Start People, Not Ups

We fail students when we don’t start with passion and pragmatism. Student entrepreneurship is not about starting up businesses. It is about starting up people.

Student entrepreneurship is not about starting businesses. Behind all the startup buzz on college campuses is a mass of confused students drawn to the most talked about industry that appears to be serving up jobs that feel like an exciting extension of college where everyone is purportedly changing the world.

I often encounter students who say, “Do you think I should learn to code,” or “I’d like to do something in design…or social entrepreneurship…or startups.” What is happening here is that students are jumping haphazardly to professions or industries in which they have very little understanding other than a perception that this is where cool jobs are.

Students and community members learn how to use sewing machines at HackCville
Students and community members at a HackCville sewing machine workshop

Spend time with students to unpack this language and you will learn that they simply want some sense of how to find and act on meaningful work around something they care about. They want to exercise their creative thinking and work on challenging problems. They want to live in places that suit their lifestyle. These students don’t want to end up like their older bro who hates his investment banking job, or worse, who moved back in with mom and dad because the job market stinks.

The shortest version is, “I want a job that doesn’t suck.” It might sound cheesy, but it boils down to wanting to wake up inspired and end the day fulfilled. Don’t we all? The problem is that college entrepreneurship programs expect students to mint new businesses while skipping ahead of the most important questions on passion and pragmatism.

My partner in crime, Alan Webb recently summed it up best. “As an important component of entrepreneurship education, there needs to be focus on personal growth and development of students as entrepreneurial people and not just venture vending machines.”

We fail students when we glorify tech startups. It leads to the perception that entrepreneurship or the jobs therein are the domain for programmers. I recently attended an event hosted by a student entrepreneurship club where I asked students to show me their projects. Only one student had anything to show. I then asked what barriers were preventing everyone else from starting a project. The response was unanimous, “I don’t know how to code.” However, all of the student’s ideas could easily be started without a line of code.. We have to inspire students to see entrepreneurship beyond web tech and to start with what they do know (pragmatic) and what drives them (passion).

Entrepreneurship students gather at HackCville’s Open House

We fail students when we talk about high growth startups but not about the family owned running store with staff who love what they do while maintaining a lifestyle that allows them to run, coach, and spend time as a family.

We fail students when entrepreneurship programs are housed in the business or engineering schools. The entrepreneurial mindset transcends majors. Just check out this interview on Mixergy on how an organic chemist started building his career around tutoring and study resources for organic chemistry. Mixergy is full of these examples and schools can look to their own alumni for similar stories.

Most importantly, we fail students when we don’t start with passion and pragmatism. Student entrepreneurship is not about starting up businesses. It is about starting up people by helping them develop an entrepreneurial mindset through real projects where they work on something meaningful to them. The lesson here is student entrepreneurship is really about helping build careers.


Spencer Ingram is the founder of HackCville, Charlottesville’s clubhouse and community for ruckus makers. He graduated U.Va. from SEAS in 2007. You can reach him at

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