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Students lead double lives as CEO's
By Andrew J. Pulskamp

Mike Stern and Peter Venech, founders of a business in New Haven, Connecticut called Aquarium Ventures, are both a part of a new generation of CEO's.

"Running a startup company is like being a juggler with a thousand different balls in the air. You can't let any of them drop," offers Stern. And apparently both he and Venech can juggle quite well. An investment firm, Dagim Capital, recently sank $1 million dollars into the company. Not bad for two college students, huh?

Stern, who along with Venech, is a student at Yale University, admits that school, work and play can make for a difficult balancing act. But, he says, that won't keep them from striking out into new business frontiers.

In some ways Stern and Venech's collegiate creation is an indication of a larger trend in entrepreneurship at universities around the country. Aquarium Ventures is an incubator that helps out other student startups by giving them the tools they need to get on their feet.

"We provide them with financing, office space, a variety of services, including legal services, accounting services, staffing, hiring, human resources - just about everything they need to get started," explains Stern. In return, Aquarium Ventures gets a piece of the pie when those companies start making money.

So naturally the corporation is always on the lookout for students with fresh business ideas. "With our business director, one of his jobs is to go out to the colleges and interview students and professors - looking for those ideas lurking just below the surface," says Stern.

Those ideas are at the heart of entrepreneurship. Sure there's hard work and the need for capital, but when all that is stripped away, one is left with the original idea -- that gem of a notion that can lead to success. Fortunately for college students they're pretty much on a level playing field with the rest of the business world when it comes to ideas.

"The remarkable thing about entrepreneurship is age doesn't provide any barriers," says Connie Bourassa-Shaw, the managing director of the Program of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Washington.

Bourassa-Shaw says students at UW have shown great zeal in the entrepreneurship arena. The school's annual PEI business plan competition showcases some of the best ideas in the state. Collegians studying any major, from any state school in Washington, can offer up their ideas for what they think would make a good business plan. The ultimate prize is a hefty sum of cash, which could help them make that idea a reality.

"All judges are entrepreneurs. There are no faculty judges -- which separates us from a lot of other competitions. This is all decided by people who do this every day," explains Bourassa-Shaw.

When those judges narrow it down to one lucky winner, the victor can pad his or her pockets with $60,000 in seed money, which is plenty to get a business up and running.

Entrepreneurship definitely seems to be catching on at UW as is evidenced by the incredible growth of the PEI club. Bourassa-Shaw says, "Three years ago there were six PEI members. This year we have 160."

A guy who has been there done that, and who is still doing it for that matter, when it comes to student entrepreneurship is Pete Findlay, the CEO of a corporation called Cybercamps.

Findlay was the 1997 winner of the PEI business plan competition. He started a company that combined his two passions - technology and children. Cybercamps, which was created while Findlay was a student at UW, provides a forum for kids to learn all the things about computers that they aren't learning in school.

"I was faced with graduation and it was a choice between jumping into work for a big corporation or just taking the plunge and starting now," says Findlay. He opted for the latter, "I thought I might as well do it now. I'm young; I have no family to support. So I jumped in and took a risk."

That's one advantage college students have over others in the business realm, according to Findlay. Being young leaves students with relatively little to lose. Taking risks isn't quite as scary when a mortgage, car payments and kids aren't in the picture yet.

Findlay's risk paid off handsomely. His Cybercamps started as a venture that grossed around $40,000 in its first year, but has since grown into a multimillion-dollar operation with hundreds of employees around the country.

John Lunetta, a University of Indiana senior, may not have a multimillion-dollar corporation to his name, but his business still did plenty to help him get through school.

"The name of my business is American Wildlife Management, actually I incorporated myself so I guess you could say it's American Wildlife Management Incorporated," offers Lunetta.

In a nutshell, he goes where the wild things go, then he catches the wild things. "I manage urban wildlife problems. Essentially I solve human and animal conflicts. But that's not to be confused with going out and rounding up stray dogs and cats. This is strictly wildlife."

Lunetta says you'd be surprised how much money one can make rounding up raccoons, skunks and beavers. He says that during the summer months, from about the middle of May into August, he can make about $25,000. He also says that most wildlife managers who work full time make well into six figures.

But dealing with all those animals that go bump in the night doesn't come without a price, especially when one is trying to get a college degree at the same time.

"There was one time I was doing a job and I had a really big test at nine in the morning," reveals Lunetta. "I got a call at seven a.m. that a trap I had set for a skunk had gotten the skunk. ·So I thought, 'this is slick I'll get some coffee, get the animal, relocate it and go take the test.'"

Of course everything did not go quite as he had planned. Lunetta showed up to the house where the animal was trapped and neighbors, family and friends were already out in force gawking at the captured creature.

"I was walking up to the cage and this kid yells at me. Just as I was about to say something, I turned my head and I felt liquid go all the way up my left arm and down my left leg. It was the first time in my life I got sprayed."

Such are the trials of running a wildlife management business. But although he was sullied, Lunetta still made it to his test. " I sat in the far back row. ·I flew through that test," he says.

Though he enjoys his work, Lunetta reveals that he is going to sell the business. "I love the business but I'm ready for a change," he says. Plus he probably wouldn't have time to keep up with all the pesky critters anyway -- he's on his way to chiropractic school.

A trio of students at the University of California at Berkeley have a business of their own that some might regard as dealing with wildlife. They started an online food delivery service to feed hungry collegians at the West Coast university. It's called CalSnacks.

Noam Lovinsky, a Berkeley sophomore, saw a real need on the campus for an affordable delivery service. He says, "The nearest grocery store here is about a twenty minute walk, and then you have to lug back the groceries. There is a little grocery store on campus, but you'll pay four dollars for a carton of milk."

Lovinsky says he came up with the idea for the business when he found out a friend was making trips to Price Club and picking up food for the people on his dorm floor. The guy didn't get paid, but students usually chipped in to pay for his gas. Lovinksy says, "As soon as I saw that, I said hey, we can make some money doing this."

And they do make money, according to Lovinsky. He says the company, which has now doubled in size to six people, can bring in anywhere from $500 to $800 a day. Although, Lovinsky says, that's not where the real money is.

"The food is just a hook. ·What we're most interested in is the Internet site. We wanted this to be a trendy place that people would come to. It has the Cal logo and Cal can attract other people," says Lovinsky. He also reveals another part of their business strategy, "We want to maybe put coupons in the shopping bags when we make deliveries and form some partnership with some advertisers."

That may happen - and soon. Lovinsky says the company is in talks with several companies at the moment that are interested in some sort of partnership, but CalSnacks is in a transitional period since Berkeley has raised some questions about the company's name. CalSnacks is trying to reach a contractual agreement with the school that will allow them to be back up and running by the end of the summer.

Lovinsky has learned a lot from starting his own business, but also says entrepreneurship is not as glamorous as people make it out to be. "It's exciting to run an Internet startup. It's not exciting to deliver food," he says, then continues, "I guess what I'm saying is sometimes it's not it's all cracked up to be."

Brenna Murphy is the coordinator for Collegiate Entrepreneurs Organization (CEO), a national organization with a presence on 83 campuses, that helps students realize their business dreams.

Murphy has a bit of advice for those heading out onto the corporate range. Don't be afraid to fail, but also realize that everything probably won't go according to plan.

"You have got to be prepared for anything," Murphy advises. "You even have to be prepared to be unprepared."

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