GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan — Along with the opening of its brand new business school, and thanks to a generous alumnus, Calvin University is launching a unique program that will help students bring their business ideas to life.
The Calvin University Startup Garage was created with a $500,000 donation from 2007 CU graduate Jon VerLee.
VerLee knows well what it takes to succeed as an entrepreneur. Ten years ago, he was working in a local church, while developing software on the side. VerLee created interactive, user-friendly software that helps churches track their membership, programming, and schedule, and eventually sold it.
“I started with a deep love for technology, but ended with a deep appreciation for the impact businesses can have on our culture and society,” VerLee said. “Last summer I felt very lucky to be able to sell our business for an incredible amount and wanted to give back.”
His first call was to Calvin. VerLee wanted to find a way to not only seed students’ business ideas, but also provide them with the resources to thrive for weeks, months, and years into their entrepreneurial journey. Starting at the Startup Garage kick-off event on Wednesday evening, VerLee and his student leadership team will hear presentations from students inside and outside the business school, each of whom can get $2,000 to help start his business.
“What’s unique about this is that there’s no equity or intellectual property,” he said. “In other words, the company is the students and only the students.”
The Startup Garage’s goal is to build 100 successful businesses over the next decade. Through CEO mentorship, recourse connection, and weekly speakers who have all had success with their own startups, the hope is that students will be equipped to start right after — or even before — graduation. They will learn how to approach entrepreneurship from a legal point of view, from a marketing point of view, from a hiring and customer retention point of view.
VerLee recalls an old adage in the startup world that implores young entrepreneurs to “fail fast.” In other words, they don’t turn down offers based merely on expected success. They want students to chase wild ideas before they leave the confines of business school.
“A lot of times, students are told, ‘Hey, work hard in school to get good grades so you can get a good job.’ And that’s great, we need people who get good jobs,” VerLee said. “However, there’s this whole other learning track to be able to start something new, and you can take a dream that you have and make it a reality in the form of a business. And it’s a message that students don’t hear as often; people don’t hear as often.
Eventually, he would like to open the starter program to people who are not affiliated with Calvin University at all. Even for students who don’t come up with ideas, like sophomore marketing student Ashlynn Bailey, gaining experience on the group’s student leadership team is invaluable. She will work with entrepreneurs to help them commercialize and develop their ideas.
“Calvin has provided a great resource for students with a new business school we can work at and our club to meet up with,” she said.
When it comes to the types of business ideas the school is looking for, there really aren’t any strict criteria to consider.
“No one can know,” VerLee said. “It’s inherent in the starter course, which is also part of the fun, because no one really knows if it will work.”
To learn more about the Calvin University Startup Garage, click here.