Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Future of Entrepreneurship Looks Bright

Just a couple of months ago, I had never heard of The Kairos Society. However, I received an invitation from Kristen Santerian, president of the University of Pennsylvania chapter, to attend their annual summit and make some remarks about opportunities in emerging markets. So I did a little research. What I learned was amazing.

The Kairos Society is an entirely student-run organization whose aim is to promote entrepreneurship. It was started three years ago by Ankur Jain, another undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania.

Imagine the effort that goes into pulling off a multi-day conference in New York City. You have to find a venue, you have to make hotel arrangements, and you have to provide meals and transportation. There are professionals who make a living putting together conferences like this, yet all of it was done through the efforts of Ankur and a whole cadre of student volunteers. They even managed to arrange a dinner cruise around lower Manhattan for all the attendees, which I would estimate numbered about 500. All of America's top universities were represented. There were also delegations from all over the world including China, India, Hungary, Spain, and the U.K.

These students managed to pull in some of the most impressive speakers I have heard. The list included Carl Schramm, who heads the Kauffman Foundation, Peter Diamandis, founder of the X-Prize Foundation, Bruce Mosler of Cushman & Wakefield, and Admiral William Owens, former Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Even the ever-popular Maria Bartiromo of CNBC was on hand.

Without doubt, however, the most impressive portion of the conference was learning about the student's business ideas. And where do you think they demonstrated their ideas? On the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, of course.

A true entrepreneur sees a problem that needs to be addressed and tries to solve it. Or, he/she thinks of a product or service that people don't even realize they want, and develops it. Ideas are great, but they are not enough. As the old saying goes, ideas are a dime a dozen. Execution is the most critical step. People come up with great ideas all the time, but it takes a special talent to do something about it. An idea is useless unless it is put into action. The amazing part of the conference was that many of the ideas these students had come up with were actually being implemented.

Here are a few examples:

*Installing moisture sensors in farms that control irrigation systems. The students who came up with this plan estimate it will cut water usage by 10%.

*Streamlining the on-line college application process through a website that consolidates applications to all universities.

*Providing an on-line campus service network that allows students to advertise their services and find the services they need from other students. Want someone to do your laundry? Find them on-line. Students use credits purchased from PayPal to pay for services.

*Selling custom-made fixed-gear bicycles, a hot urban craze, at a substantial discount by directly connecting the buyer and manufacturer.

*Fish farms that go way beyond salmon.

Many nations, including the U.S., are currently dealing with difficult economic times. We may continue to struggle a while longer. However, hanging around these incredibly bright young students for a couple of days raised my level of confidence about the future. I suspect I just met some of the people who will be changing our lives for the better in the very near future.