Before Blackstone Launchpad came to Philadelphia University, the East Falls school didn’t have any program anchoring entrepreneurship on campus, said Zoe Selzer McKinley, director of PhilaU’s Blackstone Launchpad.
The $3 million foundation-backed program, also on Temple’s campus, offers entrepreneurship-focused events and mentoring for student (and sometimes faculty and alumni) founders.
“There’s a big gap in going from creating something that is wonderful and how to take it to market,” said McKinley, who used to run social entrepreneurship accelerator GoodCompany Group.
That’s the kind of coaching she offers her students, and that’s why she says Blackstone Launchpad is an important presence on campus.
“Students are incredibly bright and motivated but if they don’t have an actual pathway to understand [how to take something to market] it can be very daunting and they won’t try,” she said.
We took this chance to catch up with McKinley, as she finishes her first full year running Blackstone Launchpad, and also got a preview of what she’ll be talking about at the Rise.
At Rise, you’re going to be on a panel about how to create a business community that cares. Corporate philanthropy has been around for a while. What’s new about the conversation today?
The big difference is that at this stage having a business that just does business and doesn’t take into regard the community we live in is becoming increasingly unacceptable to workers. It’s not really viable to only donate money when you’ve gotten rich.
People are developing an expectation that you create the good in how you do business as well as having a philanthropic arm, regardless of whether you’re a big business to a small startup. We need to be accountable in all stages of business and not just seek profit and give back.
Do you see that mindset with your students?
It’s something I’m seeing more and more in college students, that they feel that they don’t have to check their morals at the door to have a job. Students coming to the Blackstone Launchpad are interested in social enterprise even if they don’t think of it as social entrepreneurship. They’re interested in the impact their product will have on the world. It’s becoming baked into the fact of what entrepreneurship means now.
What kinds of startups are you seeing? What departments are they coming from?
It’s a lot of physical and consumer goods, including fashion and textile products, not a lot of software. I can’t talk about a lot of them because many are pre-launch. One student developed a crutch for amputees. They tend to be focused on sustainability.
The students come from everywhere but many from our [undergraduate and masters] industrial design program, our business program and our sustainability masters program.
All our design students have to complete a capstone program before they graduate and many of them design a product during that time. Last spring people came to me after their capstone because they wanted to commercialize what they had made. But we ran out of time with some, as the pressures of leaving school and getting a job kick in. So now I’m focused on helping earlier in the process.
Tell us about something you’re proud of.
I’m heading to New York later this month for the first convening of all the Blackstone Launchpads. That event will feature a student pitch day. I nominated four student and faculty companies and [Wash Cycle Laundry CEO and PhilaU lecturer] Gabriel Mandujano was the only one from Philly to be chosen. Eleven of the 15 Blackstone Launchpads around the country had students selected for the pitch day.
What do you have planned next?
I really want to build a robust set of programs that cater to the individual departments, like the many types of architecture programs we have here. These programs would answer the question, what is entrepreneurship in that flavor feel like? They would identify industry-specific challenges.
I also want to identify ways for students to do more prototyping and micro-manufacturing because we have the facilities for it.