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Young entrepreneurs: Out of the dorm room and into the incubator

Ryan Delaney

Ariel Norling, 20, is from San Antonio, Texas. She has a lip ring and a spunky attitude to match. She majored in policy studies at Syracuse University.

Oh, and she's the CEO of her own online dating site called YouShouldDate.me. Tagline: "Online dating sucks, but it doesn't have to."

"We're trying to find the middle ground between 'casual whatever,' which generally just means people hooking up, and marriage," says Norling, describing her site.

She says she didn't really expect to become an entrepreneur - hence the social sciences degree. But last fall, after some convincing by a friend, Norling decided to pitch her idea at a local startup weekend.

The pitch worked. Folks liked it. And now she's spending the summer in Syracuse along with her two business partners in a startup incubator called the Student Sandbox.

Norling will spend three months in the Sandbox getting advice and assistance from mentors. She'll also spend time convincing "grownups" she's really running her own company.

"It's definitely a process of having to explain to them about what it is that I do from day-to-day," Norling says. "Because they don't necessarily think of it as real."

As more and more of Norling's peers pursue entrepreneurship out of college, that perception is slowly changing.

Interest surging

The Student Sandbox is one of several student incubators popping up around college campuses nationwide. (George Washington University, Stanford and the University of Utah, to name a few, each have student incubators on or near campus.)

Participation is growing too. When the Syracuse Sandbox started four years ago, five business teams were involved. This summer, 34 teams are taking part.

The increase is being fueled just as much by students like Norling as it is by business students, according to Ted Zoller, a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation, a group that funds entrepreneurship initiatives.

"The lid has been blown off in terms of the awareness that entrepreneurship is not confined to business," says Zoller. "You're now seeing students in the arts and sciences ... better prepared than business students because they've been taught how to think critically."

Norling agrees with that, even though she's had catch up on her business terminology.

"I haven't been indoctrinated or anything like that with any textbook concepts," she says. "Everything I learned came from being on the ground."

More college-aged students are getting into entrepreneurship because they worry about post-grad job prospects, says Zoller. Many also don't want to spend their careers grinding away at the same big company.

Zoller says technology also helps. Add to that increased efforts by universities to spur entrepreneurship, and launching a company as a college student has become much easier.


But as more schools invest in entrepreneurship, Zoller warns they shouldn't go all in.

"As entrepreneurship programs are blossoming all over American higher education, I think we see a risk that the hand may be overplayed," he says.

Only so many students are cut out to be entrepreneurs, says Zoller. Only so many ideas will succeed.

The upside, Zoller says, is that student incubators do a good job of thinning out weak ideas before students invest too much time or money into them.

A backup plan

Entrepreneurship runs in Norling's blood. Her grandfather was a serial entrepreneur.

Her mother, Donna, wasn't surprised Ariel shifted career paths. But having witnessed the life of an entrepreneur, mom - and dad - pushed their daughter to apply to graduate school - just in case.

"Her father's a Ph.D. and I think he's the one, as much as anything, [who] wanted to see her carry on to keep her options open," Donna Norling says.

Thanks to her parents advice and her young age, Norling knows she won't be sunk if YouShouldDate.me doesn't pan out.

"But I definitely still have those moments in the shower that haunt me," she says.

At the end of the summer, Norling and her cohorts in the Sandbox will pitch their ideas to investors. That's when Norling will get a sense of how well she's following in her grandfather's footsteps.

But if the site doesn't work out, Norling says she'll be ready to bounce back.

"It's like a skinned knee. It'll hurt for a little while, but I'll be OK to get up and do it again if I want to."

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