Hernandez: Catching the entrepreneurship wave in Vermont

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Alex Hernandez, Russ Scully, and Robert Lair talking with students. Photos courtesy Champlain College.

by Alex Hernandez, President of Champlain College

I came to Champlain College with a desire to help our students be “ready for work, ready for life, and ready to make a difference.” On a recent Sunday evening, I received an email from a student: “I’m launching my software company tomorrow. Can you give me some feedback?”

While being a new college president can keep a person busy, I immediately dropped everything to help this student bring his idea to life. I reviewed his launch plan, we brainstormed, and I connected him with friends at the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies (VCET). We embraced this student who is trying to build his dream and make the world better.

The impact of entrepreneurs is real. According to a recent Economic Impact Report, Champlain College alumni have launched over 1,000 businesses in Vermont, which is a big reason why the college and its alumni contribute nearly half a billion dollars to our state’s economy.

Vermont punches way above its weight when it comes to entrepreneurship. In 2021, in the middle of the pandemic, Vermont startups raised nearly $600 million in capital to grow their impact, create jobs, and lift communities.

Entrepreneurship is central to Champlain College’s career-focused and experiential approach to higher education. This spring, I had the opportunity to teach a master class at Hula as part of a new partnership between Champlain College and Hula to support entrepreneurship in Vermont. Students came from technology, design, business, and social innovation majors and formed teams to pitch new startup ideas in our “Guppy Tank.”

In our class at Hula, students met Vermont startup founders from leading organizations like OnLogic, Commando, Benchmark Space Systems, and Let’s Grow Kids. Here are a few important lessons from our class.

First, students learned that successful entrepreneurs come from all walks of life. Our Vermont founders worked in restaurant kitchens, marketing firms, science labs, and state government before launching their organizations. They spanned over thirty years in age and had a range of personality types. While the media may sensationalize young, male, college dropouts, there is no prototypical entrepreneur. The good news is this means that entrepreneurship is a set of skills that can be learned in classes like ours and in communities like Hula.

Second, students learned to see themselves as entrepreneurs. One speaker shared a story about how she and her co-founder decided to partner together while standing in line at a local sandwich shop down the street. Another founder talked about an investor agreeing to make an investment in the Hula lunch room. One day, a student pulled me aside after class and said, “It’s amazing how much support there is for entrepreneurs in Vermont. I had no idea this all existed right here in our backyard.”

Third, students discovered that you have to learn by doing. It is one thing to talk about listening to customers, it is another to actually interview people to identify big problems worth solving and design human-centered solutions. The only way to get good at pitching a startup is to practice and be open to receiving feedback. Through practice, students develop the courage, humility and determination needed to be a successful entrepreneur.

Entrepreneurship is not just for Silicon Valley-style software startups. Some of the greatest entrepreneurs are social innovators who started nonprofits or are rethinking how government can serve the public. I believe every person can benefit from entrepreneurship skills and an entrepreneurial mindset.

It is easy to focus on all that is wrong in the world, but entrepreneurs dream of a better future and try to create the world in which they want to live — they make a difference. This is why we drop everything late on a Sunday night to support our students in launching their entrepreneurial journeys right here in Vermont.

Left to right: Charles Bush, Alex Hernandez, Russ Scully, and Robert Lair.