Student network facilitates ‘dream team’ developments

Paul Mayne // Western News

Western students Alex Zarifoglu, left, and Justin Tang hope to bring a niche community of student innovators together with the Founders Network, a student-led campus community for aspiring tech entrepreneurs.

Justin Tang and Alex Zarifoglu met in residence when they first arrived at Western. Today, the young business partners hope their friendship will represent only their first successful ‘start-up’ as they look to grow the Founders Network, a student-led campus community for aspiring tech entrepreneurs.

Tang, a second-year Social Science student looking to add Ivey Business School to his future, said the network addresses a void he recognized, giving students the knowhow and the means to put their ideas into action.

“We’re both interested in tech. We realized there was a significant gap and lack of support for groups that support tech entrepreneurship on campus,” Tang said. “There are a lot of people at Western who have a lot of great start-up ideas, but nobody knows about them.

“Our goal is to get more people interested, and into, entrepreneurship.”

Founders Network is a student-led community for aspiring tech entrepreneurs at Western, with the goal of fostering a tech startup culture on campus. Be it through its website, foundersnetwork.ca, or through workshops and mentorship programs, the group brings together resources from a number of diverse channels to help other student gets their tech ideas off the ground.

For example, the group, in partnership with Nspire Innovation Network and Western Student Entrepreneurship Centre, hosted the WesternU: Startup Showcase 2014 during Global Entrepreneurship Week last fall. The event attracted more than 200 people to hear from 10 startups founded by Western alumni.

Created by, and for, students, the Founders Network is not a student club under the auspice of the University Students’ Council (USC). It is a standalone non-profit organization, although all members of the current executive team are students at Western.

With more than 300 members to date – covering first- through fourth-year students, affiliated colleges and 13 different majors – the early success hasn’t been a surprise, Tang said.

“It’s a community of people who want to start their own company,” said Zarifoglu, a second-year Science student. “We are creating a community where these people can meet. We have mentorship programs and lead them towards the goals they are seeking.”

Western and Fanshawe College recently secured a $1.45 million contribution from the Ontario government to develop a new Student Entrepreneurship Centre on each campus, with the goal of introducing students to the opportunities associated with starting and owning a business. This program builds upon the success and entrepreneurial spirit of BizInc., a student-led entrepreneur development initiative that began three years ago through a partnership between the USC and Fanshawe Student Union.

While both Tang and Zarifoglu see merit in the Student Entrepreneurship Centre, they desired a specific avenue to grow tech ideas further.

Tang added running a tech venture is seldom an individual pursuit. The community of students Founders Network has already built can connect diverse ideas with those from background to assemble the “dream team” for success.

“You have to think about entrepreneurship as a viable career path,” Tang said. “You can work on your own project while you’re still in school. That’s really the best time because there are so many folks with different backgrounds. You can be in Social Science and start a health app, with a Computer Science major to create it, get a business major to market it and Health Sciences major to help with the content.”

Through Founders Network’s mentorship program, made up of individuals from the tech industry, professors and prominent Western alumni, members can tap into the vast experience and knowledge by seeking advice on any potential concerns their start-up will face.

“Look at Google or Facebook. They were all started by university students while still in school. So, why can’t you be that guy who comes up with those ideas?” Tang said. “Western has such a diverse background that if you know if something you have is cool, you want to make it happen.”