Student entrepreneurs coming out of UNC haven’t traditionally lacked in passion, enthusiasm, intelligence and work ethic, but any undergraduate or even graduate student aspiring to be a company founder will likely lack in the entrepreneurial experience necessary to execute.
Inside Ted Zoller’s “Game-Changing” UNC Apprenticeship Program
A new program at UNC is looking to fill this experience gap by matching UNC’s top entrepreneurial talent with experienced advisors, but not in the typical mentor-mentee way.
Named for UNC benefactor, entrepreneur and pharmaceutical pioneer John Adams, the Adams Apprenticeship takes the top 20-30 student-entrepreneurs at UNC every year and matches them with a personal board of advisors—three to five mentors with whom they will develop relationships and seek guidance from for years to come.
Ted Zoller, UNC’s director for the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, calls the program a “game-changer.”
According to Zoller, the Apprenticeship is part of a long-term strategy to begin supporting the university’s entrepreneurs while they are students and continue doing so when they are making career transitions years later. It’s that long-term approach that makes the Adams Apprenticeship different from anything else in the nation right now.
“What I find with students coming out of university, typically they will make the transition to becoming an entrepreneur five to 10 years after they graduate,” Zoller says. “They need a little bit more experience usually when we’re talking about certain industries. We look at the Adams Apprenticeship as a long-ball type of strategy to help support our students who see themselves as founder over the long haul.”
The program works like this: Apprentices are selected from a field of applicants and whittled down to the top 20-30 undergraduate and graduate student-entrepreneurs at UNC. These include “founders, funders and high-growth executives”—students that intend to be involved in startups in one of those areas during their careers.
Those students are then encouraged to build out a personal board of advisors using a variety of tools offered through the Adams Apprenticeship. Each student writes an ‘entrepreneurial leadership profile’ in which they evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses. They then work with entrepreneurs-in-residence who provide guidance on how to build a diverse board of advisors based on factors such as region, industry and experience. It is then up to the students to contact and foster lasting relationships with advisors from the program’s roster.
After this feedback, Rousset went to work organizing networking events for the students and advisors. The kickoff event was held in a private home in Chapel Hill in January and had over 80 attendees. An April event in New York City drew 50 attendees and included visits to Counter Culture’s training center (pictured top: Zoller, right, and Counter Culture founder and UNC alum Brett Smith behind the bar) and the offices of TED and CommonBond.
After receiving overwhelmingly positive feedback, Rousset is planning another networking event in the San Francisco Bay Area for September—students can fly out to meet Adams Advisors on the west coast.
For first-year MBA student and aspiring entrepreneur Ricky McMahon, the opportunity to build a board of advisors and learn from startup founders was the extra push he needed to start a venture as a full-time student.
“I had it in the back of my head. I wasn’t 100% sure that I wanted to coming in…” he says. “Once I got into the program I saw the help and the opportunity to take that path through entrepreneurship and that drove me in the right direction to take the leap.”
McMahon is unique, even among the entrepreneurially-minded Adams Apprentices, in that he is working on a venture now as a full-time MBA student. While many of his classmates head off to Charlotte, Atlanta and New York for prestigious internships at multinational corporations and large firms this summer, he is staying in Chapel Hill to work on his startup, BlipMe, an app that helps friends better communicate when out on the town.
McMahon says that while he is the only one of his classmates who is working full-time on a venture this summer, most of his classmates and professors have reacted positively to his decision to forgo an internship and pursue his dream.
“It seems like the UNC community in general is very supportive of multiple paths, especially entrepreneurship because it’s not the typical path and it’s risky to say the least,” he says. “To have people that are not only supportive but wanting to help and giving me resources has been really helpful to me.”
The program is not only for business students, however. The Adams Apprenticeship is for undergraduate and graduate students who are studying any subject. Zoller believes this diversity and opportunity for peer-to-peer learning is one of the strengths of the program.
“In fact, the diversity of mixing grads and undergrads and mixing people from business backgrounds and non-business backgrounds has been a big hit,” he says. “We’ve created a diverse model where they coach one another.”
Zoller hopes that the Adams Apprenticeship can transform the role of universities in the national entrepreneurship ecosystem. He believes that universities can and should play a role in developing entrepreneurial talent, and that the Adams model, once perfected, can be replicated throughout the nation.
At a time where some thought leaders, such as Pay Pal founder Peter Thiel, are questioning the value of a traditional university education, Zoller believes initiatives like Adams will reverse this trend.
“I see it as a vehicle to make universities relevant again against Peter Thiel’s model in entrepreneurship,” he says. “I think one of our greatest assets is our university model and bringing people up—identifying great talent and then giving them the preparation to be breakthrough entrepreneurs. That’s how we’re going to move our society forward.”