An entrepreneurial energy is quietly brewing across the Charles River, nearing an inflection point neighboring institutions will have a harder time contending with when it comes to acquiring talent.
“Tufts is two or three semesters away from erupting in a way that will make us very hard to ignore,” posited Tufts student John Brennan. “Think Harvard and MIT entrepreneurship.”
In just over a year, the university, located high atop a Medford hill on the outskirts of town, has made an impact so strong, it’s being felt here in city center. Spearheading the charge is James Barlow, Tufts director of entrepreneurial leadership, who took the reins just last year, fully aware of, and ready to break into, the school’s “untapped potential.”
“When I arrived at Tufts last year, I inherited a great accredited entrepreneurship program,” Barlow said, pointing to the 10 percent of the undergraduate population that was already engaged in the field. With the foundation in place, he was able to help push the school’s efforts further, and with a renewed vigor.
The Tufts $100K Business Plan Competition grew from 18 to 109 applicants earlier this year, and went beyond the scope of apps, featuring environmentally-engineered showerheads and education-changing programming instead.
A competition isn’t enough to sustain students, however, which is why the students decided to step in and forge the program forward themselves.
Brennan, a partner at Rough Draft Ventures, began teaching a course this semester as part of the university’s Experimental College with fellow student Jack McDermott, founder of Speech4Good, a startup providing speech therapy tools on-the-go. Called Tufts.io, the seminar is described by McDermott as “one part academic class and another part mentoring group,” where students can start to grasp entrepreneurship in a way that leads to action.
“We want to show our students that it’s possible they can get involved right away,” McDermott said. “In fact, some of the world’s most meaningful products were developed by college-aged founders.”
Although Dov Charney never graduated from Tufts, he initially ran the brand behind today’s most fashionable basics, American Apparel, out of his Medford dorm room. And he is joined by a lengthy list of fellow founders who once called the university home.
“For me, teaching Tufts.io was, and is, about breaking down predetermined notions about what college students need to be ‘successful,'” added Brennan, claiming too many of his peers — himself formerly included — equate success with happiness. “I’m a strong believer that it’s the other way around: happiness leads to success.”
The success of Tufts entrepreneurship program is only beginning to show, with more and more students starting organizations on campus.
The Tufts Venture Fund, a micro-seed investment fund for Tufts startups, is one of the newest initiatives, which Barlow said will be up-and-running in the next 12 months and potentially feature a social impact investing arm, courtesy of Tufts’ Fletcher School.
“We’ve seen a ton of people in the last two months get really interested in starting businesses,” said student Brendan Conron, VP of computer science at Tufts Venture Fund. “We want to get people excited about wanting to build things.”
Money is, of course, a way of doing that, as is getting students involved in hands-on, on-campus activities. The most recent Tufts Hackathon was held at the end of October, and brought together more than 100 students who produced 17 products by the end of the 24-hour event, including a crowd-sourced shuttle tracker and various music-based, The Echo Nest-inspired games.
Beyond that, Conron referenced the speakers the Tufts Entrepreneurs Society has been bringing to campus. Spark Capital’s Bijan Sabet recently visited, along with MIT Professor Deb Roy, chief media scientist at Twitter.
“What we needed was a general overhaul that was going to unify the campus,” said Tufts student Kenneth Cohen, admitting what he would like to see more of is the school’s technical talent blending with the business savvy, similar to that of HackHarvard. “It’s just not our focus here. Harvard has that Zuckerberg thing; that’s not really idolized here. [Alumnus] Art Papas just sold his company, and no one here knows about it. … They want to focus on foreign policy and politics.”
What Tufts now needs to do is reel in that focus on foreign policy and politics and blend it with entrepreneurship. Between the university’s Fletcher School, Engineering School, Friedman School, School of Medicine and Sackler School, there’s immense room for growth — and an unparalleled level of diversity.
“The bottom line is, we’re not going to create an MBA program that rivals HBS, MIT or Babson,” Barlow said, “but that’s not what we’re interested in. We’re interested in creating a productive ecosystem that plays to the strengths Tufts has.”
Barlow acknowledged the disjointedness himself, arguing the school has more sturdily started to build the entrepreneurship program’s structure, but that they now need to make sure it’s creating referenceable outputs.
“It’s about the pursuit of a productive ecosystem,” Barlow said, “not just a bunch of activity we can point to.”
Barlow wants to see the students working on startups and producing research capable of making a life-changing difference. And the students agree.
“It’s an exciting time to be at Tufts,” Brennan said. “And fairly soon, we’re going to be hard to ignore.”
Featured photos via @Tuftsio