Options have become an early career necessity, says John Robitaille, executive director of Johnson & Wales University’s Center for Entrepreneurship, whose charge after taking on the position about 18 months ago was to further the school’s position as an entrepreneurial incubator.
“We want our students to graduate with their degree in one hand and a business plan in their back pocket,” Robitaille said. “With the economy the way it is today, there is focus on creating new businesses and so many young people have ideas. We have a significant amount of interest from students who want to be their own boss.”
That interest was apparent at the school’s recent SharkFest competition, which awarded a total of $25,000 to four students and one JWU alumni, an outgrowth of the Be Your Own Boss day Robitaille held in December 2011 to highlight entrepreneurship opportunities for students.
SharkFest, held in mid-December 2012, was just one part of a daylong series of events and seminars.
Two years ago nearly 30 students entered the competition and Robitaille had to turn would-be attendees away from the school’s Pepsi Forum in Wales Hall because the program more than easily attracted the maximum of 300 students.
Last year, the event was moved to the school’s Schneider Auditorium and it again reached a capacity attendance, this time of 500 students and alumni. There were about 40 student entries for four categories and over 90 alumni entries.
In addition to a cash prize for approved start-up expenses, winners also received office space at the business incubator at the Larry Friedman International Center for Entrepreneurship, a mentor, coaching, and business-support services provided by the Rhode Island Small Business Development Center, which is housed at the university.
The decision to include an alumni category was born out of Robitaille’s initiative to create an alumni-mentor match program so that entrepreneur-track students could have access to, “successful alums in the particular area students want to launch a business in,” he said.
“This was our first attempt to re-engage with alums that have latent aspirations,” Robitaille said. “[Now] we have students helping alums and alums helping students.”
The alum winner for SharkFest 2012 was Eric Weiner, who started All Occasion Transportation 22 years ago when he was a JWU student. Weiner sold that company to O2 Global in 2010 and has been since running a small-business consulting service assisting clients with tasks, including website and social media platform development.