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Emerson students and alumni create businesses, join startups

by Ryan Catalani / Beacon Staff • November 1, 2012

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Elizabeth Cormack works at the Tap Lab.
Elizabeth Cormack works at the Tap Lab.

The American Twine Office Park is a brick-faced building in Cambridge, about a 10-minute walk away from the Kendall/MIT T station. Its banal appearance — a parking lot covered in autumnal leaves, stone-paneled floors, scuffed wood accents — and location in the middle of the city’s industrial district easily disguises the fact that it houses 11 young high-tech startups.

Elizabeth Cormack and Emily Dyess, who graduated from Emerson in May, each work in one of those new businesses. They are only two of many Emerson students and alumni who are involved in startups. Some get their first taste during college, while others, like Cormack and Dyess, only get involved after graduation  —  yet both students and faculty said they believe Emerson could do more to encourage and support undergraduate entrepreneurs.

In the most general sense, a startup refers to a newly-formed business, but many entrepreneurs agree that explanation is too vague. Paul Graham, a respected early-stage investor and advisor in San Francisco, said a startup is a company designed to grow fast — recently-created restaurants, for example, typically do not have ambitions of quick expansion.

Cormack works part-time for two startups, The Tap Lab, a social mobile game studio, and Gather Education, which lets instructors teach “naturally” online without needing to juggle technology, according to its website. She said she plans to start working for The Tap Lab full-time later this month.

While Cormack said she has long been interested in startups, Dyess took a different path into the field.

“Startups sort of fell into my lap,” she said.

For most of her college career, she had done traditional internships with established companies. But after graduation, she said, a former colleague recommended she look into TipTap, a personalized social discovery tool, which, according to its website, lets users find others who share the same tastes and interests. She did, and now works full time at TipTap, performing a variety of tasks, from marketing to user experience.

“It’s such a small team,” she said. “At startups, you really have the flexibility to bring in your own passions and interests.”

Cormack and Dyess both attribute their self-professed love for their jobs to the unique startup culture.

“There’s no bureaucracy,” said Cormack, adding that workers at a startup must be independently driven. “Emerson kids are already suited for that. It’s already an instinct Emerson kids have.”

That instinct is prolific in the Emerson Experience in Entrepreneurship, commonly known as E3, a series of courses spanning two semesters that are designed to teach students the fundamentals of business and entrepreneurship. Twenty-five students are accepted each year out of the roughly 35 that might apply, according to Karl Baehr, the program’s creator. Students come in with ideas for companies and walk away with a minor in entrepreneurship.

Baehr crafted the program eight years ago, drawing on his own experience as a seven-time startup founder. The program culminates in the E3 Exposition, an event at the end of the spring semester where each student presents his or her idea, hoping to win the $20,000 grand prize.

“If you think about it, Emerson College is really a business school,” said Baehr, Emerson’s senior executive-in-residence. 

Charlotte Haab, a current E3 participant, is working on a smartphone app called IDU, that will let students scan or tap their phones instead of their identification cards. She said that the program will give her venture everything it requires to launch by next year.

“At the end of the class, you’re going to come out of it — I’m already halfway done — with a legitimate business plan,” she said, “and all the market research you need.”

According to Baehr, over 30 percent of his students actually start their businesses after the program. E3 has produced over 120 enterprises so far, but the program is operating at capacity. Emerson’s business education classes — which, besides E3, include the more general business studies program — can currently support 170 students, but Baehr said there could be many more if the school provided more space for the program.

“There aren’t enough sections, and we’re teaching with part-time faculty,” he said. “We need our sandbox.”

Jake Bailey, a senior marketing communication major, agreed that startup founders should have their own space on campus. Bailey launched his own business, Rite Brothers Clothing, last semester, but didn’t participate in the E3 program.

“I feel like E3 is excellent for someone who’s curious, because it’s great at creating an idea,” said Bailey. “But that first step isn’t the hard step to get to — it’s the easiest step to get to. The hard step is steps two through infinity.”

David Gerzof Richard, a professor of social media marketing and a four-time startup founder, suggested giving students academic credit for working on their own companies.

“With entrepreneurship, you can’t really control when your business is going to take off,” he said. “Sometimes it grows faster than you expect, and it takes more of your time, and you can’t really do schoolwork.”

Peter Rojas, the cofounder of three prominent technology blogs, Gizmodo, Engadget, and gdgt, discussed his experience in technology journalism, building blog businesses, and how he sees the future of e-commerce and blogging with a dozen Emerson students and alumni two weeks ago.

“I mean, obviously, I worked tremendously hard and spent an enormous amount of time on my companies, but I think that it’s important to set boundaries,” Rojas, 37, said in an interview.

In what may seem counterintuitive to students at Emerson, Rojas doesn’t answer his email on the weekends. He said he checks it, but won’t respond.

“And so far, I’ve not had a single complaint about that policy,” he said.

Cormack, who said she aspires to someday be a startup founder herself, said that The Tap Lab founders can be found stressed and working until 3 a.m. 

“At a startup, on the one hand. . .you’re strapped for money,” she said. “At the same time, no one’s really watching you. It’s easier to balance that because nobody’s breathing down your neck.”

Dyess agreed, and said that even though she might enjoy the added stability of a regular job, startups offer many benefits in their youthful cultures.

“I don’t know how I can go back,” she said. “It’s almost comical how much I love it.”