The 4 Things Entrepreneurs Want from their Alma Maters

wood-1007668_1920.jpg

I’ve been in higher education for more than a decade, and in that time I’ve worked with 100’s of entrepreneurs, startup employees, technology execs and other innovators.

My job is to connect them — often to reconnect them — to the place where the foundations of their entrepreneurial success are laid. I re-engage emotional ties, connect them to the campus and its assets, and ensure their relationship with their alma mater is relevant and valuable to them where they are now — long past the initial period of learning and fond memories, and beyond just their continuing social connections to college friends.

All of my relationships are nano-startups, with each “customer” interested in different “products” to address different pain — and passion — points.

I’ve distilled my approach to a set of key principles that have allowed me to bring some scale to a highly tailored and individualized business. Today I’ll focus on what I call the Rule of 4.

The Rule of 4
There are only four things any entrepreneur wants or needs from her alma mater: Recruiting, Networking, Visibility and Special Experiences.

That’s it. Everything ultimately comes back to these four things.

If universities construct their engagement opportunities using the Rule of 4, they will increase the value they bring to alumni entrepreneurs and startup employees, and value is what will keep busy entrepreneurs connected.

Recruiting

Building a team is essential to any new startup, and universities are a constantly renewing pipeline of talent at multiple levels.

Recruiting top talent is always tough. Competition is fierce. Early career professionals have less experience evaluating opportunities and are still formulating their career goals. This presents significant marketing and ‘customer education’ challenges for innovative companies recruiting on campus.

For the higher ed team seeking to support companies with alumni ties, finding ways to raise a company’s profile among students or to facilitate connections with jobseekers can be huge. Don’t only think of career fairs, either — consider collecting resumes from a student group, reaching out to a professor in a relevant research lab, or simply keeping an informal list of jobseekers that you can share. Make it a habit to ask about talent needs when meeting with alumni and cross check it with that list. Be discreet, and use the info as appropriate to the situation, of course.

Networking

Often, alumni events follow a tried-and-true format: bring a leader from campus, a panel of students, or a famous alum, and build the event around those individuals’ content. That works well with many segments of the alumni community, but for entrepreneurs and other innovators — there is almost no content more valuable than the chance to connect with each other…and with investors.

Innovators gravitate toward each other for mentoring, idea exchange, fundraising, etc. A university cannot always directly provide these things from its base of assets, but it can facilitate them by acting as a convener.

For entrepreneurs and other innovators — there is almost no content more valuable than the chance to connect with each other.

Targeted meetups are a no-brainer, but also consider asking precisely how you can help an alum 1:1. If you’re an entrepreneur, ask for intros to other alumni who meet specific needs for you or your company.

Double opt-in intros are almost always appreciated — do not hesitate to use this technique and learn from your results to make future intros even more relevant. You won’t always get a hit, but sometimes valuable connections are made. Here’s how to do the double opt-in, from one of my favorite sources of innovation news and analysis, CB Insights.

Visibility

Visibility for an alum’s products, services, or personal journey is easy and cost-effective to deliver. You have an alumni base of thousands who are invested in the success of your institution and their fellow alums — use it!

Real estate on your official website or in official publications too hard to secure? Start a Medium channel or Twitter/Instagram feed! Not sure how best to make it worth your time and effort? Experiment with listicles, Q&As, quick alumni profiles or full blown blog posts! Don’t have time to blog regularly? Don’t let that stop you. Start small — maybe by updating your LinkedIn status to call attention to an alum’s work. You will most certainly learn something, and this will help you understand what kind of content you are able to produce regularly, and what resonates with your audience.

While there are legitimate concerns about being overly promotional, think about it this way: provide information, not just promotion. Celebrate wins, explain an alumnus’ startup journey, talk about the role your school played in that journey, provide advice for current students. Craft your call to action carefully — you might even encourage readers to simply subscribe to your newly created Medium channel for more content like this!

(Above) Our @DartmouthWest Twitter feed calls out news of interest to alumni in the west, with a special emphasis on sharing news and accomplishments of our large entrepreneurial community in the region.

Special Experiences

At the end of the day, alums want to feel connected with their universities. Universities want the same thing. In Higher Ed, we often create unique moments for donors — but may reserve this special effort for alumni who have already donated at a given level.

There are times during the startup lifecycle when its founders and employees may make real financial tradeoffs as they grow the company, even as the company’s future becomes more secure.

Consider whether there are ways you can steward their demonstrated commitment to the university, or honor the other forms of capital (mentoring, volunteering with their class, judging pitch competitions, making referrals, etc) that entrepreneurs often give so generously.

At UC Berkeley, we purchased a small block of inexpensive tickets to a home basketball game, and invited our innovators to join us on the court during a timeout while we celebrated Cal entrepreneurship and innovation. This was easy for us to hook up, and offered our folks (some of whom brought along their kids) a genuinely special experience.

So, when connecting with alumni in startups, remember the Rule of 4:

There are only four things any entrepreneur wants or needs from her alma mater: Recruiting, Networking, Visibility and Special Experiences.

By keeping the lens focused on the Rule of 4 — the four things any entrepreneur needs from his/her alma mater — Higher Ed can more meaningfully connect with alumni innovators, and amplify all of the benefits that come from these relationships.

By keeping the lens focused on the Rule of 4 — the four things any entrepreneur needs from his/her alma mater — Higher Ed can more meaningfully connect with alumni innovators, and amplify all of the benefits that come from these relationships.