OPINION: Lighting path to students’ entrepreneurial dreams

Shila Burney (center) of Zane Venture Fund speaks to a group of Georgia Tech students in March. Courtesy of Shila Burney

Credit: Courtesy of Shila Burney

Credit: Courtesy of Shila Burney

After an event earlier this year at Georgia Tech where she discussed her career journey, a group of students cornered Shila Burney to thank her and ask some follow-up questions.

Burney obliged but she asked questions of her own, namely what programs did the university offer students who wanted to get into business for themselves. Their answers astounded her.

There were just three programs available, with 400 students competing for just 40 slots.

“That’s 360 students who were either going to delay their dreams until the next year or simply give up,” Burney said. “That’s a problem.”

It was more than that, really. It was personal.

Burney told me, growing up she always believed she’d go to college and then get a job working for someone else. It never occurred to her that she could create her own business.

“Everything told me I needed to go to work, not that I should pursue my dream,” she said.

Shila Burney is the founder of Zane Venture Fund. Courtesy of Shila Burney

Credit: Courtesy of Shila Burney

Credit: Courtesy of Shila Burney

ExploreAtlanta fast becoming a mecca for African Americans in tech

After working as a project manager and organizational support expert for more than 20 years, including nearly six years at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Burney mustered the courage to pivot. Last year, she founded Zane Venture Fund to provide technical and financial support to aspiring entrepreneurs so, as she put it, “people aren’t forced to take the zigzag line to their dreams but take the straight path.”

Soon after the encounter at Georgia Tech last March, Burney began talking to anyone who’d listen about student entrepreneurs. Instead of having to defer their dreams until after graduation and perhaps going to work for others as she had, she wanted to somehow help them launch while still in college.

To do that, Zane Venture Fund a few weeks ago launched AccessU, a virtual educational program to help students launch their business while still in college by providing technical support and advice from business experts and the Zane Access team.

The program has already gotten the attention of Brown University officials, who recently committed to bringing the program to its students.

Although Brown is the first to host AccessU, talks are underway at the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, Georgia State and Syracuse University to join the effort as well.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

In addition to giving students a platform to pitch their ideas and gain feedback from business experts and the Zane Access team, students will have the opportunity to participate in, among other things, monthly night school sessions and a six-week summer program in which industry and investment leaders will offer insights into best practices and major trends occurring in the business community.

“Our goal is to help diverse students get plugged into the entrepreneurial journey early on with their business and set them up for success from the very beginning,” Burney said. “We know diverse entrepreneurs more often than not face the greatest challenges in accessing everything from capital to mentorship to marketing needed to grow their business, and the AccessU program is designed to provide exactly that, with no strings attached. We’ve learned it’s not enough to just look at diverse founders when they’re ready to be funded — we need to start growing those founders earlier and earlier in order to help bridge the gap we see today.”

Banu Ozkazanc-Pan, an engineering professor at Brown, said that connecting experienced business professionals like the Zane Venture Fund team to her students was an opportunity the university couldn’t pass up.

“The startup ecosystem is notoriously hard to break into, and we wanted to do our part and show our student entrepreneurs we support them,” she said.

Through the AccessU program, students will not only be afforded the opportunity to demonstrate that their startup ideas are viable but that they are scalable too. The best part of this is AccessU is free for student entrepreneurs. If you’re a university or student interested in bringing AccessU to your campus or a company that wants to sponsor an event, log onto zane.vc/zane-access/.

It’s too early to tell if AccessU will have the impact Burney hopes it will. If you’ve ever been forced to defer your dream, no matter how big or small, you know it’s never too early to try.

WHAT’S NEXT?

Virtual design-a-thon, Nov. 1-19, 2020, zane.vc/zane-access/. Teams of college students from across the country will compete to win $1,000 for the best design solutions.

In Other News