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In virtual space, Stanford entrepreneurial groups put innovation to practice

Organizations hope to maintain interest as they shift events, recruitment online

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Four days before Stanford announced that students needed to leave campus in March, the Business Association of Stanford Entrepreneurial Students (BASES) had to cancel their second annual CNECT Global Entrepreneurship Conference. The reason: county regulations restricting large gatherings.

“[We] had great speakers lined and so many tickets sold,” said BASES Co-President Omar Fidawi ’21. 

BASES has since pivoted toward Zoom to accommodate public safety measures necessitated by the pandemic, transitioning their upcoming events and $100k Startup Challenge to an online format. 

The student group joins multiple other entrepreneurial organizations on campus who have rescheduled or cancelled events, made alternative plans to recruit incoming frosh and diversified their fundraising strategies.

Stanford Women in Business (SWIB) cancelled their incubator SWIBX, their gala that celebrates the achievements of women in business and their senior celebration, according to co-presidents Brooke Martin ’21 and Nicole Birkner ’21. 

SWIB leadership team member Aava Farhadi ’23 said that SWIB also saw the cancellation of many members’ internships that were obtained through SWIB’s “Springternship” program, which helps connect Stanford students with businesses for internship opportunities. 

Other groups have lost access to crucial in-person work spaces and programs. Students in the Graduate School of Business (GSP) have lost access to the NGP CoLab, a co-working space on campus, according to Head of Stanford Venture Studio Singari Seshadri. 

For events that could be shifted to a virtual space, planning has been accelerated. SWIB and BASES have already started the planning process for several of these events as they recognize that it may be harder to attract participants given that in-person interactions are hard to replicate.

“It will be a great event regardless and we’re super excited,” Farhadi said, referring to the club’s Young Women’s Leadership Summit, which has been shifted online. “We just want to make sure it’s as good as an event as it would be on campus”

Groups said even if students were allowed on campus anytime this school year, they would not host events in person. Farhadi said that it would be “unfair to host anything on campus next year if not everyone is there.” 

No more word-of-mouth

Organizations are reshaping their annual recruitment efforts. SWIB leadership team member Akosua Kissi ’23 said that SWIB was expanding its social media presence and targeting upcoming freshmen group forums and chats as they “cannot rely on the word of mouth method.” 

For BASES’ Frosh Battalion, a frosh entrepreneurship immersion program, Fidawi said that BASES plans to reach out to frosh by using traditional channels like email lists and BASES’ annual career fair.

Challenges from online settings have also pushed organizations to find creative ways to increase participation from its members. Kissi said that there was lower engagement last spring quarter due to “no more in-person excitement, zoom fatigue and different time zones.” 

According to Seshadri, Stanford GSB noticed lowered engagement levels online, for example, through their first virtual Demo Day which is an opportunity for Venture Studio teams to present their ideas to founders, investors, and industry leaders. While there were more participants than usual, it lacked the energy of in-person events. 

To ameliorate this, Kissi said that SWIB took measures to reassure all members that they don’t have to attend every single meeting, ideally ensuring that members who do attend meetings are genuinely excited about them. Stanford Venture Studios responded by offering more opportunities for teams and people to connect during office hours, online forums and virtual happy hours.

“We also saw that many of our students were pivoting their venture ideas, looking for new projects to work on, and/or were interested in working on a COVID-19 challenge,” Seshardri wrote. “In response, we supported the design and launch of Stanford Rebuild, which many of our teams are participating in.”

A silver lining

Despite challenges, groups said they had found potential upsides to this virtual format. Jhamb and Farhadi said that hosting virtual events allows for their respective organizations to attract a greater range of speakers, given that they can invite people who may not have been able to travel to campus. Silver linings like this make Fidawi realize that “despite challenges, we can achieve more.”

In addition, the transition to various online platforms led Martin and Birkner to develop new initiatives around diversity and inclusion in SWIB. They began a fundraiser with the nonprofit “Buy From a Black Woman” and organized the online page SWIB U. Martin noticed that people on SWIB U initially wrote articles with a focus on business but then expanded to topics around diversity and inclusion. SWIB also helped plan and fund events like hackathons that encourage innovation and creativity.

Organizations broadly remain hopeful with regard to fundraising. According to Kissi, SWIB had made sure to fulfill their “end of the partnership” with existing sponsors. Likewise, Fidawi said it was important to maintain communication with sponsors. There may be more consciousness around spending, but “downturns in the economy enable new startups to grow and thrive,” Fidawi said.

Former BASES Co-President Mallika Jhamb ’21 said a proactive attitude from student groups was key to maintaining funding. 

“The first thing we did was put out our COVID-19 response letter,” Jhamb said. “We interacted with all our different stakeholders, we reached out to our alumni, we talked to our internal board and also reached out to our sponsors because they are the ones that allow us to continue our activities every year.”

The students offered advice and encouragement for incoming frosh looking to become involved with campus entrepreneurship.  Fidawi said to always be on the lookout for opportunities rather than to expect them to come to you. Specifically for students looking to try out business and entrepreneurship for the first time, Farhadi and Kissi both emphasized the importance of demonstrating interest and having an open mindset. 

Prior to joining SWIB, Farhadi “had no business experience, didn’t really know what business was and is still learning, noting that it may be intimidating to see other peers who already have their own startups and businesses but said that as long as you have a passion for entrepreneurship and business, you shouldn’t let anything hold you back. 

“That’s the beautiful thing about Stanford. Everyone has such a diverse background and diverse set of experiences so don’t feel limited by your past experiences,” said Farhadi. “If you want something, there’s no harm in trying.”

Contact Sophie Wang at sophie.my.wang ‘at’ gmail.com.

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Sophie Wang is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily’s Summer Journalism Workshop.