Beggar at Ghazi Chowk


On social entrepreneurship

12 Apr 2012

Published in the Daily Princetonian on 12 April 2012.

This year’s introduction of the Keller Center’s eLab incubator program as well as HackPrinceton and the recent creation of the Development Design Initiative have all brought much needed attention to Princeton’s entrepreneurial culture. The annual TigerLaunch — supplemented by the independent TigerLabs 3-month incubator program for startups and the healthy activities of the Princeton Entrepreneurship Club — are steadily beginning to showcase the university’s entreprenurial potential to larger and larger audiences.

Princeton is not the first name that comes to mind when we think of startups and entrepreneurship at American colleges. We are largely entrenched as a prime school of social sciences, but despite the stellar reputation and standing of our engineering school, have not been at the forefront of producing leaders in the entrepreneurial space.

But for anyone who witnessed or took part in TigerLaunch last weekend, it is clear that Princeton is bustling with smart, useful ideas and great people willing to do great things with them. Take the case of Pasand,  a social enterprise putting a low-cost, environmentally sustainable sanitary pad on a market of 87.5 million girls in India between the ages of 11-18. They took the prize at TigerLaunch and have made the news multiple times. What is impressive is the sheer dedication with which the team of undergrads continues to run the company and their ability to become part of a larger solution to a complex sociocultural problem.

Duma, another Princeton start-up, is working to target income inequality by making it easy to find jobs and hire people over the widely used SMS network in Kenya. Collections — winner of TigerLaunch 2012’s entrepreneurship track — is reinventing the OS X Finder by allowing access to files stored in the cloud in a native interface, an endeavor that it convincingly argues is actually fulfilling Steve Jobs’ vision in a way that Apple is failing to do.

These are only some of the great ideas at Princeton. I would love to help get Duma working or just get my hands on Collections because it’s so useful. The immediate question, for me at least, is how we can turn Princeton into an entrepreneurial leader.

There are great opportunities to do so. Princeton has many things going for it to qualify as a great place to start a business. The massive support and resources available at the University are invaluable. Our team found our first customers in another company at TigerLaunch, and we found invaluable advice from judges, mentors and audience members that seemed as interested as us in turning Princeton into a start-up hub.

In fact, Princeton’s lack of a strong entrepreneurial past gives new companies that start off at Princeton a sort of de-facto first mover advantage in attracting attention from investors, press and customers on the East Coast. Arguably what we need is one success story: one company that can provide the tipping point for a talented student body to take up the risk of starting companies at Princeton.

The founders of Tussle, a Princeton start-up that has grown in Tigerlabs, hold this exact opinion. In my conversations with them, it was evident that there was a great need for talent to help get these companies off the ground.

Some say that venture capitalists are interested in investing in people not just ideas or companies. There is no shortage of bright, driven people at Princeton. And, as we saw at TigerLaunch, students in nontechnical majors formed a large fraction of the teams. How can Princeton best harness this “people-power”?

If more Princeton classes worked to address external, societal problems, we might be able to do great things to help New Jersey, as was an idea floated in a recent discussion. And as a school with a strong grounding in the liberal arts, Princeton is at a great place to make this dream a reality because it gives its students a substantial grounding in the workings of the society around them.

And work on it has already begun. Every year many great projects from COS 333: Advanced Programming Techniques are marketed directly to customers or deployed at Princeton. The engineering department’s popular class EGR 495: Social Entrepreneurship has become a seed for many great companies that are out there solving real world problems and empowering the people with whom they do business. These problems go far beyond the Orange Bubble and even American shores.

Perhaps that is where our current competitive advantage lies: social entrepreneurship. The term on its own is vague, but has taken on the meaning of businesses that take on the initiative of creating social returns — as opposed to simply financial ones — or addressing issues of social change. Princeton has great potential to continue working in the service of all societies and entrepreneurship is one great way to do it. As we build on our collective resources, like we do at TigerLaunch, it will become clear that these new companies can operate as part of a large collaborative network. There is a lot more that a successful network of companies can tackle together than just start-ups in isolation.

Part of the reason why Princeton isn’t more renowned for its entrepreneurship has been the lack of a culture that fosters entrepreneurial initiatives. If this year’s developments are anything to go by, we might be on the right track to address this. Harnessing this Princeton power can only bring us closer to our communities and our larger goals as an institution.