Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016
As doctoral students in the Department of Psychology in Virginia Commonwealth University’s College of Humanities and Sciences, Michell Pope, Ph.D., and Jasmine Abrams, Ph.D., launched Research Unlimited, a fast-growing Richmond-area startup that designs and conducts research studies for nonprofit organizations and also recruits research study and clinical trial participants, particularly those in minority communities.
A key component of the company’s early success, Pope said, has been its ability to hire VCU students and recent graduates as employees and interns.
“We have hired recent VCU graduates as consultants and we have a couple of VCU student interns who are working for us. The training these students received at VCU has been really valuable to us,” she said. “Because VCU has such a great training program, the students who come out of there are not only familiar with research, they have great writing skills, they are very tech savvy, they have a good grasp of social media and they’re familiar with Richmond, its culture and its community. That’s all really important to us as a company.”
Research Unlimited is one of a growing number of startups launched by VCU students over the past two years that have gone on to hire other VCU students and recent graduates.
Mattiecemaria Greene, a senior psychology major, is working this semester as an intern with Research Unlimited, assisting with the recruitment of study participants, data collection and data entry.
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“My career goal is to work in research in psychology,” she said. “After taking some time off, I plan to apply to graduate school to pursue my master’s degree in psychology. [Working at Research Unlimited,] I am getting hands-on experience in research and hopefully with hard work and studying towards graduating and good GRE scores when I take the GRE test, this will give me an edge.”
In the last year alone, more than 40 full- and part-time positions were created by companies that took part in VCU’s Pre-Accelerator Program and startup internship program, with many of the positions being filled by VCU students and recent graduates.
“VCU has a very entrepreneurial student body, with over 50 percent of students interested in starting a company,” said Nicole Monk, director of VCU Innovation Economy in the Office of Research and Innovation. “We have a unique approach to innovation and entrepreneurship that focuses on giving every student, regardless of their major, access to resources, training and experiences that allow them to bring new ideas and innovation to fruition, and to make a real, measurable impact in RVA.”
Ultimate ‘Make it real’ experience
Many VCU students and recent graduates have found positions with VCU startups via VCU Career Services’ HireVCURams system, as well as through preparation with a career adviser or through VCU career fairs.
“I believe student-founded companies and organizations looking to bring on other students is the ultimate ‘Make it Real’ experience,” said Carrie Hawes, assistant director of employer and experiential development at VCU Career Services.
Job creation within VCU is “innovation at its finest,” she said.
“Being able to intern or work part-time for a startup gives students an excellent experience while in school,” Hawes said. “You gain exposure to multiple facets of the company, and really see what it takes to run an organization. Transferable skills such as leadership, being able to work in a team and developing a strong work ethic are top traits employers want in new hires. And our students are getting them because of these student startups.”
One venture that has made particularly good use of HireVCURams and VCU’s campus career fairs is IT4Causes, which was launched by Thomas Anderson while earning a graduate certificate in nonprofit management from VCU’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. IT4Causes provides information technology services to other small and mid-sized nonprofits.
Prior to attending VCU, Anderson worked at Capital One, where he led a large IT team. Outside of work, he would frequently volunteer with local nonprofits and noticed that many needed help with IT.
“I started thinking about what’s most important to me — and I decided that I really wanted to spend my time doing more in the community,” Anderson said. “Before, I was working at my day job to support my habit of volunteerism. For my new career, I decided I wanted to flip that all around.”
Anderson launched IT4Causes in October 2014 and has employed 10 VCU students as interns so far, including seven in the current semester. Some of them serve as IT staff, helping to provide IT4Causes’ nonprofit clients with IT solutions, thereby keeping costs as low as possible. Others have helped IT4Causes with its marketing, branding, name recognition, donor management and other functions.
“My favorite part about interning with IT4Causes was the networking and marketing aspect,” said Koren Dodd, a religious studies major in the School of World Studies who graduated in 2015. “It was great discovering all the nonprofits in the area and being able to show them a resource they had available. I also helped with some administrative tasks internally. I learned a lot of skills I was able to take with me to my future career.”
Thanks in part to her internship with IT4Causes, Dodd went on to launch her own insurance agency, the Chronicle Agency, after graduation. “Through my volunteering experience I realized financial literacy is a huge need,” she said. “I also realized I would rather be the boss than work for someone else.”
Jade Andrews, a VCU senior international relations major who is currently studying abroad in Morocco, worked as a marketing intern for IT4Causes, where she ran social media campaigns, assisted in fundraising and marketing events, updated databases, created newsletters and represented IT4Causes at weekly networking meetings, as well as performed many tasks involved with running a small to medium-size nonprofit.
“Working for IT4Causes provided me with many opportunities to interact with local nonprofits,” she said. “I’m interested in working within the social justice sector after graduation, so I was delighted to meet the leaders who are helping to improve our community.”
Getting off the ground
Urban Choice Mushroom Farm, which grows and sells gourmet mushrooms at Richmond-area farmers markets and supplies local restaurants and retailers, was launched by 2015 School of Business entrepreneurship program graduate Jake Greenbaum.
As the startup was getting off the ground, Greenbaum hired then-student Lindsay Hawk, who graduated from the School of the Arts in May, to help with sales and to handle social media and design duties.
“It’s great to provide opportunities for qualified individuals in the life sciences, engineering, business and the No. 1 public arts school,” Greenbaum said.
“I really enjoyed the challenge of working on a startup while at VCU,” Hawk added. “Urban Choice needed so much to get started, like graphics, a website, social media — and of course mushrooms!”
Think of Us, which aims to help youth in foster care transition out of the system and connect to education and the workforce, is another venture launched out of VCU that has employed a number of VCU students. Founded by Sixto Cancel while he was studying political science at VCU, Think of Us has raised more than $700,000, led an event at the White House and is working with the city of Santa Clara, California, through grants and contracts.
Brianna Ondris, a senior in the Department of Kinetic Imaging in the School of the Arts, works as a developer for the Think of Us platform’s mobile and web application.
“The experience has been very rewarding,” she said. “We have great mentors at Think of Us as well as an awesome, supportive team atmosphere. We get a lot of work done and within a short amount of time, I have learned a lot in terms of coding, programming and data structure. Think of Us has been, and continues to be, an awesome learning and professional experience because the work challenges me and continuously tests my skills while maintaining a positive and supportive environment.”
Working at Think of Us has provided Ondris with programming experience, she said, while also getting the opportunity to work at a startup with an important mission.
“It has been an influential experience and I have a hard time imagining myself working outside of Think of Us because they are working towards a goal to transform the broken system of foster care,” she said. “I can’t imagine working for any organization that doesn’t attempt to achieve the changes that Think of Us does.”
Glass Smith, an on-demand device repair service for smartphones and mobile devices, was the idea of co-founders Jordan Jez and Blue Crump, the latter of whom is pursuing a Master of Product Innovation from VCU’s da Vinci Center, which is a collaboration between the schools of the Arts, Business, Engineering and the College of Humanities and Sciences that advances innovation and entrepreneurship through cross-disciplinary collaboration.
“I started working on Glass Smith last spring semester,” Crump said. “I knew pretty quickly that I wanted Glass Smith to be my capstone project and it’s been my focus this semester.”
Glass Smith, he said, is like Uber for broken smartphones and is currently already serving customers and making repairs on 10 college campuses — VCU, Arizona State University, Texas A&M, Ohio State University, Auburn University, Virginia Tech, University of Virginia, University of Richmond, Virginia Union University and University of California, Berkeley.
We had over 450 applicants in one week, proving the demand for people interested in being a part of the side-gig economy without driving people around at 2 a.m.
Like Uber, Crump said, Glass Smith itself does not repair phones — it trains and certifies a network of independent technicians to repair phones. The technicians, dubbed “Smiths,” get trained on a learning management system and can then download a mobile app from the company that allows them to receive, manage and schedule repair requests.
“And like Uber drivers, they’re all independent contractors who set their own schedule,” Crump said. “We send them all the tools and an ongoing supply of replacement screens and parts. Our Smiths average $35 an hour, and when we posted the positions for eight schools in August, we had over 450 applicants in one week, proving the demand for people interested in being a part of the side-gig economy without driving people around at 2 a.m.”
Glass Smith currently employs one VCU student as an intern and will soon hire another as a part-time worker.
“We all get our own coffee around here, so the intern role plays a pretty significant part in our business,” Crump said. “Logan has conducted over 300 surveys for Glass Smith, and the information really helps us to better understand customer needs. I can’t emphasize enough the value of having someone focus on gathering and analyzing data.”
Additionally, he said, Glass Smith is benefiting from being located on campus with access to VCU students because its focus is college campuses.
“As Glass Smith grows as a Richmond-based company, we feel so fortunate to engage VCU students and alumni,” he said. “There’s a design element to Glass Smith’s brand that we think resonates with the VCU creative community. We hope to continue to develop those brand elements so that we can attract the best VCU talent.”
Hiring talented VCU students lets startup owners like Crump give back to the VCU community right away by helping educate the next wave of students — it’s mutually beneficial for all involved.
“VCU student entrepreneurs hiring other students is proof that we are not only producing the next generation of entrepreneurs and job creators, but generating highly employable intrapreneurs that feed Richmond’s growing innovation economy,” Monk said.
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