The Entrepreneurs: Syracuse considered a hotbed for innovation

Syracuse University emerges as leader in student entrepreneurship thanks to a thriving club, donations from outside organizations and personal drive.

You need to get to SU’s weekly Entrepreneurship Club meetings early. Meetings begin at 7:15 p.m., but by 7:00, groups of students flood into every chair and table. The full house buzzes with conversation.

With nearly 400 members, it is the largest club on campus.

E Club president Michael Yormark leans back in his chair, arms folded behind his head, as he listens to a student’s business plan. At the first pause, he fired off a slew of questions: “Who sees a problem with this idea? Who are his competitors? What type of people would you need to make this work?” All the while, he smiled. He asserted that he did not mean to attack the student personally, that finding a hole in a business plan and filling it is what building a business is all about.

A Nintendo-themed hard-drive, a typical item sold on, a website hatched by Television-Radio-Film alum Jason Blanck.

Yormark, an entrepreneurship and marketing junior, knows business. He is the founder and CEO of Yormark Chocolates, a chocolate-making company he created during high school.

“I was up late with a buddy of mine one night, he had some cookie dough and I had Oreos. I put them together and thought, ‘This would be great covered in chocolate,’” Yormark said. Within a few weeks, Yormark had developed a recipe.

“Word spread like wildfire,” he said. “Within two months I had sold 3,000 individual chocolates, and the following year I’d sold 5,000 and sold the chocolates to three local shops.”

Coming to Syracuse and joining the E Club bolstered Yormark’s business further. High demand has forced Yormark to put Yormark Chocolates on hold until he can find suitable factory space in the Syracuse area.

As remarkable as Yormark’s story is, it is hardly an anomaly at Syracuse University. Student start-ups like Brand-Yourself, an online reputation-management platform, and, the so-called “Etsy for ideas,” remain profitable and successful ventures pioneered by SU students. What is it about this campus that fosters entrepreneurship?

Bruce Kingma, Associate Provost for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and a professor in the Whitman School of Management and the School of Information Studies, identifies three main factors that make SU an incubator for student start-ups.

First, the Whitman School’s program for entrepreneurship and emerging enterprises provides a solid foundation for student entrepreneurship, Kingma said. Additionally, SU’s professional schools themselves foster entrepreneurship, he said. “So many of the majors in Newhouse are entrepreneurial; you go out and start a photography company or you become a contract employee as an independent writer,” Kingma said.

Students attend SU’s professional schools to become experts in particular disciplines. After that, students can easily take the next step into entrepreneurship. ““To start a charter school in the School of Education, to start a social website in the iSchool, or to set up your own practice out of the School of Law,” Kingma said, listing examples. “Most of the students here are half a step away from it.”

Especially crucial, Kingma said, is SU’s involvement with the Kauffman Campuses Initiative and the funding that came with it. Kauffman aims to give students of all majors and interests the proper training to successfully launch and run a business.

“It infused entrepreneurship into every school and college in a major way,” Kingma said. Now, there are new courses in the School of Visual and Performing Arts, L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science, the School of Information Studies, and the School of Law that incorporate elements of entrepreneurial thought specific to those fields.

“It’s a long list of new courses that means we have literally gone from 2,000 students taking entrepreneurship classes, predominantly in Whitman, to 7,000 students taking entrepreneurship classes both within and outside of Whitman,” Kingma said.

Yormark runs the E Club with this interdisciplinary framework in mind. Literally every major is represented in the club, at levels from the undergraduate to the doctorate, he said. With nearly 400 members, it is the most popular club on campus.

“I think anybody’s an entrepreneur,” he said, “The theater major who takes a role and makes it his own, he’s an entrepreneur. The mathematician who tries to use a formula in a different way – entrepreneur.” Students don’t have to start or own a business to be an entrepreneur, they just need to think independently, Yormark said.

“The entrepreneurial spirit,” Kingma calls it. “It’s adding value to the lives of others by thinking of new ideas, new products or new services,” he said.

But using that entrepreneurial spirit can be challenging, as Max Doblin, a freshman studying advertising and entrepreneurship, can attest. Doblin’s business, Xero Gear, creates weatherproof backpack covers for hikers, skiers, and mountain-climbers.

Although he prioritizes his schoolwork over his business, Doblin said he feels like he never has enough time to work on his project. “Whenever I think of a great business idea, it manages to take over my entire train of thought,” he said.

Sean Branagan, director of the Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, said that entrepreneurship is on the rise at every scale. His position at SU was created this year.

“It’s a great time to start a business,” he asserted as he leaned back in his chair, a Wired baseball cap atop his head. A lava lamp oozes on his desk and a white board to his right screams about upcoming entrepreneurship-related events in bright-hued marker. He pointed out that some of the most successful American businesses were started during times of recession: Google, Disney, Wikipedia, GE.

Kingma argued that entrepreneurship at SU is leading the national trend rather than reflecting it. Last month, the federal government designated Syracuse University an Economic Development University Center, a distinction accompanied by a $500,000 award. The money “is aimed at igniting innovation and accelerating entrepreneurship, and launching student ventures throughout upstate New York,” according to SU’s official website.

SU received that award because 14 other universities in New York State wrote letters in support of SU’s application, Kingma said. Kingma routinely talks with faculty from Cornell, RIT, University of Rochester, Clarkson, University of Buffalo and other New York universities that look to SU for leadership in the field of entrepreneurship.

“SU has a very strong reputation in this domain and others look to us to lead, so we are very clearly above the trend,” Kingma said.

At the front of the Whitman lecture hall, Michael Yormark laughed softly. The sound faded into the background, barely audible over the roar of communal debate over the business plans underway. “At the beginning of the meetings, everyone is always so quiet,” Yormark said.

“By the end, we get everyone into a huge argument. That’s how successful businesses are made.”

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