What Pittsburgh Needs from Young Entrepreneurs

Harold Miller has a good post up featuring Project Olympus, a new effort at Carnegie Mellon to promote local careers for its computer science graduates and generally to build a robust infrastructure for an IT sector in the region.

Lenore Blum, Director of Project Olympus, estimated that only 20 (5%) of Carnegie Mellon's 2007 Computer Science graduates were staying in Pittsburgh. That means another 400 could potentially stay here. If Project Olympus merely doubles the current percentage of CMU's CS graduates who stay each year through entrepreneurship, it could significantly expand the number of startup companies in Pittsburgh.

Maybe so -- though that all depends on lots of other things falling into place locally. And what happens to the other 380 graduates? Where do they go? Where do they work? What kinds of Pittsburgh connections do they or their employers have -- if any? In the absence of a local entrepreneurial infrastructure that can easily absorb another two dozen CS grads each year, is Pittsburgh better off spreading the gospel according to CMU as those folks migrate around the world? Or should Pittsburgh try to keep them here in town and hope that the infrastructure eventually emerges?

Perhaps that's a false choice:

What do these students want/need in order to stay? Based on a survey of students conducted by Project Olympus, three things are key:

(1) Access to angel/venture capital and other assistance through networking opportunities;
(2) A "safety net," i.e., other job opportunities if the initial one falls through; and
(3) A region that views entrepreneurship, even in failure, as a valuable learning experience.

In other words, recent graduates want people to give them money, give them jobs, and treat them nicely. At one time or another on Pittsblog, I've argued for the very same things. What Pittsburgh needs to do, etc. etc. Much of Harold's post is a plea for the same things, and he's right.

What's missing here, though, is a commitment from the grads themselves. The sleep-on-the-sofa, max-out-your-credit-cards, borrow-from-friends-and-family, believe-in-your-dream-no-matter-the-cost kind of commitment that entrepreneurs know that it takes to succeed even in the face of failure after failure. Pittsburgh absolutely needs to develop the kind of infrastructure that Harold Miller and Project Olympus are referring to, but Pittsburgh needs something in the bargain, too, and what it needs is a commitment by those would-be entrepreneurs to stick to it. What three things are new grads willing to do? Find the resources yourselves. Go around institutional obstacles. Persevere. Force change.

Easier said than done, I know, especially when money is tight here and seems to flow freely elsewhere. One solution is to import the money. The Olympus board is interesting to me because it seems to reflect what might be a diasporan mentality -- investors from elsewhere looking to Pittsburgh in order to keep Pittsburgh tech here, rather than export it to the West Coast. Is that a correct perception?


2 Responses to "What Pittsburgh Needs from Young Entrepreneurs"

Harold D. Miller said... 6/19/2007 6:14 PM

The presentations at the Olympus "Show and Tell" included some of the young entrepreneurs, who had clearly been working VERY hard on their ideas/companies. There was no sense at all that any of them were looking for a handout. It was more that they were looking for Pittsburgh to provide what other regions already do, i.e., angel investors, networks, a "thick" job market, and respect/support. In the long run, these are (hopefully) all things that will be maintained naturally through the market (i.e., successful entrepreneurs will become angels, multiple successful startups will provide the thick labor market, etc.) once it reaches critical mass. The issue for Pittsburgh is how to jumpstart/pump-prime this process in order to get it to a self-sustaining critical mass. That requires a little extra stretch in the short-run on the part of existing businesses and community leaders.

jet said... 6/20/2007 6:17 AM

>A "safety net," i.e., other job opportunities if the initial one falls through

I can't explain just how important this is if you're doing the startup thing as an employee. In the bay area, the joke often was that if you got laid off before noon, you could go have lunch with some friends at other companies and probably have a job offer by close of business.

That's probably not the case now, but knowing you can find a job within a few days/weeks of having your startup go under certainly increases one's willingness to take risks.

Sometimes that risk is going into the founder's office and saying, "I think we're screwing up and here's why" other times it's simply the risk of taking the job in the first place. "What, our business plan is to write a fancy web browser and give it away for free?"

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