The back of Amos Hall, part of the new Terry College Business Learning Community, is shown from the community's quad on the University of Georgia campus in Athens, Georgia, on Monday, September 18, 2017. (Photo/Reann Huber, www.reannhuber.com)

After a few unsuccessful business ventures and some discussions with entrepreneurship professors, Garrett Vaughan realized there was a need for a student-led program to support burgeoning entrepreneurs on the University of Georgia campus.

“I’ve found in my own experiences how difficult it is to go from the very early stages and get it to where it’s presentable for people to give real money,” said Vaughan, a senior finance and accounting major. “What I wish I had been a part of was a greater connectivity between entrepreneurs.”

Kickstarting a movement

Beginning in the summer of 2018, Vaughan led the initiative in reviving a program initially led by the entrepreneurship faculty. After transferring the program and funds into the hands of the students, Vaughan and a board of six other students formed the UGA Kickstart Fund, a student-led program providing student and faculty startups with seed capital grants from $1,000-$5,000. The money for the fund comes from private donors, which was earmarked for providing grants to students and faculty.

Through the help of entrepreneurship program lecturers Cali Brutz and Robert Pinckney, Vaughan repurposed the funds from the previous program and in mid-November, they began accepting applications. While the initiative is student-run, Brutz and Pinckney helped Vaughan in allocating funds from the entrepreneurship program into the UGA Kickstart Fund.

Brutz, a faculty adviser to the student board, said the UGA Kickstart Fund is invaluable not only for student and faculty businesses but also for the student board behind the initiative, as the experiences in managing funds for other startups teach them lessons on the early stages of businesses.

“It can be particularly difficult for students, who typically have limited professional experience, to secure small seed funding for a venture from more traditional sources,” Brutz said. “The UGA Kickstart Fund is designed to further propel student and faculty led businesses toward viability.”

Vaughan gathered seven other students, from business majors to engineering majors, to form a board for the UGA Kickstart Fund. As opposed to faculty-run initiatives, Vaughan said a student-run program allows for a quick turnaround from application to receiving the funds.

Hand-selecting the members on the board also gave Vaughan leverage over the diversity of the students. With students in different colleges across campus, the members on the board have distinct areas of expertise, which Vaughan finds invaluable in providing input from a variety of perspectives.

“It allows for this really good diversity of thought, which would be tough to do with faculty members as the entrepreneurship program is not inherently very big,” Vaughan said. “So given that, we’re able to bring in a breadth of experience and viewpoints that are kind of uncommon.”

Similar to the other members on the board, Aakash Malhotra dabbled in a few unsuccessful entrepreneurship endeavors throughout college, trying to start a nonprofit organization and a company. Malhotra, a senior economics major, joined the board in September after Vaughan reached out to him.

Transforming the community

For Malhotra, the UGA Kickstart Fund not only provides a foundation for developing entrepreneurs on campus but also forms a connection between UGA and the local community. In supporting their ideas, the university helps these entrepreneurs execute their endeavors with resources they might not have.

“I think it’s phenomenal because kids are always looking for new ideas. It’s really cool to see the university backing students and backing ideas that any kid may have,” Malhotra said. “I think it’s great for the local community, also, because people are coming up with some pretty great ideas.”

Applications are accepted on a rolling basis, and applicants must go through two rounds of pitches before receiving the funds. In the first stage, companies apply online and pitch their ideas to a small group of board members. If their idea is approved, they move onto a final round of judging.

While there isn’t a set quota for the number of entrepreneurs they award grants to, Vaughan said they are looking for quality over quantity. With approximately $25,000 per semester to give out, the amount they allocate is wholly dependent on the entrepreneurs and their ideas.

“The biggest thing is we want to make sure our money’s being put in the right places, so we’re being very deliberate on who we think has the foundation for that,” Vaughan said. “We’re trying to find entrepreneurs who are committed to ideas, who are committed to making impacts, who are committed to changing the landscape of what they want to do.”

The UGA Kickstart Fund is consistent and year-round, allowing companies at all stages to benefit from it. In the future, Vaughan hopes the UGA Kickstart Fund continues to encourage students and faculty to pursue their ideas. He also envisions it as a building block in promoting Athens as a leading city in fostering businesses for people across the country.

“Our long-term goal is we just want Athens to be one of the best startup towns in the world or at least in the country and have it be viewed as a place that not only people want to start businesses but have people who want to join businesses come, too,” Vaughan said. “It’s a bigger movement, and we’re laying a foundation of connectivity and access to capital.”

Correction: In a previous version of this article, The Red & Black misprinted the amount the UGA Kickstart Fund awards per semester as $5,000-$10,000. The correct amount is $25,000 per semester. The Red & Black regrets this error and it has since been fixed.