There is much to be said about “entrepreneurial spirit,” or the “right’ type of person” it takes to be successful running one’s own company. Since being out of school for two years and working during this time, I’ve definitely learned quite a bit and gone through a number of experiences that only working full-time could give me. That said, I’ve also recognized the collegiate experiences that were unique in nature, more specifically my time spent as the G.M. of the entertainment branch of Cal’s Student Government. Albeit a profession filled with various backgrounds and personalities, we’re going to look at how taking on leadership within a student organization helps prepare you for entrepreneurship.
Student Leadership to Entrepreneurship: A Direct Path
1.) Teaches Negotiation Skills: Taken at their baseline, all companies are vying for expanding their reach by acquiring new users/ customers and/or competing to make more money. These two are extremely intertwined, but that’s beside the point– if you’re going to start your own company, you’ll need to be absolutely skillful in negotiating. You’ll need to negotiate with end-users to adopt your product/ service, you’ll need to negotiate with your internal customers to convince them that your guidance is aligned with the success of the company, and you’ll need to for negotiate to secure funding, whether it be with your friends and family, banks, and/ or venture capital. Student groups are also constantly competing on these terms. Every student has a finite amount of time he/ she can or will invest in extra-curricular activities such as joining and/ or supporting a student group or school fundraising, so you’ll constantly be coming up with ways to convince them that you’re group is worth their while. While you might not be as focused on the ‘bottom-line’ at a student group (or maybe you are?), you will gain valuable practice getting people to buy-in to your strategies, your ideas, and your vision.
2.) Practice Building Your Network: Undoubtedly you’ve heard the old maxim of, “it’s not what you know, but who you know,” and I struggle to find a profession in which this saying shines brighter than as an entrepreneur. Building something out of nothing is no easy task, and you’ll need as much help as you can get. You’ll need help with current strategy, guidance on legal and financial matters, and referrals to talent and resources. To get these things, you need to be able to build and sustain a personal network quickly and tactfully. Student group leadership forces you to put this often-forgot skill into practice. Since there are a number of different constituent groups on campus, you’ll learn to craft your message in a way that allows you to win various audiences over. You’ll have experience identifying and working to establish relationships with the different key stakeholders on campus– those who have funding, or experience, or networks that are fundamental to the success of your group. You’ll be put into rather awkward situations in which you need to reconcile differences in order to maintain your relationships for the future. In a profession where connections are everything, you gain invaluable experience building such connections as a student group officer.
3.) Preparation for Difficult Performance Conversations: One aspect of entrepreneurship that especially excites me is the opportunity to build a company culture. In finding a job, much emphasis is put on ‘fit,’ and teams are constantly assessing whether or not they could see themselves working alongside a candidate day-in and day-out to the point that sometimes lesser-qualified candidates (at least on paper) may land a job over someone else for their inter-personal or ‘soft’ skills. With all this in mind, once your venture is off and running, you’ll likely be surrounded with co-workers who are very like-minded to yourself (whether intentional or not). While you can ‘guard’ against creating this type of environment through specific hiring practices, even still, the frequency with which you see and work alongside these people will more than likely make them at least your de facto friends. What this means is sometimes you’ll need to have some very difficult conversations with your friends/ employees around performance. Perhaps it’s a rather minor vice that simply keeps happening or maybe they did something that puts the entire company in jeopardy, but either way, these conversations will come up, and you’ll need to be able to craft these conversations in a manner that improves performance, preserves confidence and motivation, while still maintaining your relationship. Since you’ll be working alongside and managing you’re friends and fellow schoolmates at a student group, again, you’ll have that experience to call upon as an entrepreneur.
While I’m not entirely sure if one can learn to have an ‘entrepreneurial spirit’ or if it’s tied more inherently to your personality, leadership within a student group provides you with practice in a couple of fundamental disciplines that will help you excel as an entrepreneur – any kind of entrepreneur. Whether or not you’ll enjoy student leadership and entrepreneurship is entirely dependent upon the individual, but at least you’ll find out one way or the other before your career and financial well-being are at stake.