The future of venture capital may be emerging in schools across the country, as more schools and students create funds – usually backed by philanthropic or university nonprofit dollars – that are experimenting with how to fund different kinds of founders, such as mission driven, non-technical and BIPOC founders.
The existing venture capital industry funds only about 1% of startups in the United States, and has historically invested in software startups run almost exclusively by white men who aspire to build large technology companies.
The colleges and universities often see the new kinds of finance as part of their mission to educate students. Learning how to think about diversity and inclusion while making investment decisions will make students more aware and empathetic investors and business people as they enter their careers, said Amelia Schaffner, the founding director of Emory University’s Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation.
“This provides (students) an extra edge in terms of a fundamental that actually is able to make a difference, and to be able to talk about it in a way that’s educated,” she said.
At Emory in Atlanta, MBA students and professors are using a $1 million Peachtree Minority Venture Fund, which launched in 2021 and is backed by the Goizueta Business School. Its funds will be invested in U.S. based startups with at least one founder who identifies as Black, Latinx, or Native American. It has already received more than 30 applications.
The funds are already making an impact. In 2017, philanthropists Chip and Stuart Weismiller started the Everyday Entrepreneur Venture Fund to support entrepreneurship in community colleges. It gave $250,000 to four community colleges – Wayne County Community College in Detroit, Michigan; Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York; Middlesex Community College in Bedford, Massachusetts; and Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, Florida – to increase their entrepreneurship resources and fund student businesses directly.
In the first round of the fund, the colleges found that the more than 50 businesses that received grants of $5,000 – $6,000 – were able to be cash flow positive within three months, said Rebecca Corbin, the president and CEO of the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship. The organization is working to raise $10 million for the fund. So far it’s raised another $1 million from funders including Anapolis, Maryland-based Philip E. & Carole R. Ratcliffe Foundation and Clinton and Donna Day.
Also, community college programs could make progress with far less funding, Corbin said. In phase two of the fund, the EEVF gave nine colleges $20,000 grants. Tarrant County College District in Fort Worth, Texas, which educates about 40,000 students annually, was able to turn its $20,000 grant into about $700,000 through internal college funds and grants, Corbin said.
Now, it’s making grants to local entrepreneurs.
Some universities are expanding beyond early funds, which focus more on tech. At the University of Michigan, the Wolverine Venture Fund, which is run by MBA and PhD students and invests in companies working on advancing tech such as SaaS, Biotech, Health Tech and Advanced Materials. That latter was founded in 1997. It’s invested in 30 companies and increased its assets from $2 million to $7 million through merger and acquisitions and initial public offering exits, according to its website.
Ventures with a Social Bent
The University of Michigan launched the Social Venture Fund in 2009, which is run by students and invests in socially driven startups. Students at the university are also involved in the school’s Impact Investing Group, a student-led organization that funds local business owners with loans of up to $5,000 and provides consulting services. They say they spend up to six hours a week at the campus gig, keeping in touch with the local Ann Arbor and Detroit entrepreneurs and reading applications.
“Knowing every client we had, it was going to be something worthwhile, definitely made a difference for me,” said Drew Arnson, a 22-year-old undergraduate business student.
Arnson and 20-year-old Shay Rubinson got involved to dip their toes in funding and to feel as though they’re making an impact, a value they both entered college wanting to fulfill.
“Once I joined the club mid semester and got the opportunity to join a consulting team, I really started to see myself potentially in the consulting industry going forward,” Rubinson said.
Based in Education
At Emory, students will participate as part of a class launching this semester, which teaches not only business investing basics but diversity and inclusion fundamentals, too. Students will mainly learn from business and diversity leaders who will be guest lecture speakers, said Alexia Brown, a graduate student and managing partner of the fund. She worked in legal services before attending school. “So as people are learning things, they’ll be going out into the community,” she said.
She, and fellow managing partner Miguel Vergara, a former financial analyst, hope that the experience teaches students about the startup scene, but also how to navigate diversity and inclusion in the venture capital world, and the barriers people of color face when raising funding. “We want to make sure that they understand that this is more of a foundational infrastructural issue – not just one off experiences– and figure out ways to really change these issues that they’re running into,” Vergara said.
This means understanding deep rooted barriers, such as often overlooked industries in venture capital that tend to be dominated by people of color. Black hair care is one obvious example, Brown said.
Students Funding Students
There are also funds that are hyper-focused on student entrepreneurs. Take the Dorm Room Fund, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based, student-led group launched by First Round Capital in 2012 that invests $40,000 in student ventures. In Zurich, Switzerland, S2S Ventures funds student entrepreneurs with investments of $20,000 to $150,000.
S2S is run by six students who make investment decisions on behalf of three partners – Cynthia Jurytko, a venture capitalist at Zurich-based Lucy Capital and advisor to the European Commission; Thomas Meier, a managing partner at Zurich-based Lightbird Ventures; and Alex Ilic, co-founder of Zurich-based ETH AI Center and Talent Kick. The students are based in Lausanne and Zurich.
The three partners raised a $10 million fund, but they decided to work with student VCs. “The thinking was that the students would be closer to what’s happening and would make better investments,” said Liliane Kruesi, one of the fund’s student investors.
Half of the management fees go back to the Entrepreneurship club, she said.
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Arnson’s last name