Enabling Student Entrepreneurship: Sam Kirschner and Jeremy Fiance’s Free Ventures

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Sam Kirschner (left), Jeremy Fiance (right)
Sam Kirschner (left), Jeremy Fiance (right)

In this series of Q&As, past winners of the BigIdeas@Berkeley social innovation contest describe how they developed their ideas and are implementing them.

In 2013, Sam Kirschner (Statistics, 2014) and Jeremy Fiance (Interdisciplinary Studies, 2014) won in the Improving Student Life category for Free Ventures. Free Ventures is a UC Berkeley student group that provides guidance and resources for student-launched companies. Its goal is to help students push forward their early-stage ideas by launching a product, obtaining funding, or getting into an established incubator.

Where did you get the idea for your organization?
The idea stemmed from a series of conversations among leaders of various organizations at UC Berkeley about the lack of an innovation ecosystem. Most resources were hard to find, didn’t support undergraduates, or didn’t really help students work on ideas for projects or companies outside of class. Students also lacked a central space to engage in this kind of work, not to mention a program or funding source to support them. We studied a dozen universities across the country to see how they solved this problem themselves, and built out the Free Ventures framework from there.

How has the idea evolved since you started?
We’ve seen our impact grow beyond the population we initially focused in on. We quickly realized that the problems we were solving were being felt by the entire student population, not just undergraduates. Although graduate students were never an intended population for the program, we’ve worked with MBAs, and students from the School of Information, Optometry, and even PhDs in Computer Science. We also saw a huge need for a similar, less structured program for companies early in the process of growing and proving a product. We started Free University, a program meant to precede participation in Free Ventures, and provide many of the same benefits but with less structure, commitments, and expectations.

What have been the biggest challenges in turning your social impact idea into a reality?
For us, the University’s bureaucracy has been a constant challenge. We’ve found time and time again that although the school has the best of intentions, many things don’t move quickly on campus. When trying to work as efficiently as possible, we’ve had to find many ways to be scrappy and know when to interface with the university and when not to.

What were your biggest mistakes? If you could do one thing over again, what would it be?
We wish we had started earlier with the work we were doing on campus. By the time we deeply understood the problem we were addressing and could formulate a solution, we were already at the end of our junior year. Getting exposure to holes in the campus ecosystem and finding ways to create new initiatives takes a lot of time.

Where did you get your most useful advice?
Other schools that had already dealt with this problem were an incredible asset to us. Programs solving similar challenges on their campus in terms of supporting young entrepreneurs have been implemented at Stanford, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania, just to name a few. The students who helped form and run those programs gave us early validation, ideas of what works and what doesn’t, and thoughts as to how we could build an organization tailored to our own campus.

How did you find time to develop your project?
Free Ventures became our core extracurricular activity. Many hours a week went into moving the program forward, and I dropped pretty much everything else but school and keeping myself healthy and happy for a while. When you really care about something, you find time and make it work.

How did you grow a team?
This is one of the hardest things to do. We initially found students interested in solving the same problems on campus, and had them join us. From there, word spread about what we were doing, and things grew organically. Finding young people interested in working on entrepreneurship who are highly competent, hardworking, and aren’t already busy with other things has been hard. We’re always looking for new ways to find strong students to work with us, and love it when people reach out to hear more.

How did you get funding and resources?
Big Ideas was our first major breakthrough for funding, and it was critical in our development. It was just the start for us, given the scope of what we wanted to do. Finding companies to provide us with free resources has been a process of steadily building partnerships and credibility. Working with companies like Amazon, Google, WeWork, and Alchemy API has been incredibly fulfilling. We’ve also been lucky to get private donations from alumni, as well as amazing sponsors for our semesterly Demo Day.

At what point did you know your project had wings?
Just four months after launching, one of the companies in our first class raised a seed round of half a million dollars, with the first investment from Dorm Room Fund. After that we were all like, “Whoa, this is real.” It really put things into perspective and reminded us that we were actually giving these students a huge boost in what they were doing.

What do social entrepreneurs most need from the university to flourish?
The university has a lot to offer in terms of validating an idea, building legitimacy, and getting off the ground. Being associated with UC Berkeley alone is such a huge accomplishment in the eyes of many people, and the access we have to brilliant minds and change-makers here is incredible. Reach out to faculty who can be your champions, check out programs like the Social Innovator On-Ramp, Free Ventures, and countless others that can help be a guiding light and sandbox to test things.

What advice would you give to budding social entrepreneurs?
Many things comes down to hard work in the end. It sounds super cliché, but it is really clear that the more time you put in, the more things fall into place. People see that you are dedicated, you get more exposure for what you’re working on, you find more inroads to getting money, and you generally build more momentum.

To learn more about Free Ventures, visit their website at http://freeventures.org, and feel free to email free@berkeley.edu to find out how you can help the team running Free Ventures.