This article, about the donor-supported UGA Kickstart Fund, was originally posted to UGA Today and written by J. Merritt Melancon.
In the world of venture capital there are big names, there are small names, and there are hometown heroes. In Athens, one important source of venture capital is run by University of Georgia students.
For the past two years, the UGA Kickstart Fund — UGA’s student-led startup fund — has distributed more than $70,000. Housed in the UGA Entrepreneurship Program in the Terry College of Business, the donor-supported fund gives student-led business startups the chance to expand their fledgling ideas by raising $1,000 to $5,000 in capital.
“It’s inspiring to see students who are so passionate about their projects and their ideas and how hard they’ve worked,” said Claire Drosos, the 2019-20 chair of the UGA Kickstart Fund Student Board and senior majoring in finance.
This year the UGA Kickstart Fund granted more than $30,000 to seven companies to help develop their businesses, including:
- Ryze, a company helping investors analyze and advance their bitcoin portfolio founded by management information systems and statistics student Striker Komanduri.
- Credit Conscious Network, a mobile-based credit education and repair service founded by accounting master’s degree student Lashundra Bedell.
- iVolunteer, a tech nonprofit connecting volunteers to volunteer projects worldwide, founded by public administration master’s student Nipuna Ambanpola.
- Rare Combinations, a company that developed a system for remotely and automatically testing the alcohol content of fermenting kombucha tea, founded by biomechanical engineering student Nick Robertson.
- Baylee Bakes, a custom sugar cookie company founded by advertising student Baylee Marsh.
- Sweet Pea Boutique, a clothing boutique in downtown Athens founded by public relations student Abbey Goodson.
- Curlystrands, an online natural hair care presence and beauty-influence brand launched by management student Natasha Camile Robinson.
The fund, established in 2017 with the financial support of private donors, exists in the broad ecosystem of UGA’s Entrepreneurship Program, which sponsors multiple programs to help students refine and fund their innovative ideas. But it’s distinct because it gives students a chance to improve their pitches in front of other students at Studio 225, UGA’s student center for entrepreneurship.
Pitching to the Kickstart Fund board has little downside, Drosos said. The board helps refine the student’s business plans between the initial application period and the pitch. If the board decides not to fund a business, it gives entrepreneurs the feedback needed to retool their plan or the support they need to start again, Drosos said.
The idea for a student-run startup fund is based on similar programs at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California at Berkeley, said Cali Brutz, lecturer and associate director of the UGA Entrepreneurship Program.
“The thing that makes it unique to UGA is that this is truly a student-run initiative,” said Brutz, who provides oversight to the Kickstart Fund. “Our roles as faculty are not as decision-makers in the process but as guides for the students.
“The students truly handle the entire process, from marketing the fund to accepting applications, to viewing the pitches and deciding who receives the funding, to establishing metrics to judge the success of the selected companies. As much we possibly can, we sit back and watch the wheels turn,” she said.
The student board consists of seven voting board members and seven associate board members, who take the reins the following year. The voting members recruit and vet the associate members.
For board members such as Drosos, sitting on the board is educational, but also opens members’ eyes to the world of venture capital and startups. It’s a different feeling than taking an internship at a well-established company, and many students find that type of startup experience is right for them.
The process is built to maximize learning opportunities for student entrepreneurs and the student board, Brutz said.
“Not only are we providing funds for student businesses, but I think the larger experience that our student board goes through — the process of assessing the opportunities — is very valuable in terms of learning,” she said.