Creating the entrepreneurial mindset

3D printers get heavy use at Northampton Community College in Pennsylvania. Photo: NCC3D printers get heavy use at Northampton Community College in Pennsylvania. Photo: NCC

Jack Perrotta has been nurturing what he calls his “entrepreneurial spirit” since high school, when he made a few dollars doing landscape work or buying and trading consumer electronics.

That homegrown energy, along with an innate technical bent, carried into Perrotta’s post-high school years making house calls for people having hardware or battery issues with their smartphones.

Today, the Doylestown, Pennsylvania, native is founder and president of Vitris Wireless, a startup connecting frustrated mobile technology owners to an array of friendly technicians through an online app. Perrotta, 22, expects his growing business to clear $30,000 in revenue by year’s end.

The road from teenage resourcefulness to a real-deal corporate operation was paved by the Bucks County Business Association, a student-led group at Bucks County Community College (BCCC) that honed Perrotta’s leadership, money management and organizational skills.

“I was young and hungry, but didn’t fully understand how business worked,” Perrotta says. “I’m still using the skills I learned at Bucks every day.”

Equipped for success

Community colleges throughout the country are sharpening the start-up-minded acumen of their charges while also reaching out to students still in high school, with the goal of fostering a culture of economic vitality through entrepreneurship. These pathways include business incubators, fab labs, experiential learning programs and more, all designed to assist would-be founders in realizing their business-ownership dreams.

“With young people, it’s preparing them for the gig economy, even if not everyone is going to be the next founder of Facebook,” says Rebecca Corbin, president of the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship (NACCE). “But if success means equipping students to be masters of their destiny, that’s huge for them.”

Platforms for innovation

At BCCC, Perrotta was elected president of the local business group, a role requiring organization of entrepreneur networking as well as fully catered meals that taught him and his fellows proper dining etiquette. These experiences readied Perrotta for any number of future business encounters, including negotiations with shopowners on the after-market parts Vitris uses to repair smartphones and tablets.

“So much of business is about networking, forming connections and having professional talks,” Perrotta says. “Being in that environment prepared me for what I’d encounter later on.”

Relationships formed through the BCCC group helped Perrotta raise $50,000 in venture capital last summer, allowing the budding businessman to add more technicians to his payroll.

“Without the business association, raising money would have been much harder because I wasn’t acclimated on how to conduct a sale,” Perrotta says. “Networking through the group got me to convey the message I wanted to convey.”

A model to copy

Ideally, Perrotta’s journey will be replicated nationwide as community colleges link traditional workforce development roles with entrepreneurial training, says Corbin of NACCE.

Small-scale fabrication laboratories, or “fab labs,” are an increasingly popular means for schools to integrate DIY skills within a curriculum. Lab spaces are equipped with 3D printers, laser cutters, woodshops and other technologies that let users prototype new product ideas. Northampton Community College’s (NCC) fab lab in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, for example, even offers an audio/lab sound booth where students record music and podcasts.

The fab lab model is intended as a platform for innovation and invention, one that provides stimulus for entrepreneurship. Corbin points to two NCC students who built a wood-paneled speaker that could be plugged into an iPhone to amplify its sound. If the product ever goes into development, job creation and revenue may soon follow.

“These are the ideas that can be catalysts for a community,” Corbin says.

Building a mindset

For students in need of a business plan, hands-on education beats a textbook in getting proposals off the ground, observers say. Kansas City Kansas Community College (KCKCC) partnered with the Kauffman Foundation on a for-credit entrepreneurship certificate harnessing curriculum from the Kauffman FastTrac course, where participants align concepts with real market prospects.

Classes within the certificate program immerse students in critical market research and what educators call the “entrepreneurial mindset,” a catch-all term for those drawn to innovation and calculated risks. Among the offerings are 1 Million Cups, where early-stage startups present their companies to a group of peers, mentors and educators.

KCKCC’s program suite is facilitated by established entrepreneurs familiar with the delicate balance between a lucrative enterprise and one that crashes in its first year.

“You may start three businesses that fail before you have one that takes off,” Corbin says. “What you learn from those three failures can prepare you for that fourth success.”

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This is an excerpt from the current edition of the Community College Journal, the bimonthly magazine of the American Association of Community Colleges.

About the Author

Douglas J. Guth

is a writer based in Ohio.