UChicago prides itself on theory-based education. As the saying here goes: “That's all well and good in practice…but how does it work in theory?” But, what if you actually want to put a theory into practice? What if you have the next Great Idea that could potentially revolutionize an industry or the world? Fortunately, UChicago Career Advancement and the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation have teamed up to give undergraduates the opportunity to help bridge that gap between theory and practice. Both the New Venture Challenge (NVC) and the newly formed College New Venture Challenge (CNVC) allow students to get a hands-on approach to the world of business.
Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the NVC is a UChicago business launch program designed to help UChicago students turn ideas into viable businesses. Recognized as the top university accelerator program in the country, NVC has helped create over 100 startups that continue to operate today. Some of the more well-known companies include GrubHub (an online food delivery service), Braintree (an online payment platform used by companies like Uber and Airbnb), and LuminAID (a manufacturer of solar powered inflatable light packs).
At its core, the NVC is a competition. The premise is simple: create a viable business plan for a startup that has the potential to have a positive financial and/or social impact. Students are encouraged to team up with other students, alumni, and even people not affiliated with the University. The finalist teams compete for $500,000 in prize money and in-kind services to further their businesses. Along the way, alumni mentors provide guidance and support to students by teaching classes on how to create and maintain a start-up after it takes off.
Although the majority of NVC participants are Booth students, undergraduate students have also been actively involved in the program. Just ask Ruslan Shchetinin, a current second-year in the College, who joined an NVC team as a first-year. Shchetinin brought his passion for medicine, business, and technology to the startup company Rogerina, which was created by Dr. John Alverdy, the Executive Vice Chair of the Department of Surgery here at UChicago Medicine. The company is a collaborative learning platform for surgeons to share and develop innovative surgical techniques. Through a structured and peer-reviewed surgical video library, which will allow surgeons across the world will be able to learn new techniques from experts.
The company, still in its development phase, has benefited greatly from the NVC process. Each startup presents its business plan to a panel of judges, which is composed of alumni from the business world with experience creating new companies. NVC aims to reflect the real world of business; students present a plan as if they were trying to sell a product to real investors. Judges then critique the presentation and offer advice on how to improve. “As a first year, it was an interesting experience diving into the startup world,” says Shchetinin. “I was helping create 25-page business plans and getting up there, performing in front of a lot of people.”
Shchetinin’s case is not unusual—many other undergraduates participate in NVC. Hannah Williams, Senior Assistant Director of the Polsky Center, says that “teams are always looking for help in the NVC, and they will often reach out to undergrad students with specific skillsets.” In fact, “the best teams in the NVC program are those that are interdisciplinary—those that include undergraduates or even students from Harris, Pritzker, etc.”
Shchetinin agreed that an interdisciplinary team helped Rogerina become a real startup. “Each person had their own expertise and we were able to add all that together. A doctor, an entrepreneur and an economist were all in one room thinking about how to create the best product. That’s what’s amazing about UChicago and NVC—you can find all these people you would never be able to meet before.”
However, you don’t have to join a Booth team or be an expert in entrepreneurship in order to get involved. College New Venture Challenge, a subset, or “track”, within the NVC, allows undergraduates, who are new to the industry, to gain practical experience in business. CNVC, which started in 2012, has a similar structure to its parent program. Just like the NVC, students create a business plan and present it to a panel of judges. They can win up to $30,000 in prize money and can gain valuable support from alumni mentors who lead a series of workshops on the basics of entrepreneurship. “The program teaches you valuable and practical skills that are usually only taught at Booth,” says Jerry Huang, senior program director of UChicago Careers in Entrepreneurship.
Although the CNVC is relatively new, it is extremely popular. “There has never been anything on campus for entrepreneurship before,” says Huang. “But, there was definitely a lot of interest [for it] on campus. Once we turned on the light, all the flies came.”
Second-year Jason Li was actually drawn to UChicago by UChicago Careers in Entrepreneurship and the CNVC. As a first-year, Li, along with fellow classmate Raymond Han, created the company UProspie, an online social platform that connects high school students and current undergraduates based on common interests, background, etc. Based on this match, students can learn more about a university that reaches far beyond the information given by the admissions office. “There are a lot of parts of the school that college admissions doesn't touch,” says Li. “[UProspie] is a tool to help incoming students learn more about universities and their culture. It helps high school students know if a school is really the right fit.”
Li and Han won the CNVC last year and were able to use the prize money to further develop UProspie in San Francisco last summer. The competition was essential in helping the two create their company, which is now used by schools across the country. “There are a ton of people out there to help you. Although it’s a huge process, it’s a helpful one, says Li. “I was able to receive a lot of guidance from beginning to end. You also get to make a lot of connections. I’m still in contact with a lot of judges who gave me advice.”
Although the UChicago’s entrepreneurship program is still developing, it offers incredible opportunities for undergraduate students to gain practical knowledge and even implement some of their ideas on a grand scale. “Doing CNVC as a first year and being able to win it just goes to show that UChicago values entrepreneurship,” says Li. "It’s really the perfect school for entrepreneurship.”