College Entrepreneurship and Finding Faith in Failure

Academic News

By Julianna Marchant, Thrive Global Campus Ambassador from Northwestern University,

Welcome to our new section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute(please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

Anyone starting a business knows that the risk of failure is built into the ambition. Whether it’s failure to launch, failure to grow, or failure to meet your own expectations, the fear of not succeeding is there at pretty much every step of the process. And for college students working on their own startups, failure can be an especially daunting threat within the already stressful results-driven environment of academics and job searching.

The most impressive and lengthy resumes are a highlight reel — they list the titles that were obtained and the experiences that achieved the anticipated outcome. But that doesn’t mean that dozens of job rejections or a failed blog or startup never happened; it means we’ve systematized an outcomes-based professional culture that equates linear progress with learning, encouraging people to omit mentioning times when things didn’t go as planned. 

The popular narrative of entrepreneurship in college more or less goes something like the first portion of The Social Network — bootstrapping out of a grungy dorm room with a couple of friends, and crisis management when things continuously go awry. However, there are a growing number of university resources and institutional programs in recent years that allow students to build their startups in a supportive network of faculty, workshops, and advising. Whether that’s through coursework, often connected to a business school, or innovation centers that provide mentorship and funding, college founders looking to execute a great idea no longer should feel compelled to go it alone. 

College is a unique opportunity for entrepreneurs — you can give your business ideas a full trial run without the added pressures of a full-time job. In college, if the emphasis of student founding is placed on learning rather than fixed outcomes, there remains a lot to be gained. The more mistakes you make, the more you’ll figure out how to best do what you do.

A great way to navigate challenges while working on a startup is finding a mentor. Mentors can offer a different narrative that’s sometimes hard to come by when when reading about a role model’s success story. A mentor is on the other side of college graduation, for starters, so she’ll know what college can be like, but a mentor can also provide relevant experiences from his own life about times that a venture didn’t turn out the way it was supposed to.

I spoke with Hayes Ferguson, Associate Director of The Garage, the student entrepreneurship hub at Northwestern University, about failure and entrepreneurship. She’s been on both sides of a startup’s journey: as a member of a founding management team of a successful company, and as an adviser to student founders. She encourages college students starting out a project, especially women, to have faith in their purpose and qualifications. And if you mess up, remember that you’re in good company. 

Tell me about your background in entrepreneurship.

I was part of the founding management team of Legacy, the online obituary company. To the surprise of many people, including lots of venture capitalists who thought the idea was weird, our website became one of the 30 most visited on the Internet, with tens of millions of monthly users. People are interested in other people’s stories, whether they’re alive or dead.

You’re a journalist, teacher, and entrepreneur. Can you give me a timeline of how you became involved in entrepreneurship, from helping to start a company to becoming a mentor at The Garage?

After returning from Latin America, where I was a foreign correspondent in the 1990s, I wanted to continue to do something meaningful and exciting, with less exotic travel. Entrepreneurship in the digital space, with a focus on helping people preserve the legacies of loved ones, fit the bill. While at Legacy, I started teaching classes in writing and new media at Medill. It was then that I realized how much I enjoy working with students. I took a break from teaching when my son was born. The sale of Legacy allowed me to return to mentoring as an Entrepreneur in Residence at The Garage and that led to the opportunity to develop a couple of specialized programs, including one that empowers women at Northwestern to pursue entrepreneurship. So I am getting to do something entrepreneurial, in an innovative space, with creative students who appreciate guidance. It’s the perfect combination.

What’s one time you learned from a failure in your own career?

Early in my career as a reporter, I wrote about a family whose son had died. I spoke with them at length about the young man and then misspelled his name in the story. This was at a time when there was no digital version of the newspaper, so there was no easy fix. The parents were devastated, as was I. I have been super attentive to detail ever since.

What has been the most meaningful mentoring experience for you? Do you recognize any common narratives that you see in students’ endeavors that you encountered yourself?

The Propel program has been especially meaningful as it allows me to help women students who are hesitant to do something entrepreneurial. As someone who’s been in the workforce for a long time, I’m very familiar with the challenges women face, and the insecurities we feel. Things have gotten better over time, as more women have become business leaders and role models. But it’s still way too common to hear women students say that they don’t feel like they’re as qualified as their male counterparts to be entrepreneurs, or that they don’t belong at The Garage. They can have the same, or better qualifications than some of the guys, and still doubt their abilities. One particularly accomplished student told me she cried the first time she came to our space, because she didn’t feel like she fit in. Being in a position to encourage women like her to pursue their ideas, to assure them that they fit in and to show them they can do it — whatever the *it* is — is very rewarding. 

What’s your biggest piece of advice to college entrepreneurs hesitant about starting projects out of fear of failure?

Instead of fearing failure, think of it as part of a process that will help you learn and make you better at whatever you do. And remember that many of the world’s most successful people have had multiple setbacks. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter pitch was rejected by more than a dozen publishers. More than 30 investors turned down Jeff Bezos during his quest to raise $1M to start Amazon. Steve Jobs was fired from his own company! The list goes on and on. Keep this in mind as you persevere. 

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