepreneurship. Before her seven-month deployment to Afghanistan as second lieutenant in the 4th Engineer Battalion, Cavness introduced her startup to the outside world, raising an additional $312,000 on Kickstarter for a campaign that targeted just $20,000. “Middlebury was there every step of the way, challenging me in every aspect of the business model to incorporate social impact,” she says. It helped that the Center for Social Entrepreneurship was situated just two floors below her dorm room.

Startup infrastructure can be a powerful recruitment tool for bright students who appreciate the traditional liberal arts model but also are attracted to the Silicon Valley ethos. Megan Grassell, who at age 17 founded Yellowberry, a company that makes and sells age-appropriate bras for girls, said Middlebury’s support for entrepreneurship helped make her college decision. “For Middlebury to have all the resources at my fingertips and an environment so supportive of young entrepreneurs, it’s inspiring as an incoming freshman,” says the 19-year-old, who doesn’t want to specialise in business as an undergraduate, despite her experience. “With the incredible resources at the entrepreneurship programme, it’s the best of both worlds.”

Colleges do best when they build such resources on top of core strengths. Eric Lima, a mechanical engineering professor who helps run Cooper Union’s popular Inven- tion Factory summer programme, emphasises making products rather than becoming an entrepreneur. “When students make something exciting, they often want to develop it commercially,” says Lima. Focusing on problem solving and product creation, New York City’s Cooper Union, whose curricula are based on engineering, fine arts and architecture, tops the Most Entrepreneurial Colleges list this year. At many schools that entrepreneurial atmosphere is initially driven by alumni. Colgate alum and serial entrepreneur Andy Greenfield started a one-man mentorship programme at his alma mater. Today his Thought Into Action Entrepreneurship Institute, backed by Colgate’s president, hosts entrepreneur weekends to bring back alumni—along with big-name entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson and Airbnb’s Brian Chesky—to connect with current students. Oberlin College & Conservatory has taken a similar path. The seven-alumni executive committee that leads its LaunchU accelerator, which supports about 20 students’ business ideas each year, will soon defer to a new employee hired to be the college’s ‘Director of Entrepreneurship’.

As historically antibusiness colleges begin to look more like Y Combinator, internal debates about academic priorities are inevitable. “There were some understandable concerns from certain segments of the university about if and how entrepreneurship fits into a liberal arts college,” Greenfield says.

That’s why social entrepre-neurship—a marriage of nonprofit idealism and business techniques—fits liberal arts so well. “The term ‘social entrepreneurship’ gives students the license to put their energy and passion into something they wouldn’t have thought of previously,” says Makaela Kingsley, director of Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Wesleyan University. Without such a pitch, many students tell her, they would never have visited the centre because “entrepreneurship” sounds too corporate. For Kingsley, her first task is to help students adapt a broader definition of business. “Our top priority is social good, and that always has to trump profits, but it doesn’t have to preclude profits,” she says. “Learning some practical skills is no doubt going to lead the students to working toward the greater good.”

Social entrepreneurship is quickly becoming a higher-education staple. Three years ago Middlebury started the first forum to discuss social entrepreneurship in the context of a liberal arts education, attracting fewer than 60 educators from 16 colleges and universities. The number of attendees doubled to 115 at the fourth annual forum this June, with professors and school administrators coming from colleges such as Pomona College in California, Connecticut College, Swarthmore and Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. Existing programmes at schools are also becoming a larger part of campus life. Over 25 percent of students at both Middlebury and Colgate are actively involved with their schools’ entrepreneurial initiatives.

As Sword & Plough continues to grow, Cavness was back at Middlebury’s campus to mentor students in January. Says Cavness, “To give back two and a half years later in the teaching and mentorship role was truly amazing.”

(This story appears in the 04 September, 2015 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)