Entrepreneur awards hope to crown the next Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg of FacebookDo you spend more time scribbling down your business plan than taking notes in class? You're not alone. Young people are among a growing group of entrepreneurs who aren't waiting for a diploma in hand to create their own job opportunity.

"Frankly because of the high rates of unemployment particularly among young people, there are more people who think, 'What do I have to lose?'" said entrepreneur Jonathan Ortmans. "A lot of the time these new start-up ventures are things they do with friends and a laptop. The cost of infrastructure has gone down so much that it's easier to do it with less risk."

Not only did Ortmans start his first of three companies at the age of 19, but he now serves as a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation and is president of Global Entrepreneurship Week. Nov. 15 marks the beginning of GEW where 103 nations have formally committed to foster this growing trend of student entrepreneurship with a series of competitions, challenges, tournaments, mentoring sessions and speed networking. Ortmans estimates there will be 40,000 global events joining together 10 million entrepreneurial enthusiasts. In the United States, 333 universities are participating.

"It used to be 15 or 20 years ago when young people wanted to change the world, they couldn't do it through the marketplace because the marketplace is often defined by companies and people didn't really want to go and work for a large company," said Ortmans. "They had different visions for how to make the world a better place, but I think what we've seen now is the sort of start-up culture that has brought in a whole new generation of talent."

According to Ortmans, the U.S. saw 550,000 start-ups per month in 2009 -- the highest in 14 years.

The Global Student Entrepreneur Awards highlight students who have transformed inspiration into enterprise. In a competition that started with 1,800 students from across the globe, a panel of 60 judges will crown a "dorm room entrepreneur" from 30 finalists in the Global Finals in Kansas City during Global Entrepreneurship Week. The winner receives $150,000 in cash and services to grow their business. Sounds like the makings of a reality TV show I'd like to watch.

Recent Yale University graduate Rich Littlehale will serve on the panel of judges for this year's competition. Littlehale received second place in the GSEA Awards last year for his company, YouRenew.com, which facilitates recycling and re-marketing of old electronics. Littlehale told Money College that he benefited most from the connections he made through the awards.

"Whenever you start a business, it is really important to get feedback," said Littlehale. "It's not easy to balance things while you're still in school but having that support of people who have been through it before improves your chances of success."

Before founding YouRenew.com in 2008, he started Party for a Cause Foundation, a national non-profit which encouraged students to throw on-campus benefit events for charity. He also created a web app called wheremymoneygoes.com that he said is "just for fun." These ventures have helped make Littlehale a serial entrepreneur at the mere age of 23.

Littlehale's participation in Global Student Entrepreneur Awards helped encourage this DIY-spirit and he called the awards "energizing."

"It's a crash course in business and personal development," he said. "Classes are great, but at the end of the day, starting a business is a lot more challenging and as a result, you learn a lot more about yourself."

Littlehale majored in history, not business, in college – an increasing trend among student entrepreneurs, according to Ortmans.

"Most entrepreneurs are not coming out of business school," said Ortmans. "They've just got innovative ideas and it's turning out to be a growing part of college culture."

This ripe opportunity for student entrepreneurs is one Ortmans wished he had when he started his first company between high school and college.

"I didn't know what to do because it didn't occur to me for a second that while I was in college, I could run a business," he said. "Now it's a lot more of a blurry line. There's an accessible, low-cost culture that makes it easy for you to try something out."

Stay tuned for the winners of this year's Global Student Entrepreneurship Awards and start thinking about how you are going to take that business plan from a doodle to a multi-million dollar company. No pressure.
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