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The “Dormcubator” and the entrepreneur by-products of higher education

Having had a great opportunity over the last year and a half to work at VeloCity I am convinced that the “Dormcubator” (The Globe and Mail made it up, not me, but have you Google’d it?) model in higher education is a hugely important effort as part of an overall student success strategy in higher education. This, in my opinion, is because it leverages a by-product of higher education and therefore is actually easy (with regards to the relative cost of new investment) to make relatively successful but it also essential to consciously enhance the experience for those students that enter University for other reasons than academic development.

The business take of by-products is pretty well explained in this Think Vitamin article, here is my take in the context of what I am doing at VeloCity in Higher Education.

Why are entrepreneurs a ‘by-product’ of Higher Education?

Higher Education is tooled to create more academics, not employees (and yes, the government talks about direct influence on job growth and training but the economic impact of higher education is itself arguably by-product). The process of undergraduate to graduate student to post-doc to finally a prof (with a few steps in-between) is a long held process to find the best of the best academics. It attracts the some of the smartest people in society to push themselves and give it a try. Pretty close to all of those that try don’t go all they way to a PhD but that doesn’t mean they aren’t hugely intelligent and capable people, they just aren’t academics.

This talent that ‘falls off’ after their undergraduate or even graduate experience is what fuels the job market with highly skilled and knowledgeable work force. Those that go on to do research fuel development of new technologies, develop greater understanding of how technology or others influence us and our world, and educate the next generation of talent. Those that don’t go on to become academics and do research and/or teach are a by-product because the primary product that higher education focuses on is the academic or researcher.

At the University of Waterloo it is a bit different. The University recognized early on that Engineers aren’t going into Engineering to be PhD’s — they go to be Engineers. Consciously or not, the University was focused on creating professionals as well as academics and researchers which crosses all Faculties. Developing the worlds largest co-operative education program made perfect sense. The University’s second core product was born, a highly skilled and educated professional worker. The University of Waterloo produces amazing Engineers, Actuaries, Optometrists, Accountants, Pharmacists, etc. All roles that could get PhD’s but it isn’t the primary focus of the program.

Enter the Entrepreneur as a professional product of higher ed

The Entrepreneur is a different professional and much harder one for a University to create a program for. An Entrepreneur tends to not fit in any one program, likely aren’t attracted to or perform well in the lecture style environment, and they come from just about anywhere without a set academic career goal. They likely go to University because it is an interesting and a challenge, not because they want to conform to a system. Waterloo has the coders that are entrepreneurial but we also have the business or medical or physics or math or recreation and leisure entrepreneurs. Even the Co-op program isn’t ideal as it is focused on getting  the student a job and a great experience as an employee. However, my theory is that the Co-op program along with new leading edge academic programs attract some of the most talented and entrepreneurial students in Canada.

Campus culture in Canada and Waterloo is weak

Where the University of Waterloo has fallen short overall is on building a campus culture and experience. The challenge of the co-op grind every 4-8 months (month 1 is apply to jobs, month 2 is interviews and midterms, month 3 is midterms, assignments, and maybe interviews, month 4 is exams, repeat), the constant moving, the lack of real community connection and culture in the City of Waterloo, along with a bunch of other things means the positive experience and culture is difficult to create. A lot is changing though.

Enter the frat house for entrepreneurs that make stuff

Certainly by no means an Animal House, VeloCity is a fraternity of entrepreneurs that share a common goal in life but come from all sorts of different programs and/or streams on campus. The living environment allows Waterloo students to establish solid friendships with future co-founders, expand their network, and find some of the best co-op jobs at startups that are out there. This has been called a “dormcubator” as it mixes a dormitory setting with an incubator like program.

The advantages to students are numerous but I think there are a few core things:

  • Broader base to build relationships with fellow students: connections across educational streams means students meet people they likely would have never met, Computer Science and Software Engineering students rarely go to class together and then we through a Business student in there.
  • A common experience: the experience in the environment gives those that live there a common but exclusive connection even if they weren’t living there at the same time. These connections are stronger than simply the ‘you went to Waterloo?’ connections — which are also fairly strong given the grind all of Waterloo Alumni have experienced.
  • Leveraging connections the University has already: Startups based in Silicon Valley, Montreal, Toronto, Boston, etc have a self selecting group of entrepreneurs to aim for at the start of every term they are looking to hire. This gives the students easier access to learn from other startups and still keep their debt loads down.

The residence, in my mind, is one part of an important shift to improve the student experience outside of the academic streams recognizing that students go to university not only for the lectures and assignments. This is something that is easier for Waterloo to do given the Co-op program is something it is already deeply committed to and it certainly is not an academic process. I would challenge other schools to look at similar ideas.

The Ryerson DMZ is another take on this model in Canada that is really exciting, lets see some more.

There is a likely a PhD in waiting on this topic so yes I oversimplified this but it is a blog post after all 😉

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  1. Interesting. I absolutely agree that universities are tooled to create more academics than employees, although the skills are often transferable. I was a student at University of Waterloo, and although RIM has a huge presence there, I’d need more convincing that you could get a productive think tank working within the U of Waterloo setting. It’s incredible impersonal and competitive (from my perspective). However, if you do have ideas for innovation, and want to collaborate with people through the internet, try It’s a crowdsourcing initiative, that allows people to develop through a web 2.0 framework. Did it beat Minota Hagey to the punch? You decide.