TERRE HAUTE —
The spirit of enterprise was a rising force last weekend on a college campus known for innovation.
For fans of the sport called business, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology played host to some big league names as part of its inaugural Rose Startup! Seminar. From executives to owners, dozens of business leaders from the technology sector gathered on campus to talk to students about launching a company.
Organized by the new Rose Innovative Student Entrepreneurs (RISE) club, the student-run event on Saturday drew more than 200 participants from universities across the state. RISE co-founder Wilson Kurian admitted that a lot of work went into making the event a reality.
“There were a couple nights where I thought, yep, this is what it’s going to be like,” the future entrepreneur laughed.
On the RISE
Chad Conway, a senior mechanical engineering student from Massachusetts, will spend this week interviewing with Ford Motor Co. and Tesla Motors before meeting recruiters at BMW. Certain he’ll get a job with a leading manufacturing company before graduating in December, he hears the call of the wild.
“I have a lot of different opportunities, but I’m also going to stay involved in the entrepreneurial community,” he said during a break-out session.
With the help of fellow seniors Kurian and Victoria Zheng, Conway launched RISE after driving through a snow storm to attend a similar workshop at Wabash College in Crawfordsville last year. Upon his arrival, he recalled being surprised at the number of Rose-Hulman alumni involved there.
“Why not here?” he asked about Rose-Hulman, noting the willingness he and others had to drive to attend such an event. RISE was formed shortly thereafter, and work toward this conference was begun.
Zheng, a computer science and software engineering major, serves as the club’s chief technology officer.
“That’s what they call the secretary,” she laughed.
But, as she explained, the group takes its mission seriously, and as computer-savvy engineers, the members designed their own downloadable iPhone app for the event, complete with speaker biographies and schedules.
Originally from Beijing, China, Zheng said she’ll interview with both Facebook and Google this week, hopeful of landing a job in Silicon Valley, home to some of the most successful start-ups in America. Whether she stays in America will depend on career opportunities, as she ultimately hopes to find financial backing for her own business. While her contacts through Rose-Hulman are largely American, she said some investors are willing to start the business here and then send it to China for implementation and development.
Meanwhile, like Conway, she doesn’t have a specific venture in mind; rather, many ideas swirl about the conversations of college students.
“We just think about things we wish we had when we do things,” she said, describing potential software applications involving music and messaging.
Talking about ideas and how to implement them is part of the excitement, Conway remarked.
“I love the energy and how fast start-ups can move,” he said, expressing his intent to do independent work on the side after securing a full-time job in manufacturing.
Bill Kline, dean of Innovation and Engagement, agreed the students had shown considerable entrepreneurial spirit in launching such a program.
“All together, it’s been a great success,” he said.
Among the event’s sponsors was Indianapolis law firm Taft, Stettinius & Hollister LLP, with intellectual property attorney James Coles serving as a participant.
“I think this is an excellent program,” the 1969 Rose-Hulman alumnus and trustee said during one of the breaks.
An electrical engineering graduate himself, Coles worked at McDonnell Douglas while attending law school at night. In addition to himself, he brought an attorney who specializes in financing and organizing start-ups. Other participants included business leaders and Rose-Hulman graduates who own their own companies.
“Many of these guys started businesses while they were in engineering school, while they were at Rose,” he said, crediting real experience as an important element of the discussions.
Lots of people have great ideas, but knowing how to move a product to market, reach a customer base and grow the operation is another matter, he said. People with good ideas can usually get the financial backing needed, but the question typically comes down to whether or not people will buy the product.
The school didn’t have such a club in the 1960s, he said, adding he’d have enjoyed it while a student. But back then, most graduates wanted an engineering job with a large corporation. The culture has changed over the years, and now students want to be their own boss. With more than 200 participants involved, he said the demand for such discussions is apparent.
Session panelists included Yvette Kendall, the president of Shevinci Innovations and inventor of the E-Book Reader; Gerald Rea, CEO of Scottsburg’s Stray Light Optical Technologies; and Jeff Ready, CEO of Scale Computing.
Ready, a 1996 Rose-Hulman graduate, started his first company, Terre Haute Internet Services, in the school’s basement. He sold it in 1998 and next founded Aureate Media, which later became Radiate Inc., which boasted annual sales of $20 million before its sale. In 2004, he sold another of his start-ups, Corvigo, to Tumbleweed Communications for $41.5 million, staying on as a marketing executive until launching Scale Computing, which has twice been selected to Forbes’ list of America’s Most Promising Companies.
“He’s Rose-Hulman’s poster child for entrepreneurs,” Kurian said.
During a break, Ready said the school’s commitment to entrepreneurs is relatively new and very valuable.
“There’s a huge amount of energy and interest in entrepreneurship compared to when I was here,” he observed, recalling that groups such as RISE didn’t exist back then.
That aside, a lot of great companies have been started at the school, he said, encouraging students to be passionate about their goals.
“It’s more of a lifestyle than a career path,” he said.
And it’s a lifestyle Yujie said might appeal to him someday. A sophomore from Shanghai, China, he said his father owns an engineering services company there.
“I want to experience this in America, and probably start my business in China, if I can,” he said.
But the population of China makes competition fierce. And whereas 30 years ago its market was dominated by foreign brands, Chinese companies have come a long way in reclaiming it, he said.
In the meantime, studying in America helps him foster relationships and improve his English. Participating in groups such as RISE make for good experience, and he said he’s interested in carrying the project forward for a repeat conference next year.
Brian Boyce can be reached at 812-231-4253 or firstname.lastname@example.org.