Photo by Adrian Mendoza

In this episode of Lehigh University’s College of Business ilLUminate podcast, we are speaking with Georgette Chapman Phillips, the Kevin L. and Lisa A. Clayton Dean of the College of Business, Nicola Corzine, executive director of the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center and Samantha Dewalt, managing director of Lehigh@NasdaqCenter, and a former Lehigh professor about Startup Academy and its six years in operation.

They spoke with Rob Gerth, director of marketing and communications for the College of Business.Listen to the podcast here and subscribe and download Lehigh Business on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

Below is an edited excerpt from that conversation. Read the complete podcast transcript

Rob Gerth: The Startup Academy is a 10-week internship program. It's run by Lehigh@NasdaqCenter. And Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center places the interns in startups in San Francisco Silicon Valley. Do I have that right?

Georgette Chapman Phillips: It's a wonderful collaboration. I think you hit the nail right on the head. It is everybody benefits from this association, which is the best of all worlds, right? That we all are advancing our mission through this partnership.

Nicola Corzine: For the center, being able to have this top talent experience to advance founders' abilities, to bring their innovation further and faster than they ever otherwise could have done has just been incredible. Because we do a lot of talking in entrepreneurship, but the action really drives us towards realizing impact at the end of the day. And I think this partnership has always been about making action happen in a very short, succinct, and incredible way that brings everyone forward and goes, "I had no idea all that I was going to learn and all that would be possible in a relatively short period of time. Imagine what the future might hold." 

Chapman Phillips: I'm laughing because it started in my office. Nicola and I were just chatting, and we were getting to know one another, and trying to figure out how can we work together. And I said, "I think our students really need on-the-ground experiential learning." And you said-- if I'm paraphrasing. If I get it wrong, Nicola, you'll remind me. You said, "Well, we have a whole stable of companies that really do need to learn that next step of how to interact with non-founders in the organization, like employees."

Corzine: The number one challenge that all founders face is access to talent. And it's not just about access to talent because, in some ways, anyone can pick up a job req. That's not what we're talking about. I think in the nature of founders and in the nature of startups, the one equation that can never change is how many hours there are in a day. And so to be able to maximize talent and really bring forward opportunity with those precious hours that a startup has to be the most nimble, the most innovative, the most able to do more with less. It's really going to require a talent-first mentality. And yet it's probably the one bookish piece of the equation that startup founders are very ill-equipped to know how to do. And we can talk about culture and HR practices, and how to do right by people. And they all want that. But again, the ability to want that to move towards action and doing that requires a thoughtful partner who's willing to sort of lean in and say, "Okay, well, let's break down some of those barriers." And make it seem not only human but absolutely approachable. And when it gets messy, and it will get messy because welcome to startup land, we all are going to lean in and figure it out.

Samantha Dewalt: I think the magic behind this partnership and this program is that we've been very intentional in everything that we design and everything that we build around Startup Academy. It's mutually beneficial to the students engaging in the program. The students getting access to this real-world entrepreneurial environment where they're rolling up their sleeves, they're diving in, they're doing real work, creating real impact, and experiencing the real messiness. And at the same time, the startups are getting access to this early talent. Many of them, because we're really focused on those early-stage companies, they don't have HR departments or HR teams that can help with integrating talent into their organizations and how to effectively maximize that talent. So one thing that I think we've done really well is understand how best to support both the students and the startups going through the experience and use it as a learning opportunity in real time to share back feedback and insights, and how do you do this work bringing together early talent with early-stage companies? And for our students, it's an incredible accelerator to their personal learning and growth. For startups, they have the opportunity to try on talent management best practices and strategies. A lot of these intern managers are actually interning-- or excuse me, managing interns for the first time. So they're learning. They're developing their leadership as well. But we've been very smart, I think, and intentional about how do we use this partnership and use this program as a learning opportunity to best serve the needs of students and the startup community in real-time. And as a product of that work, we've been able to develop things like the intern manager toolkit both for startup intern managers as well as the students to help, again, maximize that talent integration into the company.

Chapman Phillips: I want to emphasize how we choose the students because one thing that I think is very important is that all of our opportunities should be open to students regardless of their economic situation. And the reality of life is that many students cannot work for free, okay? That their families are depending on them to make money during the year. Their financial aid may be depending on them making money during the summer. And so we had to figure out-- and then, at the same time, these startups, they cannot pay what it would take for a student to live and work in the Bay Area. So what we did, and I think that this is what really makes a difference. This is not just a matchmaking between students and startups. This is supporting the students. We pay them a stipend in the summer, and we pay for their housing. One of the social aspects that Samantha was talking about is the housing. They all live together in San Francisco, and it allows students to explore the possibility of entrepreneurship and the startup world without the constraint of, "But I need to make money during this summer." A couple of students have said, "I love this because I'm able to say to my family, to my parents, 'Yes, I can pursue my entrepreneurial dream, and still have a summer income, and still have a summer experience.'"

Gerth: Samantha, tell us about that, the class part of it. The other components.

Dewalt: The class is really designed to augment the learning experience that the students are getting on the job, right? That's the real-world learning experience. But the class provides a space for the students to come together. So we physically meet weekly at the Lehigh@NasdaqCenter in the heart of San Francisco, and it creates a space to talk about what's going on in their internships and really make meaning of that experience. What's going well? What am I learning? Where am I getting stuck? And the students have a forum amongst themselves to learn from each other, but the class is guided by a professor, an industry professional. Guest speakers that come in and share their entrepreneurial journey so that the students can really reflect on and apply those lessons to their own entrepreneurial journey. So it's part content. Learning about entrepreneurial ecosystem, and what you need to know to function in a startup environment. But it's also a lot about personal and professional growth and development and really that intentional reflection and design to build things like your entrepreneurial self-efficacy, which we know is key to developing an entrepreneurial mindset.

Gerth: Nicola, what about the startups? What kind of feedback do you get from them as far as the students?

Corzine: I would not be doing my job if 99.999% of the time, the very first day, almost the very first hour, there's just this immense gratitude and this immense appreciation. They've been going so hard and so fast. Most often, by themselves. Sometimes wistfulness of talking it out with their dogs [laughter] or their significant others at home of like, "What do I do next?" And now there's this talent. An abundance of talent surrounds them that says, "I believe that this company, that this dream can happen. And I'm going to give you everything I have, and some, that I don't even know I yet have to go all in." And there's a mindset shift that happens when you have somebody else, all of a sudden, that just gives time and space and a creative mindset back to the founder. And that lives. That has legacy well beyond the 10 weeks as well, irrespective of whether they're able to make the hire immediately or it's still a bit of a distance off before they're able to bring that person on full-time. 

Chapman Phillips:  And I would be remiss if I didn't also bring in another beneficiary of the Startup Academy, which is the College of Business, and by extension, Lehigh University. Because this is a valuable tool for us to, first of all, make a stand in the entrepreneurial world in a university setting as compared to other universities, that we can say to students, "No, seriously, this is a great place to come if you are an entrepreneur. If you want to be an entrepreneur." It enhances our reputation as a business school and as a university to be able to offer this opportunity to our students and to be known within the entrepreneurship ecosystem as a significant player.

Gerth: And over the past six years, how has the startup academy evolved? It went from an idea to actuality and then took off.

Dewalt: Like we do with most everything. We start with a proof of concept, right? It was a pilot. It began with a dream and an idea in Georgette's office between Georgette and Nicola, and I can imagine the fun they had that day. And we said, "All right, let's figure out how to make it happen," which is one of the things I love most about partnering with Georgette. We have an idea, and we just make it happen. And here we are six years later looking back going, "Wow, yeah, I think that worked out." So over the years, it's evolved in a lot of ways. Certainly, COVID happened, and during COVID, like much of the world, we pivoted to virtual remote internships. We didn't slow down. In fact, we accelerated, and we actually built a new program modeled after Startup Academy in the midst of COVID called the Silicon Valley Innovation Internship. And so the pivot to virtual really helped us realize we're dealing with the future of work now. And many of these startups now are operating in a fully virtual environment, and this is an important way for our students to learn how to work.
Gerth: And let me finish up with this question. Where do you see it going?

Chapman Phillips: Getting back to Samantha's point about proof of concept. We didn't know whether or not this was going to work. Nicola and I thought it was going to work. [laughter] And it did. And so we have launched Lehigh Ventures Lab on campus now. So it's our first on-campus accelerator at Lehigh University. And we're going to take that same model. But instead of paying our students and paying for them to live, obviously, they're already on campus. And now we can do it for credit. So as we start to build out Lehigh Ventures Lab, we're going to take our lessons learned through Startup Academy and apply them to an on-campus experience for the students and for the founders who are in Lehigh Ventures Lab.

Rob Gerth

Rob Gerth

Rob Gerth is director of marketing and communications at Lehigh Business.