GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — In conjunction with the opening of their brand-new business school, and thanks to a generous alumnus, Calvin University is launching a unique program that will help students get their business ideas off the ground.
The Calvin University Startup Garage was seeded by a $500,000 donation from Jon VerLee, a 2007 graduate of CU.
VerLee is well-versed in what it takes to succeed as an entrepreneur. A decade ago, he was working at a local church, while developing software on the side. VerLee built an interactive, user-friendly software that helps churches keep track of their members, programming and scheduling, and eventually sold it.
“I started with a deep love for technology, but I finished with a deep appreciation for the impact that business can have in our culture and in our society,” said VerLee. “Last summer, I felt very blessed to be able to sell our company for an incredible amount and wanted to give back.”
His first call was to Calvin. VerLee wanted to find a way not just to seed student business ideas, but to also provide them with resources to thrive weeks, months, and years into their entrepreneurial journey. Beginning at the Startup Garage’s launch event Wednesday night, VerLee and his student leadership team will hear pitches from students inside and outside the business school, each one standing to get $2,000 to help launch their businesses.
“What’s unique about that is that there’s no equity take-in or intellectual property take-in,” he said. “In other words, the business is the students and solely the students.”
The goal of the Startup Garage is to create 100 thriving businesses over the next decade. Through CEO mentorship, recourse connection, and weekly speakers who’ve all had success with their own startups, the hope is that students will be equipped to hit the ground running directly after – or even before – graduation. They’ll learn how to approach entrepreneurship from a legal standpoint, a marketing standpoint, hiring and customer retention.
VerLee points to an old adage in the startup world that implores young entrepreneurs to “fail fast.” In other words, they aren’t turning down proposals simply based on projected success. They want students to chase far-fetched ideas before they leave the confines of business school.
“So often, students get told, ‘hey, work hard in school to get good grades so you can get a good job.’ And that’s great, we need people who get great jobs,” said VerLee. “However, there’s this whole other track of, learn so that you can start something brand new, and you can take a dream that you have and make it a reality in the form of a business. And that’s a message that students don’t hear nearly as often; people don’t hear nearly as often.”
Eventually, he’d like to open the startup program to people not affiliated with Calvin University at all. Even for students who aren’t pitching ideas, like sophomore marketing major Ashlynn Bailey, gaining experience through the group’s student leadership team is an invaluable experience. She’ll be working with the entrepreneurs to help market and grow their ideas.
“Calvin has provided a great resource for the students with a new school of business for us to work in and our club to meet in,” she said.
As for the types of business ideas the school is looking for, there’s really no hardline criteria for consideration.
“Nobody can know that,” said VerLee. “It’s inherent to the startup journey, which is part of the fun of it as well, because nobody really knows if it will work.”