Even start-up hubs need to start somewhere.
Professor Wayne Curtis is trying to get his own venture off the ground: a physical location where students at the University of the District of Columbia can learn about and discuss entrepreneurship.
Right now, UDC’s Center for Urban Entrepreneurship is modest — just a room in the campus’s Building 38, where Curtis and a couple other faculty members hold office hours. He and a small staff operate the school’s certificate of entrepreneurship program, teaching basic business principles, accounting, finance, management and marketing, among other skills. Full-time students can complete the program in two semesters; about 20 undergraduate and 30 graduate students are currently enrolled.
Curtis started the center to spur economic activity in the District since “we’re not going to get a manufacturing plant moving into the District of Columbia” to provide jobs, he said. Many job openings he sees in the Washington area are within small businesses, but owners he talks to often struggle to find qualified staff to fill those positions. “That’s where the university is really starting to take a greater role in job creation.”
High-tech start-up hubs are cropping up elsewhere in the District; for instance business incubator 1776 in Northwest Washington is home to several new tech ventures. But the Center for Urban Entrepreneurship is meant to help UDC students — underrepresented at these kinds of hubs — move into Washington’s start-up scene. Curtis is pursuing partnerships with local business incubators and co-working spaces, such as Affinity Labs, hoping to reserve spots for UDC students.
Many of his students use what they learn at the center to benefit Wards 7 and 8, Curtis noted. One such group is creating a business plan for District-based nonprofit Green Scheme, which promotes urban agriculture and teaches District residents about nutrition. Others work on international ventures — a group of students from Gambia designed a system for migrant farmers there to distribute produce.
“When we look at international students, most of them are taking on entrepreneurial ventures. Most domestically are basically trying to get jobs,” he said. Though he hopes the Center for Urban Entrepreneurship encourages more UDC students to start businesses, it “really is about disciplines and certain ways of doing things, and tearing data apart,” which can be applied to jobs in existing businesses, he said.
Those who do start their own ventures often struggle to do so in the District because of cost considerations, said Curtis, who operates his own small consulting firm, Curtis Concepts, in addition to teaching at UDC.
“It has become a resource issue. Where can I start my venture without going broke because of the real estate? There are some telecommunications challenges — you can’t afford as a small business to have the bandwidth you need as a tech company, but maybe you can become part of an incubator space.”
Another challenge is capital, he said. “How do we get more of the players here in this area, focused on providing more capital angel investors, start-up investors?” he said. “People do not see the District of Columbia as a place of business.”
The Center for Urban Entrepreneurship is also looking for entrepreneurs and business and government leaders to sit on its advisory board.
In one of its first attempts to gain national visibility, the center is planning an annual business plan competition for early April, inviting almost 50 universities in the mid-Atlantic region to participate. Teams will be asked to submit plans related to social entrepreneurship; awards ranging from $2,000 to $5,000 will be sponsored by Washington Gas.
“The challenge is finding good, reliable talent that can fill the void that a small business needs,” Curtis said. And though the center is meant to address problems unique to the District’s population, “I suspect it’s just as difficult, if not more difficult, if you’re in the rural mountains of West Virginia.”
“How do we get more of the players here in this area, focused on providing more capital, angel investors, start-up investors? People do not see the District of Columbia as a place of business.”
Wayne Curtis, University of the District of Columbia