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Be Your Own Boss

April 30, 2010

Temple University officials noticed something a little out of the ordinary when they looked at the results of the post-graduation survey of 2009’s undergraduate class: for the first time in the life of the survey, self employment ranked alongside banking, education and healthcare as one of the most popular career paths for recent graduates.

This came as a surprise to Rachel Brown, director of Temple’s career center, who noted that "self-employed" was not even a box to check off. Temple officials only found this contingent of would-be entrepreneurs when they investigated the unusually large number of students who selected “other” on the survey and wrote in that they were starting their own business or that they were otherwise self-employed.

“Self-employed can mean a variety of different things,” said Brown. "For example, when you first graduate from college with a journalism major, freelancing can look a lot of different ways. A student who has planned to freelance, built a business plan and has a definable goal might considered [him or herself] self-employed. That’s viable, entrepreneurial thinking. But someone without that organization might be considered unemployed by other people.”

Top Employment Sectors, Post-Graduation Survey of the Undergraduate Class of 2009, Temple University

1) Higher Education
2) Self Employment
  Education (tie)
4) Banking
  Healthcare (tie)
6) Financial Services
  Professional Services (tie)
8) Technology

Still, Brown does not think these recent Temple graduates identified themselves as “self-employed” just because it sounds better than “unemployed.” Like many institutions, Temple has adopted many academic programs and student services that teach and encourage entrepreneurship. Temple’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Institute, for instance, works to integrate practical business and marketing skills into the entire undergraduate curriculum. It also hosts a popular undergraduate contest, the “Be Your Own Boss Bowl,” that rewards the most promising original business design with start-up funds and support. This year's contest attracted 75 submissions; the grand prize winner was a group of engineering students who created a device that allows motorcycle riders to manually adjust their bike's suspension on the fly by turning a knob. The students have founded a new company, "Next Engineering," to market the product.

Amid the current recession, Brown believes these entrepreneurial initiatives are influencing more of Temple’s students to consider self employment as a viable option upon graduation.

“There’s a very real entrepreneurial spirit that’s alive and well here at Temple,” Brown said. “With the backdrop of the economy, it’s hard to ignore it. For some students this is what they’ve always wanted to do -- start their own business -- and they have a plan to do so. For other students this is an option they hadn’t considered before, but having the job market we do, they’re trying to find other ways to meet their goals.”

Upon discovering the relatively large cohort of recent graduates pursuing self employment, Temple officials scrambled to ensure that the resources offered by their career center adequately served current students with entrepreneurial ambitions.

“We’re taking resources that we already offer – such as networking workshops where we’re educating students broadly about skills and strategies – and applying their approach to starting your own business,” Brown explained. “The scales are the same, but the approaches and nuances are a bit different. For instance, there is certain financial planning advice that those who want to start their own business need that other students might not. We pull all those resources together for students.”

Still, Brown admitted that the entrepreneurial approach is not suited for every student, nor does the career center actively encourage self employment. Most students who come to the career center who have ambitions of self employment, she said, are so far along in the process that career advisers typically have to fill the role of realist to their student idealists.

“We discuss the pros and cons with them,” Brown said of the students who approach the career center with the goal of starting their own business. “We have to tell them about all of the risks involved, and we have to conduct a reality check for some students to see how far they’ve thought this through. Still, we’re generally excited about this development. We just want to make sure we get them the resources they need and let others know this is a possibility for them.”

Starting with the post-graduate survey of this year’s class, Temple graduates will be able to specifically select “self-employed.” Brown expects this to remain a top-five option for students for some time to come.

A National Perspective

More broadly, the National Association of Colleges and Employers reports that the percentage of graduates who say they want to pursue self employment has decreased slightly in recent years. In 2008, 2.2 percent said they planned to start their own business, while 1.8 percent said so in 2009. The organization does not collect followup data to determine what percent actually went on to start their own business. Still, the numbers indicate that it is still a relatively rare ambition for recent graduates.

Phil Gardner, director of Michigan State University’s Collegiate Employee Research Institute, said that his colleagues have sensed an uptick in self-employment among recent graduates from his institution. The anecdotal examples he has noticed include graduates on contract employment or working as project hires.

“I was at a recent venture capital meeting in [San Francisco] and they were offering to allow new college grads to bid on small projects – put in a proposal and amount to do the project,” Gardner wrote in an e-mail. “They were making some awards. I think you are seeing some of this. Another segment is probably trying to capitalize on their tech savvy – one of my good students did start their own business in [December] and is doing very well – it is in social media. The question is, how long will they stay self-employed when companies start hiring again? I suspect some to many will matriculate back into the full-time hire category.”

Still, he cautions that he does not know of any accurate national figures about self-employment among recent college graduates.

“I did [Michigan State’s] destination study of seniors – self-employed never went over 1% for our students. When we looked at those grads – most of them were not starting their own company, unless it was a landscaping business, painting contractor, etc. They were working for a family business but not as salary employment. … Usually these trends sneak up on you – several years ago working internationally went from about three percent to over 13 percent (lot of it teaching English) – it’s cooled a bit – but probably will remain in the teens. I suspect we will see 'self-employed' go up until the economy moves ahead, then drop back down -- but not to 1 percent. [It] just depends on the opportunities that emerge in the labor market.”

Meet the Entrepreneurs

Recent and prospective Temple graduates have founded a wide variety of companies.

Shannon McDonald, a 2009 graduate and journalism major, founded NEastPhilly.com, a Web site offering “daily news, analysis, multimedia, columns and commentary” about the neighborhoods in Northeast Philadelphia. Though she currently supplements her income by working as a nanny during the day, McDonald hopes to grow the site to the point where she can maintain it full-time. She is already making some headway; Philadelphia Metro, a free daily newspaper distributed around the city, already publishes content from McDonald’s site about Northeast Philadelphia once a week in its print edition.

The idea for McDonald’s Web publication was born in her entrepreneurial class work at Temple.

“I took the pilot entrepreneurial journalism class offered at Temple in the fall of 2008,” said McDonald, who is 22. “The class was all about how to be able to make yourself a marketable journalist in today’s economy and how to start your own publication. By the end of the semester, we had to put together our own publication. Afterward, I thought, ‘I could really do this,’ so it went from being just a blog to a full-fledged Web site.”

Two of the three weekly newspapers in Northeast Philadelphia folded in 2008, so McDonald thought her publication could fill a void by providing community news that locals could not find elsewhere. Eventually, she even hired a former editor from one of the defunct weeklies to write for her site.

While the project has come together quickly, McDonald never thought she would start her own publication prior to her entrepreneurial journalism course.

“I did look for full-time jobs without much success,” McDonald said. “Now, keeping this going is daunting. I just feel very lucky to have had my idea received well by the Temple community. It’s definitely a growing trend there.”

Tim Nesmith, a senior entrepreneurship major, has already taken over PhillyScreen, a silk-screen and embroidery company started by his father. Last year, the company made more than $90,000 in revenue, but Nesmith has his sights set on doing more business. Upon discovering that one of his clients was the business manager for rap artists Lil Wayne and Kanye West, Nesmith became his intern and now wants to expand his company beyond t-shirts and into broader music merchandising for up-and-coming artists in the Philadelphia area.

“My father started PhillyScreen when he went to Temple in the ‘80s and has kept it as a side business for an extra source of revenue,” Nesmith explained. “I was brought up silk screening and always used to print t-shirts and do contract work for people. Since I’ve been at Temple, I’ve basically taken over the company full-time as my own and have been going to school part-time.”

Nesmith credits his major in entrepreneurship for giving him the skills to take control of his father’s company.

“It was extremely valuable to have to present business plans to the class and learning how to seek funding for our ideas,” Nesmith said. “I’ve noticed that a lot of my friends in just the business administration or other general, business majors will either switch over to the entrepreneurship major or pick it up as a minor. In today’s economy, it’s important to have the stability to make your own money. I’ve had a great experience with the program.”

Jonathan Bojan, a senior music theory major, is starting a nonprofit community music organization that will give private lessons to young musicians, put on local concerts and eventually produce recordings. He originally wanted to teach private lessons around the city on his own to make ends meet after graduation, but he changed his mind after his friends in the music department expressed interest in working together.

"I realized that bringing in my other friends would create no extra difficulty to advertise both for them and myself," Bojan said of getting the word out about music lessons. "It also is great to have people who can recommend you more often and with whom you can collaborate with artistically. I started to realize that, doing what I like to do with other people who do the same, I can serve the community."

Numerous other recent graduates and current students who are starting their own businesses have also been identified by Temple’s Career Center and entrepreneurship program.

Shawn Geller, a 2009 graduate and finance major, started CollegeClipper.com, a Web site that offers students discounts from local businesses, grocery stores, bars and restaurants. Ray DeRosa, a senior, is selling his own line of medicinal teas, called “Lion Tea.” Judy Martin, a senior finance and economics major, is developing a product called “Chic-Mate,” a device for women to carry sanitary items in public. Christine Barta, a junior marketing major, started her own social networking business and updates blogs, Web sites, Facebook and Twitter accounts for her three clients.

And naming those just scratches the surface. Other ventures include a travel company for parents of students studying abroad, a line of wearable art and a gourmet cooking spice.

 

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