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Innovation Economy

State must stop the student exodus

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Scott Kirsner
May 25, 2008

As black-robed students line up all over town to receive a diploma and a handshake, it's the perfect time to ask a devious question: How can we do a better job of connecting students to our region's innovation economy and persuade them to stick around after graduation?

Every year, about 74,000 people earn undergraduate or advanced degrees in Massachusetts. Of those graduating from private colleges and universities, about half choose to stay (the figure is higher for those educated at state schools), according to the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts.

Convincing more newly minted grads to build their careers here isn't just about helping Massachusetts add more taxpayers and end a pathetic streak of losing population in the 25-to-34 age bracket. It's about bringing new ideas and energy to our established business giants (think Raytheon, Fidelity, and Biogen Idec) and supporting young entrepreneurs who want to start businesses of their own.

The West Coast, unfortunately, has done a much better job of taking new entrepreneurs seriously over the past two decades. Google, Yahoo, and Facebook were all founded by sharp-but-unproven whippersnappers. Here, iRobot Corp. is the only significantly sized company to have been started and run by recent grads.

Great programs do exist at some schools to get students plugged in to the local economy, or support them in starting ventures of their own. At Babson College, Boston College, and MIT, for instance, students can sign on to serve as consultants to local companies for a semester, confronting specific challenges. And there's no shortage of business-plan competitions.

But it ought to be our goal that every one of those 74,000 students donning a mortarboard this year should have visited the offices of a big company here, had a conversation with the founder of a fast-growing start-up, or rubbed elbows with a venture capitalist sometime over the course of their education. That may entail an internship or co-op job, a visit to an open house, or simply attending an on-campus talk. Getting to that goal won't be easy. It will require work - and some fresh thinking - on the part of Massachusetts' industry associations, employers, colleges and universities, and student-run entrepreneurship groups.

I think it's essential, though, if we want to stay relevant in a global economy: We're already the place hundreds of thousands of promising kids from around the world come to earn their degrees. Why not just aim to retain a few more of them? Here are seven ideas that could move the needle.

Every year, students at local business schools fly west for the annual "Tech Trek." They visit companies like Genentech, Google, Apple, Boeing, and Starbucks, getting tours of the headquarters and an opportunity to question senior executives about strategy. Amazingly, only the Sloan School of Management at MIT organizes a tech trek of Massachusetts companies, visiting businesses like Bose Corp., Boston Scientific, and Zipcar. Why don't student groups, profs, local companies, and trade associations get their acts together to create opportunities to drop in on Massachusetts businesses, either during a single concentrated week, or throughout the academic year?

Venture capitalists in Massachusetts need to acknowledge a deep-seated bias: They're more comfortable handing money to veterans of Lotus Development Corp. and Millennium Pharmaceuticals Inc. than they are investing in a rookie. One recent Babson grad working on an e-commerce start-up told me that in his meetings with West Coast investors, they asked why his presentation described him as only the company's "acting CEO," while East Coast investors were relieved he was offering them the opportunity to slot in a more experienced executive.

One step in the right direction would be an annual schmooze-fest open to students, perhaps organized by the New England Venture Capital Association, where they could meet investors and learn a bit about the local companies they've helped fund.

In Silicon Valley, big companies like Google and Microsoft occasionally open up their campuses to informal conferences that bring together hackers, entrepreneurs, students, and company employees to explore a particular topic of interest to the host company. They're almost always free to attend, and while some presentations are planned ahead of time, attendees can also discuss projects they're working on simply by signing up for a time slot. Why wouldn't hometown companies like EMC Corp., Genzyme Corp., or even Boston Beer Co. organize the occasional open house focused on innovation in their industry?

Student entrepreneurship groups that organize conferences and seminars on campus should publicize these and open them up to students at other schools. The Harvard College Entrepreneurship Forum is already doing this, with great results. At a meeting I attended in March, one-third of the audience came from other schools.

Trade associations, from the Retailers Association of Massachusetts to the Massachusetts Medical Device Industry Council, ought to make it easy and cheap (or even free) for a small number of interested students to attend each of their meetings, and publicize those opportunities to the relevant department heads at local colleges and universities.

Companies and trade associations need to do a better job of publicizing internship and co-op opportunities on their websites, and also creating an informal "speaker's bureau" online, listing people who are willing and able to visit campuses to talk about their company and industry.

Local companies could encourage recent hires to share their experiences online with students at their alma maters, either through Facebook groups, blogs, podcasts, or YouTube video dispatches.

The Massachusetts Innovation and Technology Exchange, a Cambridge trade group, formed a committee earlier this year to explore ways to build bridges between the group's member companies and the state's student population. Don McLagan, chairman of the Boston Web analytics firm Compete Inc., heads the committee. He says some students are simply looking for a job that their peers will regard as cool and their parents will approve of. Others want support to create a start-up of their own.

"Everyone knows about Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg dropping out of Harvard to start Microsoft and Facebook," McLagan says. But citing a recent Wall Street Journal story that lauded the new "start-up culture" at Harvard, McLagan said that he'd made contact with all six start-ups mentioned in the article.

"Two had set up their offices in New York, one in Seattle, and three in the Bay area," McLagan said. "How many more do we have to lose?"

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com.

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