Columbia Business School may not be synonymous with entrepreneurship on the East Coast, but that’s about to change if the new director of the Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center, Vince Ponzo, has his way. Ponzo, who assumed the role in November 2013, has already set the wheels in motion for a strategic plan that, if successful, will position Columbia not only at the center of business in New York City, but at the center of entrepreneurship in Silicon Alley, the East Coast’s answer to the West Coast’s Valley.
To this end, Ponzo has been a pivotal force behind securing dozens of student incubator spaces in New York City and launching #StartupColumbia, the university’s inaugural entrepreneurship conference. He’s also exploring course offerings ranging from classes in human-centric design to digital literacy.
Ponzo’s main aim is to expand the footprint of entrepreneurship at the B-school. “I want to disassociate entrepreneurship from people just thinking about it as starting a business, especially in today’s world where industries come and go, companies come and go, and careers come and go,” he says. “Gone are the days where you went to General Motors or IBM and worked for 30 years and climbed the corporate escalator. There’s so much change that I think entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial thinking and skills are crucial for anybody.”
His curricular and programmatic changes fall into three key buckets: think (to encourage entrepreneurial and innovative thinking); start (to provide resources and knowledge for students looking to create their own ventures), and grow (to help current entrepreneurs expand their businesses).
He’s already made inroads on the grow front. The B-school will take part in the launch of the Columbia Startup Lab, one of the largest co-working, incubator spaces in Silicon Alley. The 5,100-square-foot facility will open to 71 Columbia entrepreneurs in June 2014. The space, which is shared with startup community WeWork, is meant to cultivate cross-disciplinary collaboration, and students from across the university, including the engineering and international and public affairs schools, will join second-year MBA candidates and recent alumni.
According to Ponzo, the incubator expands existing options for students with an entrepreneurial bent, such as the Entrepreneurial Greenhouse Program, a second-year class that helps students prepare their businesses for investment.
The university will also host #StartupColumbia on April 11. The one-day festival will include presentations from startup savants such as FourSquare founder Dennis Crowley, angel investor David Tisch, and Dropbox founder Drew Houston. Aspiring entrepreneurs from around the university will have the chance to pitch their business ideas in a shark-tank competition for $50,000. “It’s a great opportunity to let NYC and the world know that Columbia is a player in the space, that we’ve got a track record of success, that we have a lot of resources and potential here, and that we’re on the scene in New York City and beyond,” Ponzo says.
Unsurprisingly, Columbia’s concerted efforts to push entrepreneurship forward on the agenda parallel rising interest among students. During the 2012-2013 academic year, some 80% of Columbia MBA students took an entrepreneurship course. Growth in the school’s entrepreneurship club, Columbia Entrepreneurs Organization, jumped from 321 members in 2011 to 406 this year. “We needed to plant our flag in entrepreneurship … We knew that we had to be on the map, and we knew that Vince was the guy who was going to get us there,” explains Christopher Cashman, Columbia Business School’s director of public relations.
However, Ponzo takes pains to point out that Columbia’s vigorous efforts to boost entrepreneurship are not intended to supplant the school’s reputation as the “it” school for financial services. “The two aren’t mutually exclusive,” he explains. “I view my role as building up the entrepreneurship program to be on par and in parallel with our reputation in finance.”