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INNOVATION ECONOMY

How can we hold on to student talent?

By Scott Kirsner
November 16, 2008
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'When you go to a Christmas party thrown by a venture capital firm on the East Coast, what you see are a lot of retired executives and entrepreneurs - guys in their 40s or older with gray hair," observes Angelo Santinelli. "You go to a Christmas party on the West Coast, and you're astounded by the number of young people, along with the successful older folks."

The greatest renewable natural resource we've got in New England is smart young people. Hundreds of thousands of them are getting educated in our region right now; in Massachusetts alone, about 75,000 will earn degrees come May. And once springtime approaches, most graduates will return home or seek their fortunes elsewhere - often in Silicon Valley.

A study commissioned by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce last month found that over the next five years, Massachusetts will have the lowest rate of population growth of any state, when you're looking specifically at people 25 years old or older who've earned at least a bachelor's degree. Joining us on the laggards list are neighboring states Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Maine.

"Our problem in New England is that the ripe entrepreneur-age kids are leaving in droves," says Santinelli, a consultant and ex-venture capitalist who also teaches entrepreneurship at Babson College in Wellesley. "Our biggest export is brains."

Even in a recession - perhaps especially in a recession - we ought to be focused on retaining more of those sharp young whippersnappers and encouraging them to join local companies or start ones of their own.

Here are some thoughts on what companies, universities, trade associations, and venture capital firms could be doing differently. But this column is only intended to kick-start the conversation; we need to do some serious brainstorming, and make some fast changes, to make the New England innovation economy more welcoming of students.

Associations Most of Boston's trade groups do a dismal job of opening their arms to students. Even the Boston Chamber of Commerce, which just published that study about sustaining our region's talent advantage, doesn't explain on its website that students can often attend events at no charge, or at the very least pay the member rate if their school is a chamber member. "In terms of a clear process for students to attend events, there hasn't been one," acknowledges Erin Murphy, vice president of communications. "It doesn't mean we're against it or don't welcome it, but it hasn't been at the top of our list."

The same is true of most other organizations, from the Massachusetts Medical Device Council to the Technology Leadership Council. If students pick up the phone and call the group, they'll often find out they can get a complimentary pass to an event. But the websites offer no sign that students are invited to attend. The best counter-example is the Boston chapter of TIE, The Indus Entrepreneurs, which offers a student membership for $25. That enables students to attend the organization's events for just $10 or $20. (Normal rates are $25; or $45 for nonmembers.)

Flybridge Capital Partners, a Boston venture capital firm, plans to launch a website called "Stay in MA" next month that will offer scholarships to students to attend events that cost up to $100. That's a great idea, and they're putting $5,000 into the fund as a pilot test.

Venture capital firms Boston's venture capitalists seem to believe that any company you mention that was started by recent graduates - or even college drop-outs - is an anomaly, unlikely to ever happen again. Facebook? A one-off. IRobot? You can't bank on MIT gearheads starting a company with their professor. Akamai Technologies? You can't bank on MIT mathematicians starting a company with their professor. Microsoft? Dell?

Still, inexplicably, most Boston area venture capital firms steer clear of student entrepreneurs. It'd be nice to see the dozens of venture capital firms in town get together to put on a big annual event for students, or organize smaller gatherings at their offices. Exposure to real-live student entrepreneurs might slowly change investors' minds about the viability of student-spawned ventures. Or at least it would offer investors the opportunity to try to recruit talented students to work for their portfolio companies.

General Catalyst, a venture capital firm in Cambridge, runs a series of breakfasts for MBA students, which is a good start. But the breakfasts are only open to students at Harvard and MIT. We need events that are open to anyone, whether they're enrolled at MIT, WIT, or WPI.

Companies Most big companies have the resources to do on-campus recruiting or run internship programs. But many small and midsize companies either don't advertise internship opportunities or don't feel they have the resources to operate internships. Spending a few days each spring visiting campus career fairs can also be taxing for harried start-ups.

But Sally Phelps, the director of postgraduate planning at Needham's Olin College of Engineering, says there are ways for small companies to have an impact with minimal investment. Watertown-based SoftArtisans, a software developer, invites a group of Olin students to the company's headquarters each year, offers them transportation via a shuttle bus, gives them a tour, and conducts some job interviews on-site. "By the end of one afternoon, they have a pretty good idea of who they might want to hire," Phelps says. "And for a small school like Olin, people on campus really know who that company is."

Companies could also create a "speaker's bureau" page on their websites, offering company representatives to give presentations to college classes or clubs. And I'm fond of the idea that some of our bigger companies, like Genzyme Corp., Zipcar Inc., Fidelity Investments, and EMC Corp., ought to offer an annual open house day, when students could sign up for company tours and meet some of the firms' employees.

Universities Bentley University in Waltham runs an "employers-in-residence" program, where once a week, employers come in for a three-hour stretch to consult with students. "It's not about being hired," says Len Morrison, the school's executive director of corporate relations. "They provide career advice." About 25 companies participate, with about three sending representatives to Bentley on any given week. MIT's Sloan School of Management is well known for its E-Lab course, where students work one day a week at a start-up company, focusing on a discrete project. More schools ought to present students with consistent opportunities like that to connect with local companies throughout the school year - rather than just when they're job hunting.

And universities could do a better job of communicating with employers: What are the best practices for running internship programs for their students? What are the dates that campus career fairs or other recruiting events take place? It's surprisingly hard to find that information on many schools' websites. (Officials like Morrison at Bentley say they're also willing to meet with companies in person to share their advice about starting an internship program or doing on-campus recruiting.)

Universities might also let various industry associations know that they've got space available (free or cheap) on campus for meetings and conferences. Bringing more events to campus, as opposed to holding them in hotels in Waltham or Burlington, is a great way to ensure that more students can attend.

What other ideas do you have? I'd love to hear them at the Innovation Economy blog: www.innoeco.com/2008/11/student-brainstorming.html.

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

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