A year ago, I’d hardly heard of startups. Neither had just about anyone at Georgia Tech. This year, we’re taking the country by storm.
I had just started the second semester of my freshman year when I met Aswin through a mutual friend. I was sitting at Starbucks, nervous and not too sure what to expect – who was this guy? A quick google search revealed that he had been featured on the Pioneer, so clearly he was doing something right.
Honestly, if I had known how much this meeting was going to change my life, I probably would have been paralyzed with apprehension.
We sat down and started talking about Startup Semester – he and a friend, Jerome Choo had started an experimental, student run “pre-incubator” program in an attempt to push the entrepreneurial community at Georgia Tech forward. It had been a huge success, quickly rising to the top of Hacker News and garnering national recognition.
Aswin took me to a room that had been given to him by the Georgia Tech library and told me it was going to change Georgia Tech. He envisioned a co-working space where any Georgia Tech student interested in startups could come to learn, hack and hang out. The passion in his eyes was riveting, and this was the moment that sold me – I knew I had to be a part of this.
We spent the next semester working out how to best solve this problem – we threw some amazing events, and had some great speakers come in. Slowly, we saw this culture start to evolve, and out of it came the Startup Exchange. Looking back, I think our biggest tipping point was 3 Day Startup. We had students from 8 different colleges there and it absolutely exploded sX’s growth. Heck, we’ve even spread into Georgia State with the help of the insanely talented Ricky Hunter (we met at 3DS). If you’re reading this, and you go to another school in the ATL area, I want to hear from you. Let’s get this happening at every school in ATL. Georgia Tech, Emory, GSU, UGA, Morehouse, Spelman.
It was clear that something had to be done at Tech. The administration had been fairly stagnant when it came to encouraging undergrads to pursue startups, and we desperately wanted to change that. When we started, students at Georgia Tech really had two major options presented to them – work hard and get a high paying job at a Fortune 500 or a similar big company, or work hard and get into research. We wanted to add a third option – work your ass off, start a startup, and innovate.
The first thing that needs to be developed is a hacker culture in every discipline at Georgia Tech. People need to be building shit. I think this is, by far, the biggest challenge we’re going to face at Tech because it requires the support of upper level administration, and eventually, changes to the curriculum. The intro CS, engineering classes should be about building something (look at Harvard’s CS50 class). That’s what got me so hooked on the startup lifestyle, and it’s the reason I’m so passionate about it. I don’t want to be stuck behind a desk, debugging someone else’s code. I want to be building amazing products that reach millions of people. This semester, we’ll be busing people around the country for MHacks, PennApps, and HackNashville. After reading these two posts by Dave Fontenot, and hanging with him here in NY, I’m convinced this is how to begin developing Georgia Tech’s hacker culture.
After that, we need some way to organically create relationships between students. That’s what the Exchange solves. It aims to be a space that exists to facilitate inter-disciplinary collaboration. I want a 3D printer in the same room as arduinos, rPis, 27” iMacs and some kickass Linux machines, as well as supplies for the design students. Once we have a hacker culture in all these disciplines, the Exchange will naturally create relationships between students in different majors, just because they’re in the same space. Relationships lead to startups being formed once they hit a good idea. Right now, we’re on the right track, but we’re fast going to outgrow the tiny room we have now. We’ve got our eyes set on the CommLab – that would give us enough space to set up an amazing environment. Eventually, I want it to be the coolest place on campus to get work done. Defining a good culture here is key.
Next, we need solid incubators to turn the ideas formed by students into startups. Startup Semester, Flashpoint and VentureLab have got that covered fairly well, but it’ll require some intense work. Startup Semester takes in students that have an idea and team, but don’t know how to go from there. After that, we send them to Flashpoint, YC, Techstars and they tear up the competition.
Lastly, we’re eventually going to need a student VC firm. Once we have enough startups coming out of Georgia Tech, I either want to bring Dorm Room Fund to Georgia Tech, or work with a local VC to create a student VC firm at Georgia Tech. After speaking to Peter Boyce, who founded RoughDraft VC at Harvard, I’ve got a fair few ideas on how to do this well. Hopefully, I’ll be posting more on that in about a years time. On that note, if you’re at ATL VC firm who wants to get involved in this, shoot me an email. Ideally, it’ll be something like Atlanta Ventures, but without a requirement to drop out – I don’t think Georgia Tech’s administration would like us too much if we spiked the dropout rate.
If you’ve read up to here, you now know what the next few years of my life are going to look like. If you’re interested in getting involved in any way, shoot me an email. I promise I won’t bite.
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