EDA Grant To Help SJSU Find the Next Generation of First-Gen Entrepreneurs

by | Feb 5, 2024 | Community Engagement, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Featured, Research and Innovation

Students at a SpartUp workshop. The new EDA grant will help expand entrepreneurship opportunities to the greater San José community. Photo courtesy of Max Rothe.

To hear Abby Queale, Director of Innovation for SJSU’s Division of Research and Innovation, tell it, there’s an entire population of entrepreneurs in and around San José who aren’t even aware that they’re entrepreneurs. 

As part of the larger R&I office’s mission and SJSU’s Transformation 2030 goals, the Office of Innovation applied for and received a $300,000 grant from the Economic Development Administration (EDA) to support Mapping the Path to Evolving Silicon Valley’s Ecosystem Equity (EsVEE), a two-year project that “seeks to drive more equitable and inclusive regional economic development in Silicon Valley.” This project hopes to find precisely this population of untapped entrepreneurs.  

The effort, which begins this year, is a continuation of an ongoing project to get more diverse voices into every level of entrepreneurship. The grant will allow Queale and her team to go out into the community, collaborating with the city and county to find entrepreneurs in underserved populations and give them the chance to master the skills they need to become startup founders.

“The first phase is actually surveying underserved entrepreneurs,” Queale explains. “We have to find them and say, ‘What barriers are you actually facing? Why aren’t you getting funded or why didn’t you think entrepreneurship was a path for you?’ We have student after student after student tell us, ‘Thank you. I never knew I could be an entrepreneur.’”

Students often have more of a business background than they realize. For example, a student will tell Queale they’re a first-generation college student and they’ve worked for their parents’ dry-cleaning business for many years. When Queale points out that this counts as entrepreneurship experience, they’re often amazed. “We change that mindset,” Queale says.

From the ground up

The Office of Innovation has already done a great deal of work in this area with SpartUp, a startup incubator for San José State students, faculty and alumni that helps educate students about the steps needed to take them from an idea for a product to a fully-fledged startup. Queale and her fellow organizers discovered that their usual meeting times for SpartUp workshops were leaving some groups out (for example, athletes with rigorous training schedules and engineers who were studying during the day) and SpartUp adjusted to take the workshops to them. The results have been excellent — SpartUp exploded from 0 to 600 members in a year, and one of the student-athlete teams who attended a SpartUp workshop recently won Best Elevator Pitch at the Lucas College of Business’ Silicon Valley Innovation Challenge for their idea Concussion Coach, an adaptive impact mapping device to prevent secondary head injuries.

Andrew Jenkins, ‘21 Political Science, ‘23 MS Justice Studies, ‘24 MS Interdisciplinary Studies, was part of the winning team. He says his time at SJSU “taught me how to interface and build genuine relationships with people from all walks of life. That in turn allowed me to understand how to communicate better with people, which ultimately made my pitch better.” He’s currently a corporate security officer at Apple.

Moving off campus

Queale says that the EDA grant will allow them to “basically replicate the SpartUp model off campus. The EDA has vetted our model as unique. We, too, are entrepreneurs and didn’t want to do something that has been done before.” 

“We are very grateful for the EDA’s investment in SJSU’s efforts in building and growing an inclusive innovation ecosystem in Silicon Valley,” says Mohamed Abousalem, Vice President for Research and Innovation at SJSU. “We’re already supporting the entrepreneurs of Santa Clara County through our Silicon Valley Small Business Development Center, and this EsVEE project will help us reach further into the community to develop and deliver the most needed services.”

They also want to use the grant to help find partners (in industry and otherwise) who will help set these populations on the path to entrepreneurship.

“Our students often work for their parents growing up or have two or three jobs to support themselves while in school,” Queale says. “You don’t have to teach them customer service. You don’t have to teach them sales. You literally just have to teach them: here’s how to ideate, here’s how to find a co-founder, here’s how you should structure your company, here’s how to pitch, come up with a business plan. Go.” 

And she believes the same holds true for the greater San José community, both within the university and without. “They have that grit, that determination about where to connect with people, find customers, and gain traction,” Queale explains. For the future of entrepreneurship, she says, “My money’s on the Spartans, and I’m looking forward to taking our model out into our community.”

Learn more about projects in the Office of Innovation.