Universities often serve as community hubs. They attract students, faculty members and their families, businesses, and even tourists.
They can also serve as entrepreneurial hubs. Even though business accelerator programs are typically offered through community organizations—like tech accelerators, coworking spaces, chambers of commerce, or the local SBDC—universities are uniquely positioned in their communities to serve both students and local entrepreneurs through entrepreneurship programs.
To learn more about the impact that university incubators can have for their communities, we interviewed Steven McClung, who’s worked at the intersection of academia and business development for more than twenty years.
Steven shared his experience in starting entrepreneurship programs at two universities, and he explained why he thinks university incubator programs are so important.
You work in universities—how did you make the jump to working with entrepreneurs too?
In 2017, I was working at the Senior Associate Dean of the Business School at Mercer University’s campus in Macon, Georgia.
Macon had been suffering from unemployment, and one of the things that the university wanted to do was bring in a program so that we could help generate local businesses in the Macon community.
We felt like entrepreneurship would be key to making Macon a better place to live.
Were the entrepreneurship programs at Mercer for students or for the wider community?
At both of the universities I started entrepreneurship programs at, we intended to help both students and outlying community members.
Mercer’s Innovation Center offered two entrepreneurship programs at different times—one for students and one for local community members. As the Vice President of Operations, I worked with students and local entrepreneurs on a daily basis at the Center.
In most communities, chambers of commerce or SBDCs (small business development centers), rather than universities, take on the role of entrepreneurial support. Why do you think universities are uniquely positioned to cultivate and support entrepreneurship?
In Macon, Mercer University was one of the main economic drivers in the community—it supplied more jobs than anywhere else in the area besides the local hospital. We felt like that uniquely situated it to serve as a hub for entrepreneurial support.
At FAMU, we had innovative students who just didn’t have a plan to commercialize their inventions.
So at both places we had faculty with expertise in several areas–like marketing, finance, and accounting–and students or community members (or both!) who were passionate about entrepreneurship.
We had a toolkit and resources ready to help our students and the community, we just didn’t have the programming to put it all together—and that’s where CO.STARTERS fit in.
What did bringing entrepreneurial programs to Florida A&M University look like?
Our approach at Florida A&M University (FAMU) was a little different.
It’s an agricultural mechanical university, so it’s very innovative and inventive. The students invented a lot of things there, but they didn’t have a way to commercialize inventions on campus.
I remember attending a student’s Master’s thesis once, and he’d come up with this great invention for farmers on agricultural land. When he was done with his presentation, I asked him when he was going to get it in production. But there wasn’t any process in place to help students commercialize inventions that happened on that campus, so the students.
The entrepreneurship programs filled that gap. They walked faculty, staff, and students at FAMU through the process of commercializing their ideas and inventions. Since that was the goal, the community that the programs were serving was a little more limited in scope than the community we were serving at Mercer. But FAMU is a historically Black university, so we hoped that by reaching out to the students, we would also make inroads in supporting the minority entrepreneurs in the Tallahassee area who didn’t have the training to go from idea to revenue.
"One of the mistakes that I was seeing at other universities was a lack of comprehensive entrepreneurial programming. You need a linear, sequential plan that makes you think about every step along the way: what you need, what you don’t need, and how to get there."
- Dr. Steven McClung
Why did Mercer and FAMU decide to offer structured, accelerator-style programs rather than just offering mentorship programs and workshops?
One of the mistakes that I was seeing at other universities was a lack of comprehensive entrepreneurial programming. Some universities believe they don’t need structured programming—they think that if they bring in their business faculty and a few outside speakers, that’ll be sufficient to walk students through starting a business or commercializing an idea.
And it’s not—you need a linear, sequential plan that makes you think about every step along the way: what you need, what you don’t need, and how to get there.
When the Mercer Innovation Center was just getting started, we knew we wanted a structured, accelerator-type entrepreneurial program that would give our students and community members a plan to follow. We didn’t want to create our own, though, so the president of the innovation center put together a council to explore the options for a detailed, process-oriented entrepreneurship program. The council looked at seventeen programs across the country over the course of three months, and they decided that CO.STARTERS provided the clearest path to move from idea to revenue.
At FAMU, the director of research approached me after he found out I had started an innovation center at Mercer. He told me that he’d gotten an EDA grant and wanted to know if they’d be able to do the same thing at FAMU that I’d done at Mercer.
And the very first thing I did was get on the phone with CO.STARTERS. I think CO.STARTERS has the best tools out there to go from idea to revenue generation, because you ultimately need a plan to get you from point A to point B. I think that’s the beauty and magic of CO.STARTERS.
What kind of impact have university incubator programs had in the communities you’ve worked with?
I’ll use Macon, Georgia as an example. As I see it, it’s a much better place to live now because of the entrepreneurial spirit that was developed there. And I think it’s because some of the people that we ran through CO.STARTERS went and started their own restaurants and businesses.
One of the greatest success stories from Mercer is Z Beans Coffee. The student who started it, Shane Buerster, wasn’t planning on starting a business—he wasn’t even part of our entrepreneurship program.
One year, he went to Ecuador with a group of economics students. While he was there, he found coffee farmers in the mountains. And he came back from that summer and he said “Dr. McClung, I think I want to sell coffee.”
He told me about the coffee farmers and I worked with him in some of my classes to put a marketing strategy together. He went through CO.STARTERS, worked with other professors, and refined his business plan. We went through all these iterations.
Today, Z Beans is franchising stores and has locations all over the Southeast. The coffee is delicious, and because it’s Fair Trade the coffee farmers are also making a profit.
That’s just one example of the entrepreneurial community that sprung up around Mercer University. A whole culture was created behind people who wanted to start their own businesses, and our university incubators had a big role to play in that.