The Georgetown Entrepreneurship Initiative has the broad mission to encourage undergraduate students to start their own businesses. However, such businesses are prohibited by Student Affairs policies, which student entrepreneurs say has led to a system of selective enforcement.
“[S]tudents living in any housing owned by the University may not operate a private business or otherwise engage in commercial activities from these premises,” the policy reads. “This prohibition includes using a room address, room telephone, or University network connection to conduct any type of business activity, such as acting as an agent for an outside company, soliciting or collecting orders for goods or services, or selling or delivering products.”
BuyBack Brothers, a business which purchases books from students at the end of each semester, was removed from campus in the spring of 2011 for violating the policy.
“They set up in Red Square and started buying from Red Square without any problems for two semesters,” said Nicholas Strzeletz (COL ’14), the current operator of BuyBack Brothers. “So no one said anything for two semesters, and then suddenly an administrator came up to them at the end of one semester … it must have been spring 2011, and, basically, this woman [Phylander Pannell, Director of Campus Activity Facilities] said ‘you’re not allowed to do this. Student businesses can’t run on campus. You can’t use this space.’ Then she brought DOPS officers to prevent [Jordan Green (COL ‘12)] continuing to run the business.”
Even though student-run technology startups violate Georgetown’s policy by using University Internet, such activity is difficult to detect. As such, technology startups are seldom forced to cease operating on campus.
Last year, James Li (MSB ’13) and Michael Hauser (MSB ’13) were running a consulting business for nonprofits out of their Georgetown housing. When the Washington Post asked to photograph Li and Hauser for an article about student entrepreneurship, they ran into trouble with the policy.
“So we had to go through a week of bureaucracy with Georgetown to make sure they could come into our Village A and take photos in our dorm,” Li said. The University eventually permitted the Post to take photographs.
At the time, Li and Hauser were running their business with the help of the Entrepreneurship Initiative, and, according to Li, “The entrepreneurship department actually didn’t know about that rule until that situation came up.”
Jeff Reid, Director of the Entrepreneurship Initiative, did not respond to requests for comment, but Vice President for Student Affairs Todd Olson said the rule was primarily intended to protect residential life and deflect liability from the University.
“We strongly encourage student entrepreneurship, but also want to protect the residential character of our living areas, and businesses with deliveries and other impacts can interfere with that character,” Olson wrote in an email to the Voice. “The Center for Student Programs, and Student Affairs broadly, does not permit individual students to use classroom spaces for business purposes because our exempt status does not allow University resources—classrooms, technology, etc.—to be used by individuals for profit-making enterprises.”
Olson attested that programs through the Entrepreneurship Initiative are permissible as academic exercises. “As a university, Georgetown should and does encourage entrepreneurship among its students. The MSB programs are one example of this. These are very much educational in nature, with a supervised academic structure where the use of the university’s resources is perfectly acceptable,” Olson wrote.
It is unclear, however, what event prompted the implementation of the Student Affairs policy.
“I believe it was from about 2006 and it was instituted allegedly to help curb the sale of fake IDs on campus,” said Jay Factor (COL ’14), a GUSA senator on the Student Life Committee, which was charged with changing the policy last semester.
Strzeletz had another idea about why the policy was put in place.
“From what I understand, the rule was put into place because of these credit card companies who were setting up on campus and trying to sign kids up for credit cards.”
Olson would not say why the policy was enacted.
Although the Student Life Committee took up the issue last year, it received a negative response from the University. “We tried working with administrators. I think we drafted a letter. We didn’t really get a response and nothing has happened so far,” Factor said.
“Todd Olson’s statement doesn’t seem accurate at all when you have policies that are expressly forbidding any type of student activity in entrepreneurship,” Factor continued. “ I do think this is something the student life committee would be happy to reexamine and advocate for.”
But Strzeletz thinks the selective enforcement policy is working for some student startups.
“Obviously, there’s no room to have your own business on campus,” Strzeletz said. “I don’t think they’d care about a tech business, but it’s sort of out of sight, out of mind. If you’re making a business, they’re really supportive of that until it interferes with life on campus.”