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Q&A: Samantha Dewalt on Lehigh's Startup Academy

The Lehigh@NasdaqCenter offers a campus extension for Lehigh students in the heart of San Francisco, where so many startups have developed.

What is Startup Academy, which launched as a pilot program in summer 2018?

Startup Academy is a unique opportunity for students to learn about the entrepreneurial process by immersing themselves in the vibrant innovation ecosystem of San Francisco, as they experience the messy, exciting realities of a startup. Students gain practical experience by spending 40 hours a week interning with early- to mid-stage startups, developing their entrepreneurial mindsets and skill sets. Their learning is enriched in the Lehigh@NasdaqCenter classroom. Led by Lehigh business faculty, students take a course co-taught by real-world entrepreneurs. Outside the classroom, each student receives a mentor who provides additional guidance and coaching. Through it all, the students learn about self and creating real impact, and they develop a deeper understanding of their own goals as they plan for meaningful professional lives. 


Twelve students from the College of Business and Economics were in the first class, and they had the opportunity to intern with early- to mid-stage startups. Can you tell us more about those internships?

The students participated in a 10-week, project-based internship with startups in San Francisco. They were paired in teams of two and assigned to one of six startups: Krome Photos, Wexus Technologies, Topia, StudyBlue, BuzzBoard and Homebase. Each student team worked alongside founders on specific projects and deliverables, ranging from market research and data analysis to advising on customer acquisition and global market expansion strategies.

We had some incredible stories come out of this summer. For example, two teams experienced being part of a startup acquisition—one startup got acquired for $20.8 million, and another was in the throes of launching a new name and identity after acquiring a competitor. A third team celebrated a successful $2.3 million seed-funding round with their startup. It was pretty awesome for the students to be a part of these critical milestones in a startup’s journey.


In this new initiative, what’s been the value to students—and the startups?

Startup Academy bridges the academic with the professional, unlocking unique value for both students and entrepreneurs. Students are exposed to the real working innards of startups in their early stages, learning about all aspects of the business in a high-velocity, all-hands-on-deck environment. This experience is not something you could ever teach in the classroom.

For many of these startups, the Lehigh students were the first intern talent integrated into their growing companies. And for most, without this program, a summer intern would not have been possible due to limited time and resources.

Working closely with the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center, we built a framework and provided structure to the program to enhance the experience for both the students and the startups. The startups received support with onboarding, project scoping and talent development, while the students received additional support through their mentors and a weekly course at the Lehigh@NasdaqCenter.

Many of the students have received offers to continue their work with the companies beyond the summer. I think that pretty much sums it up.


In this case, does location matter?
There is no place quite like Silicon Valley—the global hub for entrepreneurship, and home to thousands of startups and many of the world’s largest high-tech companies. There is a long-standing history of innovation, a culture and an ethos that are hard to replicate. You have access to human capital, venture capital, a culture of innovation and risk-taking, established firms and startups, and innovative spaces where all the players come together.

As President John Simon stated perfectly, “Accelerators, VCs, banks, media, tech companies, government and nonprofits—they all converge in Silicon Valley. The [Nasdaq] Center convenes every one of these players to educate tomorrow’s great entrepreneurs.

That’s powerful, and we’re thrilled to be a part of it.”

There is undoubtedly power in place and network. However, the Lehigh@NasdaqCenter provides more than just an incredible location in the heart of San Francisco; it provides access to a larger entrepreneurial ecosystem globally. 


How has the Lehigh@NasdaqCenter evolved since it was established? And how does it advance students’ entrepreneurial spirit? 
Lehigh@NasdaqCenter launched in January 2017 with the mission of educating, connecting and inspiring the next generation of entrepreneurs and innovators. Since that time, we’ve served more than 400 students and engaged more than 250 alumni through educational programs, mentorship and events. Although we may still consider ourselves in the startup and incubation phase, we’ve launched a number of successful pilot programs, most notably Startup Academy in San Francisco and the Global Entrepreneurship Internship in India. And we’re just getting started! We continue to add new courses each semester, bringing Silicon Valley to Lehigh’s doorstep. As Dale Falcinelli, professor of practice in managemen shared, “Lehigh’s close partnership with the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center in San Francisco has raised the bar for entrepreneurship education by bringing Silicon Valley ecosystem players into the classroom [virtually].” 


What role have Lehigh alumni played?
Lehigh alumni have played a critical role in the Lehigh@NadsaqCenter, and specifically in Startup Academy. Whether through guest lectures or mentorship, our alumni have shared valuable experiences and insights to help students explore the possibilities and to break down the myths of a career in Silicon Valley.


What, if anything, might change with the Startup Academy, based on any feedback in the pilot program? Will it continue?
I think College of Business and Economics Dean Georgette Chapman Phillips, the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center team and I would all agree that the program was a huge success. Of course, there are always opportunities to learn and improve. Now that we’ve implemented a successful pilot program, we have an incredible opportunity to build upon our insights from the experience as it relates to entrepreneurial talent development, and grow the impact of the program for both students and the startup community. I’m excited to see what the future holds for Startup Academy. Onward and upward!

To learn more about Lehigh's collaboration with the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center, visit lehighnasdaqcenter.com

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Samantha Dewalt is the managing director of the Lehigh@NasdaqCenter.