Source: US State of Connecticut
“As a college student, you get so many crazy ideas, and there’s a million reasons why they shouldn’t happen,” says Noah Sobel-Pressman ’21 (BUS).
“But if they actually happen, it could have a real, lasting impact.”
Sobel-Pressman’s crazy idea came after a LinkedIn post passed through his feed. The post mentioned a program at another school that gave students the opportunity to investigate and invest in startup companies.
The idea was intriguing to Sobel-Pressman, a budding venture capitalist himself from West Hartford, and a member of the inaugural cohort of Werth Innovators, student ambassadors for entrepreneurship and innovation at UConn’s Peter J. Werth Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.
“I’ve always been interested in entrepreneurship and startups and in venture capital particularly because, instead of going deep on one idea, you get to take a bunch of different ideas and help support them,” says Sobel-Pressman. “When I saw this post, I immediately thought of the Student Managed Fund at UConn, and that’s kind of how I got the idea. I thought, we already have some similar programs, why not bring this to UConn?”
After connecting with The Werth Institute’s director, David Noble, the idea began to take shape, and UConn’s Student Venture Fund was born.
“A great venture capitalist learns how to say, ‘No,’” Noble says. “I told Noah ‘no’ for a couple of years before he was able to build up the infrastructure necessary to be successful. During that time, we have seen an explosion of alumni engagement. When we talk about this opportunity, every alum that looks at this program has one response: ‘I’m in.’ I’m so proud of the work that Noah and others have done to make this happen. He gets a lot of the credit for being first, but we both know he wouldn’t be successful if not for the contribution of so many other students and alumni.”
Where the School of Business’s Student Managed Fund turns teams of students into traders and portfolio managers, the goal of the Student Venture Fund is for students to try their hands as investors. The two-semester course has been offered for the first time this fall and involves the experiential learning of investing in startup companies with real money.
“Initially, we will go out, find startups that are interesting, and then do analysis on them to see if they would be a good fit, make sure that everything’s OK – evaluate the team, evaluate the idea, evaluate the market, look at everything,” says Sobel-Pressman, who will serve as the managing partner for the inaugural class. “We’ll then proceed to the next step, which is talking with advisors and alumni and mentors, and they’ll coach us through this whole process. And then, at the end of the day we make a decision on whether or not to invest. If a company is selected, we’ll invest $25,000.”
The Werth Institute, the School of Business, and the UConn Foundation are currently raising the funds from leading alumni in the private capital industry. The first cohort of students is expected to include 10 to 15 mostly undergraduate students.
The initial class is looking at potential investments in startup companies operating in three industries: insurance, sustainability, and education.
“We definitely have a preference for startups with a UConn connection, both students and alumni,” says Sobel-Pressman, “and we picked some interesting industries that have local ties as well. There are going to be students in the fund who are more science focused, there are going to be people more liberal arts focused, and people more business focused. So, by having all three different areas of interest, we’re really able to balance it out, and because of the diversification, that makes it less risky to invest.”
While the Student Venture Fund lives in the School of Business, Sobel-Pressman says that building a cross-disciplinary team is one of the fund’s goals, and that students from all backgrounds and majors were encouraged to apply.
“I think people may be intimidated at first because it seems like you have to have business knowledge, but really you don’t,” he says. “These are skills that anyone can learn; really, all you need to succeed is to be curious.”
Noble says the goal of the course is to offer students a hands-on, transformational learning experience that teaches valuable skills and prepares students for potential career options after graduation. Carl Lejuez, UConn’s provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, agrees.
“This is a powerful example of Life-Transformative Education at UConn. We are cultivating an environment that encourages students to be entrepreneurial and creative, as they explore their interests and develop their skills for their post-graduation careers,” Lejuez says. “I am so pleased to see our students and faculty develop this opportunity, with alumni support, to take education beyond the page and into a hands-on initiative.”
Sobel-Pressman says one of the benefits of the Werth Institute is that it provides opportunities for student ideas and innovations to become realities.
“When I first came forward with this idea, no one really had to take me seriously,” he says. “But David saw something in the idea, and that it could be interesting. He was able to work with me, and coach me, and connect me with alumni who are in the industry, and help me really refine my idea and get it to this place, where it’s an actual thing that can happen. That’s one of the things that The Werth Institute is doing great – it’s taking these crazy ideas from a bunch of college students and giving them a platform to really try out these ideas and have a chance to make an impact on UConn’s community.”
To learn more about entrepreneurship opportunities through The Werth Institute, visit entrepreneurship.uconn.edu.