Thursday, September 24

The Quad: How UCLA’s startup scene and classes help entrepreneurial Bruins find their way

(Juliette Le Saint/Daily Bruin senior staff)

Starting a business is hard.

Starting a business fresh out of college – or better yet, while still attending school – is even harder.

Although UCLA offers majors in business economics and economics, neither major focuses much on starting a business. While the entrepreneurship minor offers more practical business classes, most students interested in starting up their own business often have to resort to extracurricular clubs and organizations to gain startup knowledge and experience.

[RELATED: Jacqueline Alvarez: UCLA should offer a traditional business curriculum for undergraduates]

Unlike the pre-professional tracks aspiring doctors, lawyers and engineers must follow, there is no clear academic path to starting a business. Young entrepreneurs often focus more on acquiring practical skills and insights from businessmen and women who have started and run successful businesses before. Opportunities such as the Startup UCLA’s summer accelerator provide practical funding and expertise from consultants who have started their own businesses.

Phoenix Prefontaine, a 2018 alumnus who studied economics, is currently working on launching TYCHē, a consulting platform aimed at connecting small businesses to consultants at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

While studying as an undergraduate, Prefontaine said he found himself drawn to the entrepreneurship community at UCLA. During his third year, Prefontaine discovered Blackstone Launchpad, a national organization with chapters at certain schools like UCLA that help to support and mentor students interested in entrepreneurship.

Through the workshops and fireside chats Blackstone Launchpad held, Prefontaine said he gained practical business advice from people who had started businesses before, while meeting some of his best friends at UCLA.

“The UCLA startup community is very much a collaborative working environment. Everybody wants each other to do well,” Prefontaine said. “It is not very cutthroat like I would expect in this environment, where none of us really have our footing yet.”

Prefontaine said he originally chose UCLA over UC Berkeley Haas School of Business and a full regents scholarship to UC Santa Barbara because he believed UCLA could provide him with the most well-rounded opportunities for both social and entrepreneurship-oriented growth.

“I came to UCLA pretty uncomfortable in my skin, a bit more introverted and cared a lot about what people thought of me. This was hard because part of being an entrepreneur is networking,” Prefontaine said. “At UCLA, I made lasting friendships, I had opportunities to pitch my business twice, create a venture for a nonprofit and I had a couple public speaking events.”

Some students, like Josh Khalili, question the value of a traditional business curriculum. Khalili, a third-year cognitive science student, said he doesn’t think a formal business program is necessary to break into the venture capital or technology startup space. Khalili co-founded Bruin Ventures, an on-campus organization which aims to teach students how to succeed in the corporate, technological and entrepreneurship fields.

Despite lacking a business program, UCLA was ranked No. 1 out of 225 schools for business creation, according to a 2017 Milken Institute report. A big reason for the ranking is UCLA Technology Development Group, which promotes entrepreneurial research by UCLA faculty members and helps find venture capital funding for their projects.

While students like Prefontaine and Khalili have utilized clubs and organizations to help gain startup knowledge, other students have taken advantage of the few practical business classes UCLA does offer.

Jacob Wolpert, a fourth-year political science student minoring in entrepreneurship, is the founder of Blackout Apparel, a clothing company targeting college students and millennials that specializes in short-sleeved button-downs with crazy, party-themed patterns, he said. In contrast to Khalili and Prefontaine’s learning outside the classroom, Wolpert said the entrepreneurship classes he’s taken for his minor have helped him with his business aspirations.

“The most helpful on-campus resource for me has been the entrepreneurship classes I’ve taken for my minor, where through the guest speakers and projects, I’ve really been able to gain valuable tips and advice going forward,” Wolpert said. “Just last week in Management 165, we had a guest speaker who started a clothing company of his own, and he shared some valuable tips from his journey and what he’s learned along the way.”

Although it doesn’t seem like UCLA is going to create a formal undergraduate business program anytime soon, Khalili said the entrepreneurship scene has improved since his freshman year.

“When I first got here, it seemed like there was very much a corporate culture primarily coming out of the economics and computer science departments,” Khalili said.

With Los Angeles seeing a steady increase in funding for startups over the past few years, initiatives such as Startup UCLA, Bruin Ventures and Blackstone Launchpad, among others, are finding innovative ways to prepare entrepreneurial Bruins to enter a thriving local startup scene without the help of a formal business program. UCLA seems a more sympathetic place now for helping students cultivate their entrepreneurial spirit than just a few years ago, Khalili said. Prefontaine said he hopes the startup culture at UCLA continues to improve and inspire students to pursue their passions.

“Since graduating, I’ve realized how working on something you’re passionate about gets you excited every morning,” he said. “It makes me excited to wake up at 5 every single morning to work on my business.”

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