Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Bridging The Gap Between Students And Startups, With TechLA
Story by Benjamin F. Kuo
There's a gap between the robust, growing technology startups in Los Angeles and the many students graduating from local universities, according to Steven Dietz, who is a venture capitalist at LA's Upfront Ventures. Steve is helping to spearhead the efforts of TechLA Internships (techla.internships.com), an online site which lists local internships at high tech companies for college students. The goal, according to Dietz, is help students at local universities find internships and start establishing relationships with local companies and the local industry, so that they might stick around when they graduate and help to grow the local high tech industry. We caught up with Steve earlier this week to learn more about the program.
What's the idea behind the program?
Steven Dietz: There is very little connection between the schools here and the technology community in the LA area. Four of the top fifteen engineering schools in the United States are in Los Angeles, but those student's don't really know about the area from a tech perspective. If you look at Silicon Valley, and Stanford as a template, if you are a student at Stanford and have an interest in entrepreneurship, by the time you've graduated, you've met role models, seen other students who have started their own businesses, and had lots of opportunities to become part of entrepreneurial technology community. However, for students at USC, UCLA, and Caltech, that just doesn't exist. It struck me that the way to connect with students is through internships and, as an extension of that, having them participate in some of many events that go on around tech community here.
How is the program doing that?
Steven Dietz: We have three basic roles that TechLA needs to accomplish. One, led by Todd Gitlin, is getting companies to post internships. The second, which involves a lot of people, is building awareness at universities--notably, USC and UCLA. The third is a platform to connect everyone on, which is being provided by Internships.com, which is at techla.internships.com.
Why is Silicon Valley so much more effective at exposing students to these opportunities?
Steven Dietz: There's a long cultural history there, and geographically, it's a much smaller community. Particularly when you consider the activity around Silicon Valley, you see the activity in Silicon Valley revolves around Stanford and Sand Hill Road, which is just geographically very close. Here, if you look at a school like USC, it's just a long way from Santa Monica. There's not a daily intersection between the lives of students, and the lives of folks who are starting technology companies. That's also true of UCLA. I think geography is some of it, and it's a similar problem a lot of communities face. I think it's also a little bit cultural. Stanford has done a really good job embracing the entrepreneurial community, and encouraging students to pursue opportunities there. I think schools here could do a better job.
We often run into students who say: I have an internship opportunity with Google, Microsoft, or IBM--why should I look at a startup?
Steven Dietz: A student who has an offer at Microsoft or IBM, and is excited about it, should probably pursue that. What they don't know, and what they're missing, is a sense of the opportunities of working at a younger company. There's more opportunity for responsibility, there's a different set of opportunities. I think that question is like asking a nursing student if they should take a job at the airport authority. I don't believe it's the right answer for everybody, but we want to help them become exposed to what's here. If some percentage believe this is a neat path, TechLA will have done its job well.
How can companies here get involved?
Steven Dietz: We have students across different disciplines, with different skill sets interested in working this summer. There's engineers, business students, creative folks out of the Annenberg school, it's a really broad set of skills. What companies can do, is provide opportunities to those students to learn about what those companies do, and encourage them to become part of broader technology community here. If things go well, and as they graduate and decide what they want to do, hopefully they'll have an inclination to work at an earlier stage company. Hopefully they will have developed a relationships here, and will call Mom and Dad back home wherever they are, and tell them they want to start their career here. I think that's a lot easier if you are already part of the business community here.
How has this been working out so far?
Steven Dietz: During the fall, we had 430 students express interest in various internships. We had over eighty companies put their internships on the platform. During this summer, my belief is we will have 500 to 600 students, and hope to have over 100 companies doing internships, to place those students. Right now, what we need--even though it feels early for companies--is to have them post those internships early. Students are looking actively for internships now, and to get the best students, you want to post internships now. The most aggressive and enthusiastic students are looking now for opportunities. Students or companies who are interested should go to techla.internships.com to post or apply.
Thanks, and good luck!