Learn How to Find Your Alumni Entrepreneurs

Engaging alumni in the startup world can fuel philanthropy, innovation, and more. But where do you find them?


You’ve got alums who are working in up-and-coming startups. Just watch, they’ll have a big financing round, launch a new product, or graduate from Y Combinator with much fanfare. When this happens, you may or may not learn about their connection to your university or college. Are you missing opportunities to connect with alumni entrepreneurs?

Chances are, your database isn’t great at tracking alumni in the startup world. They may change jobs or residences more frequently, and often don’t have time to update their contact info for their alma maters. If they’re not giving annually, it’s even more likely you’ll lose track of them. 

This can be a drag on your fundraising efforts and hamstring the success of entrepreneurship initiatives on your campus. 

Universities — maybe yours? — have poured millions of dollars into entrepreneurship centers, incubators, and staffing in the last decade. Fully activating the alumni entrepreneurial network helps to protect those investments. 

Yes, already-successful alumni show up on your radar. But this is a fraction of your total alumni innovator base — and entrepreneurial networks offer more value as they grow and connections increase. So it’s not enough to engage only the big names.

That means it’s critical to connect with entrepreneurial graduates early in their venture careers. Here’s how to start building your list. 

1. Invest in a LinkedIn Premium Membership

You’re probably already familiar with this platform. If not, I recommend investing in a premium membership. Premium memberships give you broader search options and the ability to reach more people with messaging. Strengthen your own profile and keep it current, adding connections among your colleagues and your alumni partners.

When I came to Dartmouth and began to assess our potential for pre-exit philanthropy among entrepreneurs, one of my first, broadest inquiries was a LinkedIn search. Through LinkedIn, I’ve found that ~5.6% of Dartmouth’s total living alumni consider themselves “founders” or “entrepreneurs.” Not all are running high-velocity startups of course, but this tells me that many of our alums are builders. A basic search like this can help you begin to understand and tell your school’s story of innovation. 

As you refine your list, LinkedIn’s social tools come into play. My colleague Linnell Bickford in the Thayer School of Engineering here at Dartmouth expertly uses LinkedIn to power new connections with entrepreneurs. Here’s her most recent success story:

I needed to reach out to about 50 entrepreneurial alumni, and wanted to know a little more about them to customize my messages, so I used LinkedIn. In some cases, I found more recent employment information on LinkedIn than in our database, and was able to update those records. I sent InMails, hoping to make sure I reached their primary account. Of 45 requests, I got 34 responses, for a 75% response rate.

Now that we’re connected, I can post items of interest and it will show up in their feeds. Plus, I can see some of their connections. I think you have to find out which communication channels people like to use. It’s not a matter of one or the other, but a combination of several.

2. Use AngelList to home-in on your entrepreneurial population

AngelList is one of the biggest communities of startup players on the internet. It began as a way to break the traditional model for raising startup funding, and has become an entire entrepreneurial ecosystem. Startups can raise money, recruit talent, and launch the company entirely through AngelList’s products.

You can sort your alumni by location, role, class year, and more. More than a list-building tool, AngelList can help you understand how quickly your entrepreneurial population is growing. You can monitor new startups as they come into being, understand the technologies they’re using, and help to broker connections for them. 

For a more detailed analysis on how to use AngelList alongside other sources to better model your institution’s ecosystem, read this: Remixing AngelList, PitchBook & the Ivy League.

3. Round out your list-building with Crunchbase

Crunchbase is a crowdsourced database of startup funding and associated individuals. A startup’s profile page will break out its funding rounds, lead investors, primary employees, and more. Crunchbase offers both free and premium services, with saved search options and many selection criteria. It’s a lower-cost alternative to services like PitchBook or CB Insights, but be aware that you trade some accuracy for that lower cost. On balance, I find Crunchbase to be a valuable resource.

Start with list-building— but finish with relationships

Once you know where to find your alumni entrepreneurs, you can prioritize your outreach. Base your next steps on what you need to do in order to deeply understand your alumni entrepreneurial network, and to achieve full activation of that network. Don’t forget that referrals, while difficult to scale, are precious. 

Beyond helping you wrap your arms around this population, these resources can help you gauge the size and shape of your ecosystem overall. They can help you understand its influencers and up-and-comers, and see where you can add genuine value. 

Most importantly, you’ll be in a better position to engage these alumni, and build relationships that drive outcomes in philanthropy, innovation, and more. What are your thoughts?

You have to find out which communication channels people like to use. It’s not a matter of one or the other, but a combination of several.
— Linnell Bickford, Thayer School of Engineering