When Georgetown University professor and entrepreneur-in-residence Marc Steren decided to launch a social venture for enterprising high school students, he certainly was not looking to create another startup.
“I’ve had five different companies before. I wasn’t interested in starting another company,” Steren told Technical.ly about that moment in the summer of 2020.
Things instead went differently for Steren, who’s worked in the entrepreneurship departments of several colleges, and fellow professor John Jabara. After hearing various students’ success stories, like getting into their preferred colleges, Steren got a call from a friend who worked for a foundation. This friend pointed out how much students from underrepresented backgrounds could benefit from Steren and Jabara’s efforts.
“It was like an awakening that we are not doing enough to democratize the opportunity to either go to college or get a better-paying job,” Steren said. “So, we got the band together.”
Now, he and Jabara are the cofounders of University Startups, a Gaithersburg, Maryland company that assists students interested in entrepreneurship with job and college readiness. The startup partners with nonprofits, school districts and community colleges to help high school and college students learn startup skills, identify and prepare for job opportunities and complete college counseling. It also offers a mentorship program for community college pupils. So far, the startup has partnered with professors from Georgetown, Johns Hopkins, Cornell, University of Maryland, University of Pennsylvania and Syracuse University.
Steren has identified three main reasons why high school and early college students, especially those lacking access to resources, aren’t reaching their full entrepreneurship potential. He said many are not future-focused, be it for college or a job; they’re unaware of how their existing skills can translate into jobs; and, lastly, the fact that college counselors are often too overwhelmed to help with these issues.
“Our passion, and what we’re really about, is trying to change this trajectory to give them opportunity,” Steren said. “Not everyone goes to college and not everyone gets a job, but we want to show them all these [chances] to match their skills with these great opportunities. Whether it’s college, whether it’s community college, whether it’s a job — that’s something that we’re doing.”
The 20-person startup was founded in 2020. It since has been funded by Maryland government-created venture fund TEDCO. It was also selected for the first DC cohort of the Techstars accelerator this fall, and Steren said it’s helped about 2,500 students this year. With the help of TEDCO and Techstars, the company raised $1.1 million in total seed funding.
Steren and Jabara completed the raises in October, and are looking to raise again at the end of 2023. As the company keeps growing, he thinks there’s never been more of a need for students to get this education and job training.
And while he might have stumbled into University Startups, Steren said he found a passion for a necessary cause.
“We are at the right time of the right moment; We’re entrepreneurs, but we have education experience, and everyone believes in the mission to help unresourced students,” Steren said. “Anyone that needs assistance to have a better future, that’s what we’re focusing on.”
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