How Arizona State University Is Changing The Entrepreneurial Landscape Of The Southwest

Original Article via Forbes.com
Chris Meyers

Many up-and-coming entrepreneurs in the tech field subscribe to the commonly held belief that only companies based in the Bay Area stand a chance of succeeding. While I’ve written in the past about the problems of insularity and group think in Silicon Valley, there’s no question that there are certain benefits for startups located there.  The vibrant entrepreneurial community brings together ambitious young talent, visionaries looking to change the world, and access to capital like nowhere else. Other communities in the U.S. pale in comparison.

Fortunately, this may be about to change. While there will almost certainly never be another Silicon Valley, there is a very real movement afoot that aims to bring the best elements of the Valley’s community to other regions across the U.S. I’ve recently had the pleasure of reconnecting with a team that is leading this charge at my Alma Mater, Arizona State University.  ASU is committed to transforming the Southwest into a hub of innovation and entrepreneurship, and their unique approach may succeed where so many others have failed.

Community matters for entrepreneurs

I was born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona and have witnessed the seemingly constant cycle of boom and bust that plagues the region. The economic landscape of Phoenix has long been dominated by real estate development. In fact, most of the young talent and investment capital has gravitated in that direction. Individuals looking to develop new technologies have had difficulty attracting both talent and capital because of the pervasive deal-based mentality that is often associated with real estate. As a result, the community and network that is so important for entrepreneurs never developed.

My company, BodeTree, was originally founded in Phoenix back in 2010 but this lack of community was a major factor in the decision to relocate to Denver, Colorado.  There simply wasn’t much activity going on in Phoenix at the time, and as my co-founder and I set out to raise capital we saw most of our opportunities come from other areas.  More importantly, however, was the fact that it was difficult to find seasoned entrepreneurs who could offer insight and advice. It seemed like everyone we encountered in Phoenix cut their teeth in land development, not technology.

A strong entrepreneurial community provides people with a support network and constantly evolving sounding board of sorts, allowing ideas to resonate and evolve rapidly. Without it, fledgling entrepreneurs run the risk of becoming isolated, out-of-touch, and irrelevant. This is a particularly tragic situation considering the size and diversity of the Phoenix area. Unfortunately, many have tried to fix the situation over the years to no avail.

ASU is the catalyst for change

ASU’s current strategy may solve this once and for all. With over 80,000 students, Arizona State is now the largest public university in the U.S. As part of its New American University initiative, the university has made entrepreneurship part of each school’s focus. To-date, this approach has proven to be nominally successful but its siloed nature has been a limiting factor. Now, however, the school’s Center for Entrepreneurship at the W.P. Carey School of Business is working to help connect those various entrepreneurial initiatives.

The focal point of the Center for Entrepreneurship’s strategy is the Entrepreneur-in-residence program, which I am excited to be a part of. This program provides an opportunity for high-potential student venture teams and individuals to receive strategic mentor-ship from entrepreneurs who have built, grown, and exited businesses. It draws on an immense network of successful alumni to serve as mentors and providers of capital to participants. The key difference between ASU’s approach and the what has been attempted by others in the past is the level of commitment shown by both the university and its contributing entrepreneurs. I believe that it’s this coming together of alumni that will have a lasting impact on the entrepreneurial community of the Southwest.

Until recently, there was no single place where entrepreneurs, advisers, and investors gathered together to collaborate. Like the rest of Phoenix, what little community that did exist was spread out over a large geographic area. Now, however, ASU is serving as that hub of activity for the entrepreneurial community. Mentors make their presence known by holding regular office hours and becoming a part of the local community in a very real sense. Better yet, many of these mentors are putting their money where their mouth is by investing in and supoorting promising businesses they work with.

The goal is to create an approach that is both heavily curated and holistic in its approach. As Dr. Amy Hillman, Dean of the W.P. Carey School of Business puts it, “As the largest public university in the U.S., Arizona State has a unique opportunity to leverage its network and create a robust entrepreneurial environment in the heart of the Southwest. Our focus on entrepreneurship and innovation extends throughout all of our colleges and defines the ASU experience.” I know that if similar resources had been available to BodeTree years ago, the decision to relocate would not have been as easy.

A replicable model

If ASU succeeds in becoming the hub of entrepreneurial activity in the Southwest region, it’s likely that its model can be replicated in other communities across the U.S. The idea of a future in which there are more thriving entrepreneurial communities in smaller cities is an attractive one. This diffusion of activity will lead to more diversity in the space and an increase in truly innovative ideas. If we are to succeed in the competitive landscape of the modern global economy, we’ll have to find ways to make entrepreneurship part of the social fabric. I believe that ASU is leading the way, and I’m honored to be part of their solution.

Additional Reading: Forbes

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