What Top College Entrepreneurs Can Teach Us

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One after another, they came into a Kansas City conference room last Thursday, five young entrepreneurs appearing before a panel of judges, all seeking a $150,000 prize—not necessarily for having the best idea, but for starting and operating the best new business.

And while they eyed the prize, we eyed them. I, along with a diplomat and such business luminaries as Peter Thomas, the founder of Century 21, and Alfredo Molina, the famed jeweler and CEO of the Molina Group, had settled on this group of dorm room entrepreneurs from a collection of 30 semi-finalists vying to become the Global Student Entrepreneur of the Year. The award was given by the Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) and hosted by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

They pitched away, exuding enthusiasm and energy after a process that had started for them at regional competitions around the world, and proceeded through semifinal rounds that morning. They answered the kind of tough questions about their businesses that could have come from a room full of venture capitalists, which one of the judges actually was.

After nearly five hours of listening and questioning, we picked a winner. It wasn’t an easy choice to select one champion among the five—two from the United States and three from emerging markets including Mexico, India and the Middle East—but ultimately we decided Brent Skoda and his business CollegeFitness.com was the winner.

When it was all over and I reflected back on what I’d witnessed, three takeaways hit me—lessons and attitudes from which entrepreneurs of all ages would benefit.

Give Back and Do Good

These entrepreneurs may be young, but they’re not just about themselves. They’re giving back to their communities, and not just by creating jobs.

Vineet Kumar, a student at Sikkim Manipal University in Gangtok, India, founded his Internet security consulting company, Security Brigade, to fund his foundation dedicated to educating his neighbors for free about the Internet and online security; as well as working with his community to prevent deforestation.

Hassan Hamdan, who grew up a Palestinian refugee and still has no permanent home, started his mobile messaging company Optimal Technology Solutions to prove a world-class technology firm could arise from the Middle East, a part of the world where local brands are often passed over in favor of international ones. Ten percent of everything he makes is going to charity as part of his observance of Islam. “Helping the community is one of the basic things we do. You have to help the community,” he said.

Hamdan started with a location listed as “virtual” from 2006-2008, and has since opened offices in Khobar, Riyadh and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; Cairo, Egypt; Khartoum, Sudan; Manama, Bahrain, and Doha Qatar.

Daniel Gomez is determined that his Solbenbecome Mexico’s green-energy company, and as a result, has instilled in his firm an attitude that the company will be a good steward of natural resources as it builds and sells its custom-made biodiesel plants. “My personal objective in life is to help people,” he said.

Among the many irons Skoda—whose company College Fitness has built the largest online database of nutritional information about U.S. restaurants and offers customized exercise videos—has in the fire, he’s in touch with the White House concerning its initiative to bring down the childhood obesity rate and perhaps a partnership in which his company could help with that initiative.

Catherine Cook founded MyYearbookat the age of 15 and has seen it grow into one of the most popular social networking sites for young people on the web as she’s gone through college at the University of Georgetown Univestity. She’s proud of the company’s $250,000 donations to various charities in the past year, and the system it has set up to allow users of the site to donate as well.

Tap Into the Global Economy

Skoda started his company with a focus on U.S. college students, but his ambitions go well beyond that. He is testing expansion first into Canada and the United Kingdom, then Mexico, and perhaps beyond those markets as well.

Hamdan started his company as a multinational, with offices in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. But he has ambitions of reaching far beyond the Middle East. He’s aiming to enter Turkey in 2013, and has eyes on expanding into the world’s largest market, the United States, in the next two years.

Kumar’s company has had a global focus from the beginning, as he has helped multinationals such as Microsoft on security issues. He expects that global presence to grow. “We are planning to expand to the world markets,” he said.

Gomez already has contracts to install his biodiesel plants throughout Central America and as far south as Columbia. He has a Texas plantation growing grass that will be turned into biodiesel. His initial focus is Mexico, but he hopes to ultimately expand beyond his home country into world markets.

Cook would never have been able to start MyYearbook as a sophomore in high school if she hadn’t had access to the global workforce. Specifically, she was able to tap into programming talent in India to develop her idea on a shoestring, when it would have cost significantly more to develop the site with American programmers. Right now, 80 percent of the site’s traffic is from the United States.

Good Ideas (and Good Entrepreneurs) Are Everywhere

Skoda and Cook are living proof that you don’t have to be in an Internet greenhouse like Silicon Valley or Silicon Alley, Boston or Austin to build a successful Internet company. Skoda’s firm is based in Cleveland, Ohio, with an office in Fort Worth, Texas. Cook’s business is rooted in the small town of Skillman, New Jersey. That has its advantages, she said. “We don’t follow what everyone else is doing in the Valley,” she said.

Hamdan—who grew up with posters of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Brittany Spears, and Shakira on his wall—is setting out to prove that a high-tech telecom company can come to life in the Middle East as easily as it can in Europe, Japan or the United States. Gomez is also trying to do something new in Mexico, with his biodiesel plans. Kumar is far from such Indian tech centers as Bangalore, but has managed to get his company off the ground.

For Hamdan, who lives out of hotel rooms around the world, the competition was an affirmation that he is not alone in dreaming the entrepreneurial dream, and that dream sets him and his colleagues apart.

“We think differently,” he said. “We have this mentality of being different.” And part of that mentality is this dreamlike reality: “I’m living a movie,” he said.

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