Categorized | Business

Forget About Academics, It’s Business on Campus

Posted on 18 October 2009

Class ends at 10:50 a.m., and a mass of students scurries out of room 410 in Hamilton Hall. Only Bryan Berkett remains.

“So,” says Roosevelt Montas, the teacher, “you missed the midterm.” He adds, “If I had to give you a grade today, it would be an F.”

Minutes later, walking across the Columbia University campus in New York, Mr. Berkett is reflective. “I try to go [to class] occasionally, but there’s so much stuff I have to do,” he says. “I’m taking six classes, which is actually stupid for a businessman.”

A businessman, indeed. Mr. Berkett is a college freshman, barely 19 years old. But like many collegians today, he sees academics as a sideshow, a formality to be handled expeditiously. His real reason for attending this Ivy League institution is to forge the connections and gain the credibility needed to jump-start a business.

And college campuses are increasingly ideal settings for aspiring entrepreneurs. They are flush not only with brainpower but also with capital, connections and accommodating administrations. Columbia is no exception. Last year, the university launched Columbia Media Enterprises LLC, a wholly owned company that secures funding and new uses for business initiatives hatched at the university. An undergraduate investment club plans to sponsor its first entrepreneurship competition next year. And the university’s trustees include many heavy hitters on Wall Street.

“I came here for the opportunities, whether it’s [meeting] businessmen, politicians,” says Mr. Berkett, a native Californian. “New York City was such a huge factor.”

And so it’s no surprise that Mr. Berkett seems unruffled by his encounter with Mr. Montas. He doesn’t pretend to be interested in Columbia’s vaunted core curriculum made up of required liberal-arts courses. “At some point, it hit me,” says Mr. Berkett. “I’d rather do stuff, be a mover, than a reader.”

Taped to the door of Mr. Berkett’s dorm room are several photocopied passages from Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged.” One, highlighted in yellow, reads, “Money is the barometer of a society’s virtue.”

Apologetic No More

“He’s never ashamed of himself,” Mr. Berkett says admiringly of John Galt, the protagonist in “Atlas Shrugged.” Mr. Berkett straightens his six-foot-three-inch frame in his black leather jacket. “He was proud that he’s making money. He gave me a new confidence. I went through a lot of my life feeling apologetic that I’m a rich white boy from Beverly Hills.”

Mr. Berkett crosses a city street and enters another university hall. He hasn’t even glanced at his paper on Saint Augustine, which Mr. Montas returned to him marked B and “one week late.” There’s no time. He has a business engagement. At 11:15, Mr. Berkett is meeting with Robert Moskovitz and Christopher Simoneau, the directors of business and contract services at Columbia. The men have agreed to discuss an idea Mr. Berkett thinks will make him rich: creating a credit card for children. “The idea is giving the kid almost financial training wheels,” he explains.

The three men sit in Mr. Moskovitz’s office. “I’ve made huge strides since our last meeting,” Mr. Berkett says. “All those parental controls we talked about seem completely doable.” He ticks off a few — spending limits, parental approval, a vendor list.

“You’re going to hire us once you get started,” jokes Mr. Moskovitz.

The meeting is the result of careful calculating by Mr. Berkett. Months earlier, he ran for class president. Elected, he scheduled an appointment with Mr. Moskovitz to discuss dining services. But he had other motives for the session. “I started harvesting that friendship,” he explains.

And so, when Mr. Berkett stumbled upon his idea in February, he quickly booked time with the directors to bounce it around.

“If the card is associated with traditional credit issuers,” cautions Mr. Moskovitz, “you have to question whether that’s a negative or a positive.” He and Mr. Simoneau suggest that Mr. Berkett perhaps align with an independent or online bank.

A book titled “The Heart of Coaching” sits on a nearby shelf, and Mr. Berkett opens a leather binder and uncaps a pen, ready to take notes.

The conversation quickly turns to the viability of the teen market. “If we can get a child when they’re 12 and hold onto them for years, we’re really going to have that loyalty,” says Mr. Berkett. “The average weekly allowance for a teenager is over $50 a week. It’s a $150 billion market.”

Mr. Berkett should know. After all, he’s still a teen and looks it. On this morning, he wears a royal blue houndstooth Tommy Hilfiger shirt. His cropped brown hair is slicked up like that of Morrissey, the British rocker.

Mr. Simoneau raises the issue of teaching credit responsibility to young cardholders. “How do you plan to do your education?” he says. “It’s probably a couple-million-dollar-a-year educational process.”

“Is it?” asks Mr. Berkett. He jots that down.

Names for Networking

The trio discusses potential competitors, focus groups and business models before Mr. Berkett seizes a lull in the conversation. It’s time to network. “What about potential incubators?”

The names come fast and furious. In addition to Columbia Media Enterprises, there’s Columbia Innovation Enterprise, a university organization that licenses intellectual property. There’s the Lang Fund, which bankrolls student projects at the business school. There’s Joe Ienuso, who brokered a deal between the university and Citibank, a subsidiary of Citigroup Inc., in New York, concerning automatic-teller machines on campus and student checking. And, of course, there are Columbia’s trustees: the 24 men and women who oversee the university’s roughly $3.5 billion endowment.

Reading aloud from a bound copy of Columbia’s phone directory, Mr. Simoneau ticks off a few of the trustees: John Chalsty, chairman of Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, Inc., New York; Michael Patterson, a vice chairman at J.P. Morgan & Co., New York; George Van Amson, a principal of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co., New York; and Alfred Lerner, chairman and chief executive officer of MBNA Corp., Wilmington, Del.

Mr. Berkett scribbles down the names. “This may sound bizarre,” he says, “but is there a way I could just bump into [Mr. Lerner] on campus?”

Mr. Simoneau offers to speak to Mr. Lerner’s secretary, but only after Mr. Berkett has pulled together his business plan. “You’re going about it the right way,” he says. “Just ask people for connections.”

By the time the meeting ends, Mr. Berkett has gotten names of potential investors and 70 free minutes of counsel. The three shake hands and Mr. Moskovitz turns to the freshman. “You are a student here, aren’t you?”

After the meeting, Mr. Berkett is brimming with confidence. “This may sound cocky,” he says, “but I guarantee I’ll get meetings with all those guys. Alfred Lerner — I’ll call him 100 times a day.”

He has reason to be optimistic. In just two semesters, he has spoken with Sheldon Weinig, a former vice chairman at Sony Corp. of America, and Henry Schacht, former chairman and CEO of Lucent Technologies Inc., in Murray Hill, N.J. But Mr. Berkett is less a novelty than a young man with a well-executed modus operandi. He has attended calculus class just two times all semester, while just twice he has missed a class he wangled himself into at the business school. He devotes his nights to sculpting his business plan, reading the Industry Standard, the San Francisco-based Internet magazine, and e-mailing contacts. And he’s a regular at business lectures at the university, which, time and again, have proved fertile.

In March, for example, Mr. Berkett went to hear Alby Hecht speak on campus. After the lecture, Mr. Berkett approached Mr. Hecht, the president of the film and television division at Viacom Inc.’s, Nickelodeon division, and told him about his credit-card idea. Mr. Hecht arranged for Mr. Berkett to meet Mike Skagerlind, general manager of Nickelodeon’s Web site. Their meeting was scheduled for a Wednesday morning, smack during a quiz in Mr. Berkett’s International Politics class. Mr. Berkett skipped the quiz.

“I hate to call a businessman and say I can’t make it,” Mr. Berkett says. “That’s why I end up missing classes.”

Mr. Berkett walks into Columbia’s new student activity center, Alfred Lerner Hall. He grabs a sandwich and checks his mail. It’s a good day: Both Business Week and Maxim, a cheeky magazine for young men, have arrived. Mr. Berkett turns to Business Week first, fitting for a young man who puts work before pleasure.

Still, Mr. Berkett insists that he has fun with friends. “It’s awesome,” he says. “We go to a bar and get drunk and just talk about business.” But it’s clear that for Mr. Berkett, college is less an opportunity for friendship than partnership.

‘Like the Gold Rush’

“Brian’s very bright,” says Mr. Simoneau. “And he’s made the same realization that many people in the world have made — that [the Internet age] is like the Gold Rush of 1849, that this is like the Industrial Revolution, and he wants to be a part of it. That’s what’s driving him.”

Mr. Berkett’s plan to market a credit card to children may just work. “You could do it,” says Steve Boyden, a spokesman at MBNA, the world’s largest independent credit card issuer. But, he adds, “we don’t feel it’s appropriate to market to someone who can’t make that decision.”

In most states, the age of majority when people can sign their own credit-card slips is 18. But parents can guarantee credit cards for children below the age of 18 — as long as they assume the responsibility for their children’s charges. “Whatever [the child] charges on that card, the primary cardholder is responsible,” says Catherine Cummings, vice president of consumer affairs at MasterCard International in Purchase, N.Y.

At 2:15, Mr. Berkett and Roni Laserson follow Omar Dessouky into an empty boardroom in the student center. They close the door behind them. The three students are officers in CORE, the Columbia Organization of Rising Entrepreneurs, which Mr. Dessouky co-founded in 1998. They’ve gathered to discuss forming an entrepreneurship competition similar to the $50,000 bonanzas mushrooming on campuses across the country.

They discuss competition guidelines, judges, sponsorship, business cards. Were Ms. Laserson, a sophomore, not to flip up her ponytail, strap on her backpack and walk off to catch the remaining minutes of a professor’s office hours, the meeting might be at any corporation.

Like Mr. Berkett, Mr. Dessouky, a senior, is hoping to start a business (distributing ergonomic chairs). But first he will graduate. And he’s certain Mr. Berkett won’t. “I bet him $200 and 200 pushups that he’s going to quit school and start his own business,” says Mr. Dessouky.

If Mr. Berkett isn’t careful, he may be forced to leave school — no matter the $35,000 his family shelled out this year just for his tuition, room, board and assorted university fees. Students at Columbia College whose grade average slips below C for two consecutive semesters are asked to take a semester off. But Mr. Berkett says that even though he rarely attends class, he’s in no danger of landing on academic probation.

“I’m dismayed by his willingness to give up his entire education,” says Mr. Weinig, the Sony executive who spoke with Mr. Berkett. “I told him, if he wants to be rich and stupid, it’s not a bad plan.”

George Rupp, president of Columbia University, is also concerned about students less interested in graduation than networking. “I think it’s deeply problematic,” he says. But, he adds, “that kind of energized focus on developing business plans is extremely rare.”

Missing Person

The CORE meeting ends, and Mr. Berkett heads for the building’s exit. A student with a Prince tennis bag slung over his shoulder stops him just shy of the door. “Hey,” he says. “Haven’t seen you in philosophy in awhile.”

Mr. Berkett walks past a colossal 16th-century tapestry that extends nearly from floor to ceiling some 25 feet high. He has come to Mr. Rupp’s office for a meeting he managed to schedule just the day before. Quickly, Mr. Berkett makes it known that he hasn’t come on class-president business. “My company’s designing a kid’s credit card which allows kids to take care of e-commerce,” he says.

Mr. Rupp settles into an armchair beneath an oil portrait of Seth Low, president of the university 100 years before, and Mr. Berkett begins his business presentation. He rambles on for three minutes, then asks Mr. Rupp if he’d shop his idea to Columbia’s trustees.

“It’s great that a student has an idea,” says Mr. Rupp, “but it’s not something that I’m going to make a knee-jerk reaction to.” He adds, “We have 21,000 students, lots of them imaginative.”

But Mr. Rupp quickly turns encouraging. He mentions Columbia Innovation Enterprise, which last year alone wrote more than 300 licensing agreements and earned about $100 million in revenue from its patents. And he tells Mr. Berkett that if he hands him a written business plan, he’ll consider showing it to some people at CIE.

Perhaps Mr. Rupp was wary of getting burned. Administrators who don’t take seriously their students’ flights of fancy run the risk of missing out on substantial rewards.

Consider the case of Andrew Perlman. In 1994, during his freshman year at Washington University in St. Louis, Mr. Perlman and a fellow student met with the school’s provost and executive vice president to discuss a business they hoped to form together with the university. “We wanted to make them equity partners,” recalls Mr. Perlman, now 24. “They said, ‘I’m sorry, we don’t do business with students.’”

Rebuffed, the students left school and soon enrolled as part-time students at Boston University. There they approached John Westling, then the university provost. “He said he would love to help us,” says Mr. Perlman. “He said the university would be interested in investing.”

The students’ idea developed into Cignal Global Communications Inc., a private Internet services and data provider in Cambridge, Mass., with an estimated value of $1 billion. And though Boston University ended up not partnering with the students, Mr. Perlman remains indebted to Mr. Westling, now the university president. And so, he says, he plans on making “a significant contribution” to the school in the next few years.

People at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s College of Computing in Atlanta know just how significant a donation from a twentysomething can be. In March, Christopher Klaus, 26, donated $15 million to the college. Mr. Klaus attended the school briefly before dropping out to found Internet Security Systems Inc., an electronic-security management company in Atlanta.

Venture-Capital Backing

Venture capitalists are also recognizing student-entrepreneurs. In March, James Marcus co-founded (, an angel-investor network based in New York. Mr. Marcus says that roughly a quarter of the businesses his company has paired investors with are run by students.

Mr. Berkett is certain he’ll find investors on his own. Fresh off his meeting with Mr. Rupp, he tells two friends that he has already spoken to an angel investor in Hong Kong and has plans to meet with several venture capitalists in New York. “When you’re talking to that VC,” advises one friend, Christopher Tse, “have the card in your hand.”

Mr. Berkett is sitting in the business-school cafeteria with Mr. Tse and Nicolas Perkin. His class doesn’t start for two hours, but the normally frenetic Mr. Berkett is relaxed. For him, this is heaven: a place where business graduate students mill about beneath television sets forever tuned to CNBC, a financial-news station.

It is also a place where Mr. Berkett learns a great deal. Mr. Tse, 24, is working at his fourth start-up. Mr. Perkin, 28, is a part-time business student and also a veteran of four start-ups.

The conversation turns to the dangers of creating a credit card for children. “For some reason,” says Mr. Perkin, fingering his cell phone, “I have this huge liability red flash going on in my head.” He passes on the name of a law firm, and Mr. Tse warns of exorbitant attorney fees. “Paying $6,000 is just too much,” he says.

The young men discuss everything from retainers to insurance to cellular phones to assembling a staff. Mr. Berkett says that he would like to farm out all of the positions in the company beginning with CEO. Both Mssrs. Tse and Perkin laud the decision but neither dares raise his hand.

Suddenly, Mr. Berkett leaps up. “Professor Low!” he calls.

Murray Low, the director of the entrepreneurship program at the business school, turns to see Mr. Berkett. He recognizes him, remembering when the freshman approached him after a lecture. “This is an aspiring entrepreneur,” he says.

Mr. Berkett is delighted to be recognized. Mr. Low isn’t as pleased by the encounter. “I think you have a chance to go to college once,” he tells the eager young man. As for Mr. Berkett’s business plan, he adds, “the chance of a lifetime comes around once a week.”

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