College Entrepreneurs Part 1: Looking for A's in making money

Who might be the Mark Zuckerberg of tomorrow? Money College blogger LeeAnn Maton looks at five entrepreneurs in this two-part series on college students and their start-ups.

For college-aged entrepreneurs -- those brave students who balance boardrooms with backpacks and venture-planning with exam cramming -- the "real world" starts long before graduation day.

"Ten years ago, you didn't hear people talk about having a career as an entrepreneur," said Janet Srimaitis, managing director of the Arthur M. Blank Center for Entrepreneurship at Babson College, a Massachusetts business school that's top-ranked for entrepreneurship. The first academic entrepreneurship programs began to appear in the '70s, she said, but "now it's all over the news, and particularly with the recent economic downturn, people are looking to entrepreneurs to help with the recovery."

In that spirit, Money College presents its "fearless five," a group of college start-ups (and the brains behind them) in areas ranging from fashion to environmental science to better dorm room living who are making the business world take notice. Diploma not required.

Four startups, despite dyslexia

If you call up 22-year-old Babson grad Chris Jacobs (left) mid-afternoon on the cell phone that he admits is "glued to his hand," he'll likely be waist-deep in business -- for his fourth entrepreneurial startup since age nine.

It all started while he was swimming at a friend's house and spotted some landscapers doing yard work nearby. He offered to undercut their price -- all he needed was a tractor. "I ran over in my bathing suit, and was like, 'Dad, I need a tractor.'" Thankfully, Jacobs said, his dad had the sense not to let a 9 year old operate heavy machinery. So, after some negotiation the two settled on leaf-blowing, a business that had become a full-blown lawn care company by the time Jacobs and his brother Sean were in high school.

As kids, "we'd start leaf-blowing for free, and then say, 'Okay, now pay us,'" We didn't really understand business ethics or marketing at the time," Jacobs said, laughing. In college, he started a direct-mail advertising business -- similar to the family business his parents owned -- and employed an "army of kids" to pass out ads for grocery stores and pizza joints on campus mailboxes. He said that when Valpak, one of the nation's largest direct-mail companies, tried to woo him, he turned them down because he was making more money on his own. Still, he wanted an even bigger challenge.

Partnering with Tufts University engineering grads, Jacobs helped launch Emergent Energy Group, a profitable renewable energy consulting and development company that earned the team a nod from Businessweek as the top young entrepreneurs of 2009. But shortly before graduating this May, Jacobs got an offer he couldn't refuse -- he was offered one-third ownership of Honest Discounts, a group specializing in prescription drug savings cards that relocated from Texas to Boston just for him. Jacobs left Emergent and is enjoying his new line of work in healthcare.

But success in school didn't always come as easily, Jacobs admits. Diagnosed with severe dyslexia after he still couldn't read in third grade, "I really struggled through school," he says. "In fact, I struggled through college." It's a condition he has in common with his role model, Virgin CEO Richard Branson, but Jacobs' glass-half-full attitude refuses to let his dyslexia hold him back.

"A lot of entrepreneurs who are dyslexic are really good at figuring out ways to get around problems and recruit the proper resources," he said. "We look for help all the time. And in return, we help other people because we've been helped. I think it's a huge, huge part of why I'm an entrepreneur," Jacobs said. One day, he hopes to give back by starting educational ventures to help other dyslexic students and young entrepreneurs.

And don't try to tell him his relatively young age is a negative. "For the most part," he says, "the people who consider my age as a setback or a drawback, I wouldn't want to work with them anyway. I want the people who are looking for the next best thing."

Moving in and moving up

When Jon Gaulding moved into his Yale University dorm room freshman year, he found a little more than he expected -- an extra bedroom, for starters. But Gaulding and his roommate also quickly realized they weren't prepared to furnish a shared common room they had never seen before.

"At Yale, there's really no information available about what your dorm is going to look like," Gaulding said. "You really have no idea how many couches or chairs, or what size tables, TV or rugs you can actually fit until you get there."

The result? Move-in day morphed into "mad scramble" to outfit their new digs, he said. Inspired by his own experience, Gaulding and a team of friends are creating Moves by Design, an interactive website that would allow students to drag and drop standard-sized furniture into precise dorm room floor plans.

"It's very exciting to be moving to college, but at the same time it's a drastic life change," Gaulding said. "Part of the stress is not knowing where you're going to be living and what it's going to be like until you get there."

A recent graduate with a political science degree, Gaulding represents proof positive that entrepreneurship isn't limited to just the business school, and credits his liberal arts curriculum with teaching him how to "figure out what I don't know and know how to learn it." A side project for now, Gaulding hopes to launch a beta version of Moves by Design at Yale and local apartment buildings, and grow the website into a full-fledged business complete with targeted advertising.

"It's one of those things that doesn't seem like work to me because it's very thrilling to build something I can call my own, and create something from scratch," he said. "There's a great creative element to it."

Meet the rest of LeeAnn Maton's college entrepreneur all-stars in part two of her Money College report.

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