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Start me up: The struggles of Georgetown’s tech entrepreneurs
“Our community is not that creative,” Carlos Cheung (MSB ‘13) said of Georgetown’s student body. “if you think about it, how many art majors do you meet here? Let’s be real. We’re kind of like a mill. We build a lot of good people who go into middle-management positions at law firms and banks and consulting. That’s the three major things that a lot of kids end up doing, right?”
Cheung became an anomaly among this group, when he left the business track to work for three D.C.-based tech startup companies.
Although deviating from the prescribed path comes with its own risks, entrepreneurship has the potential to elevate students to a plane beyond the traditional rat race.
“At least for me, since I’ve pursued this route, I was stressing out originally about jobs and stuff like that, but since I’ve pursued entrepreneurship and this tech community, I’ve got more job offers because I’ve been outside of Georgetown than I have competing inside Georgetown,” he said. “I try to tell people that. If you take the non-traditional route, you’ll get more job offers, but nobody really listens to me. ‘Cause they don’t actually go and do it.”
Georgetown University has fostered a small, but growing, tech startup community among its students. Student entrepreneurship is difficult in itself. The challenge of applying what is taught in class, the effort in finding the people with the right expertise, the struggle to be taken seriously by professionals, and the sheer uncertainty in investing precious time in a company that very well may fail discourages many Georgetown students from starting their own businesses.
“A lot of students don’t have what it takes,” said Michael Hauser (MSB ‘13), co-founder of Encore, a tech startup developing software to make email marketing and social media easier for non-profits. “The initiative, the drive. You got to run into the wall five or six times to make a startup work. Eventually it’s easier to say…finance, it makes more sense.”
A small minority of students who have successfully built or broken into startup tech companies does exist, but those students in that group insist that they have received minimal to no help from the University. Although Georgetown in recent years has introduced programs to encourage students to pursue entrepreneurship, those students interested in starting tech companies find themselves handicapped by working (neither at a school nor in a city known for its technology scene.)
Georgetown’s computer science program, like most of the school’s science offerings, is relatively small compared to departments like government and business; according to its website, the Computer Science Department graduates 13-15 students in the average year. While students at schools like MIT and Stanford can found their own startups through cross-departmental programs, such collaboration is rare at Georgetown.
“We have a multitude of resources to help connect entrepreneurs at all levels … connecting students in every phase of a startup. The biggest program is the Stanford Technology Ventures Program,” wrote Lisa Lapin, Stanford’s Assistant Vice President of University Communications, in an email to the Voice.
Georgetown has no such program, either specifically for fostering tech startups or for connecting student-managers to student-developers. “I think tech-specifically, in entrepreneurship, I don’t see any program in the University that’s catered toward that. There’s also no dialogue between the computer science department and entrepreneurship initiative or the business school, at all,” said Holly Ormseth (MSB ’13), a computer science minor who has done design work for several D.C.-based technology companies [Full disclosure: Ormseth is a former Voice staffer]. “There’s a terrible disconnect.”
University communications did not specifically comment on whether there is any program designed to connect coders and entrepreneurs across the University.
Even if there were a mechanism to connect entrepreneurs and coders, few students would be available to work in any sort of technology startup.
While trying to build up their company, James Li (MSB ‘13) and Hauser have found it nearly impossible to find students available to work technology for their venture.
“It’s been really terrible, to be honest. We reached out to a lot of different parties, whether they be in the McDonough School of Business or even just reaching out to the Computer Science Department, and what we’ve found that either there are not enough students who are qualified to do what we’re trying to do with our tech startup or the ones that are already have their own projects, and they just don’t have any time to help us out,” Li said. “The biggest problem we’ve faced is that we don’t have a … technological person on our team.”
Ormseth reports having seen the same problem in her experience in the startup world, as Georgetown’s reputation attracts few tech-inclined students.
“It’s also that you chose this school,” she said. “I went into Georgetown knowing it wasn’t strong in computer science. I don’t think anyone’s particularly angry with them for it, but it definitely means that if you go into school and realize that you want to be in the startup world, tech is extremely important. There aren’t many resources to turn to [in order] to develop that interest.”
Hauser, Li, and Ormseth all consider the size of the computer science program to be a detriment to the University startup community. While coding can easily be outsourced to professionals, doing so requires capital—something that student-run tech companies lack.
“A lot of people have a lot of cool tech ideas, but just don’t have the skills necessary to get started,” Li said. “A lot of them try to pursue it, but they hit that wall … At that point, you either have to find a student, or you have to have money to do it.”
Aquicore, the venture for which Ormseth works, outsources the back-end heavy coding to developers in Chicago. Li and Hauser used some of their own money to hire freelancers in Argentina.
Even though the small size of the Computer Science Department is responsible for much of the difficulty in fostering student technology companies, Ormseth blames the focus of the major for Georgetown’s weak tech scene.
“At Georgetown, the Computer Science Department is extremely small and is extremely focused on old-school C++ programming, back-end database development,” Ormseth said. “And it’s focused on security and network security. There’s, like, one front-end Ruby class, but there’s pretty much no support for any front-end development, which is building web 2.0 websites … There’s a few classes, but really not a supportive major-track for it.”
Li and Hauser see a similar problem. “I know a lot of students who have taken computer science classes, like Intro to Computer Applications, and so they learn the coding language C, which won’t help you make a website and won’t help you build any apps,” Li said. “Our website builds on a framework called Ruby on Rails, which I’m pretty sure nobody at Georgetown knows.”
According to Li, the few students who do learn applicable coding skills “learn coding on their own.”
Ormseth attests to the difficulty for students to learn programming skills while being full-time students. “It’s that at school, you have to study full-time for the class you’re doing,” Ormseth said. “That is your number one priority. You can’t put on top of that learning to develop, but if development was your class schedule, you would totally have people capable of doing it.”
Sources closer to the Computer Science Department, however, insist that the major teaches a broad range of applicable skills.
“It would be helpful to some people if there was more web programming and app-stuff, but I don’t think that our computer science program is lacking, somehow, because of it,” said Duncan Gillespie (COL ’13), a computer science major who works at D.C. tech startup StudyHall. “Other schools that are bigger have it, but, also, if you look at the resources that we have, I don’t necessarily think there’s a huge shortage.”
He went on to explain that his classes have taught both front-end coding tools, like Ruby on Rails, and back-end database structuring. It’s just that only advanced classes in the major teach it. “Most of the bases are covered,” he said.
The Computer Science Department reiterated this emphasis on fundamentals rather than practicality. “At the Computer Science Department we strive to equip our students with a general understanding of the field of computer science so that our students are prepared for a computer-based profession or to go on to graduate school,” wrote Ophir Frieder, chair of the Department of Computer Science, in an email to the Voice. “The computer science field changes daily, so it’s crucial to us to provide our students with the basic fundamentals of computer science in addition to the specifics of a given application.”
Jeff Reid, Director of the Georgetown Entrepreneur Initiative, an office created in recent years to aid and advise potential student entrepreneur, noted that Georgetown’s lack of coders is not specific to the school. “I would say that technical skills are in short supply nationwide,” he said.
“The thing is that not everyone wants to do CompSci, but a lot of people want to do application development,” Cheung said. Cheung plans to bring professionals in from Microsoft this semester to teach interested students applicable coding skills. “That’s just one initiative to get kids looking into [computer science]. And I think that’s what needs to happen. There needs to be more professional training, because the CompSci Department teaches more conceptual-based, instead of actual, applicable coding skills.”
While finding expertise is a key problem for would-be entrepreneurs at Georgetown, finding the right institutional support is also a challenge. Only in the past few years has the University sponsored programs designed to encourage students to start their own businesses. The Entrepreneurship Initiative is a key component of that push. The program regularly hosts expert talks and networking events for Georgetown students to connect with local startup capitalists.
Ormseth believes these networking events to be important for getting students involved in the D.C. technology scene. “The way I came to work in this startup, which I think is typical for most people who come to work in startups, was just by meeting someone, somewhere, who eventually connected me to someone,” Ormseth said. “There was nothing formal about the process.”
Cheung found his startup opportunities through happenstance as well. “If you go outside Georgetown, I’m usually the only kid that’s there, so they know. They listen to my ideas, they listen to my thought process and they’re like, ‘Oh this seems like a smart kid. Seems like we would hire him.’”
At the same time, entrepreneurship programs at Georgetown are all relatively new. “When I came, we didn’t have any entrepreneurship programs at Georgetown whatsoever. I was the first class of Compass Fellows. I’m also the first class of Entrepreneurship fellows. That just started out last year,” Li said.
Asked if the entrepreneurship programs are helpful for tech startups, Li recognized that the priority exists, but that institutional help can only be so helpful. “I would say that the University is doing everything it can, honestly. Obviously, it’d be awesome if we got more support financially … at the same time, it’s not like they’re able to get students to come out of thin air and code these things,” Li said. “Everyone’s in a really difficult situation.”
Cheung emphasizes the impact of his informal mentors over anyone he has met at Georgetown: “I feel like there’s more support out in D.C. If you go outside of Georgetown into D.C., there’s actually a lot of support networks.”
“Most of our advisors are all either charities, venture capitalists, or other entrepreneurs from the D.C. area,” Li said. “What we’ve seen is a growing tech entrepreneurship scene, in the last year and a half, actually.”
Despite the risk, the payoff from starting a new tech company can prove substantial. “The big advantage we see in tech businesses is the ability to scale. We can code something, we can build something, then we can go out and sell it, and all we need to provide afterward is customer service,” said James Li (MSB ’13), Encore’s other co-founder. “That makes that a much more scalable revenue process for us. The difference [in cost] between $100 and $1000 is not that big.”
Even with Georgetown pushing hard for students to enter entrepreneurship, Georgetown has to fight back against the narrow culture of competitive suit-and-tie interviews and the ethos of taking the well-trodden path.
Ted Leonsis (COL ‘77), famous for his entrepreneurial drive, his high-ranking service at AOL, and as the owner of the Washington Wizards, recently returned to Georgetown to speak. As Li remembers it, “literally, sixteen kids showed up.”
According to Ormseth, many students don’t realize their interest in startups until they reach college. “When I came here, I really don’t think I had any interest in entrepreneurship. I had some interest in tech,” she said. “I think, in the business school, I rejected the finance track, and then what was next most appealing was entrepreneurship.”
Even while Georgetown’s traditional business programs gain national prominence, its offerings in entrepreneurship remain largely unrecognized. “When I told [my interviewer] that I was interested in the entrepreneurship track, she was like, ‘Uh, I didn’t know that existed. Are you sure there’s one?’” said Tammy Cho (MSB ’16), Li and Hauser’s partner at Encore.
“It hurts to hear that, cause you’re like, ‘Oh, what are we trying to do here?’ We’re just trying to boost Georgetown’s name,” Li said.
Although Georgetown entrepreneurs are yet to receive national fame, current undergraduates are not alone in their tech startup endeavors; Georgetown alumni have experienced success in the field as well. Catherine Cook (MSB ’11) sold myYearbook, a social network designed for people to make new friends, she co-founded with her brother, for $100 million within a year of graduation. While she began that venture before coming to Georgetown, she is just one of the students and alumni who have experienced success in the field.
“Something amazing—when I was at the Democratic National Convention last week, it was really cool, cause I got talking to the guy next to me, and it turns out he was Georgetown 2010. And there was someone else who was also Georgetown 2010, and they were both there cause they had started their own companies and were involved in entrepreneurship,” she said. “I hadn’t realized how many entrepreneurs were at Georgetown.”
Still, no startup is risk-free. Li went two summers without taking a traditional internship, and reports that this lack of such common experience has hurt his job hunt. “I still don’t know what I’m going to be doing after I graduate,” he said. “I have no job offers.”
College is a time well-suited to breaking precedent and testing ventures with only limited consequences. “Being in college gives you a safety net. Even if you fail your business, you still have Leo’s to go to. It’s not like you’ll be hungry and homeless,” Li said. “I would encourage more students to not necessarily immediately go into finance or consulting … but really think about what they’re passionate about.”
Additional reporting by Lucia He