In my first month after moving to Minnesota from my native country of Turkey in 1994, I decided to start my own Internet company. After filling out the necessary paperwork and paying the clerk $135 in cash (I was so new I didn't have a checking account, credit card, driver's license or even a Social Security number) I was the CEO of my own company. I couldn't believe it. Sitting on the steps of the Minnesota State Capitol, I remember thinking this has to be the greatest country in the world!
However, as I soon found out, there were many challenges ahead. English was my second language; I had no experience or resources; I didn't know much about the culture, etiquette or having my own business; I didn't even know how or where to go to ask for help. Forget about raising money; even the capitalist system was new for me.
Promoting an Internet business in 1994 was challenging. When I called people to ask if they were on the Internet, the typical response was, "No. We're in Downtown.” To promote my business I published a black and white postcard and put them in coffee shops and the skyway system in downtown Minneapolis. I put them in the skyways because I saw people in suits walking through there and thought, "That's where the money is.” Alas, many of these people in suits were lawyers, accountants, and bankers, not necessarily early adopters of technology. In my first year I made a total of $4,300.
Today, the company I started 16 years ago serves hundreds of schools throughout the country. Over two million students have registered for classes through our software, and we have processed over $400 million in transactions.
I am proud to say I'm living my American Dream. But I'm not done. I keep dreaming. I keep thinking about other entrepreneurs like me running around in skyways with black and white postcards trying to promote their businesses because they don't know what else to do or how to ask for help.
I want to help other entrepreneurs do what I was able to accomplish with my company…but faster, better and more efficiently. I want to help entrepreneurs build sustainable businesses. That is why I have started Project Skyway, a tech accelerator program to help entrepreneurs connect with other entrepreneurs, mentors, investors and resources.
There is a myth that innovation comes primarily from the profit motive and from the competitive pressures of a market society. Innovation doesn't come just from giving people monetary incentives. It comes from creating environments where their ideas can connect. Innovation comes from passionate and connected groups of people.
Project Skyway (www.projectskyway.com) is much like the concept of open source software development, where people get energy from collaborating. We are not only connecting entrepreneurs with business leaders, mentors, advisors, and investors, but we are also connecting entrepreneurs with each other and being open about our process. All entrepreneurs starting businesses hit many walls at the beginning. This is why it is important for entrepreneurs to have access to mentors, as well as a community of entrepreneurs, to help them when they hit a wall.
Also, I do not believe that successful entrepreneurs only come from schools such as Stanford, Harvard, or MIT. I was attending a community college trying to learn and adapt to my new country while working at multiple jobs and trying to build my company. If we believe that a good entrepreneur is someone driven, with passion and persistence, let me tell you, our community colleges are full of these people.
That is why I am reaching out to members of NACCE to share my vision and ask for your help in connecting our future entrepreneurs with Project Skyway. We will be partnering with schools to create regional innovation centers where students can try out their business ideas in an environment where there are connections to entrepreneurs, mentors, and investors. There may also be an opportunity for your school to receive grant money through the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Program (TAACCCT) being administrated by the Department of Labor by participating in Project Skyway.
The first Project Skyway class will start in August 2011 in the innovation center we are creating in Minneapolis. Registration begins in April.
Please let your entrepreneurial students know that there is a place that will help them accelerate the growth of their new businesses. For more information about Project Skyway, please visit our Web site at www.projectskyway.com, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.