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Kevin Zhang, CC ’14 and the former president of Columbia Organization of Rising Entrepreneurs, is helping organize the first #StartupColumbia competition.

Student business groups are hoping that a $50,000 prize will foster a startup culture at Columbia and get students thinking about entrepreneurship opportunities.

This prize is a part of the first #StartupColumbia festival, to be held on April 11, which aims to bring the startup buzz to Columbia. As part of a University-wide competition during the festival, a total of $50,000 will be awarded to the top three student business proposals to help them get started.

"We wanted to have an event that celebrates entrepreneurship and hopefully gets the word out to students informed about it, and interested in it," said Jackie Luo, CC '17, vice president of the Columbia Organization of Rising Entrepreneurs, and one of the festival's organizers.

The day-long festival will feature presentations from successful startups, including a keynote address by Dennis Crowley, the founder and CEO of Foursquare.

"I think we need a really big headliner conference to show the University and students and groups on campus to show our commitment to helping them explore opportunities to entrepreneurship," Kevin Zhang, CC '14 and the former president of CORE, said.

"The competition highlights a year's worth of work on the part of students to create their own businesses," Zhang said.

In addition to CORE, the festival is organized by the Columbia Entrepreneurs Organization, the Business School's Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center, the Entrepreneurship Office at Columbia's Office of Alumni and Development, and Barnard's Athena Center for Leadership Studies.

The organizers hope that the festival will help break stereotypes about the types of careers Columbia students are interested in.

"There's this stereotype that Columbia students are only interested in consulting or finance—and I'm guilty of that to some degree, too," Zhang said. "And there's nothing wrong with that, but what's unfortunate is that a lot of people think they have to enter into those fields because they have no other choice."

Luo said that she came to college interested in pursing a career in investment banking, but found the startup culture more appealing.

"I was most interested in investment banking. I was really interested in it because I was most interested in economics and I thought that would be an interesting thing to be involved in," Luo said. "At the same time, I really didn't like the culture associated with investment banking, and startup culture is something that's very different to that."

Organizers hope that the startup fesitival will encourage students to take an interest in entrepreneurship and boost Columbia's growing entrepreneur community.

"One very effective way of doing culture change is getting a group of like-minded people together, and that by definition is a culture," Chris McGarry, director for entrepreneurship at the Office of Alumni and Development, said.

As part of the startup competition, students will submit a pitch for their startups, build business plans, and test their market demand. If a group makes it to the final round, members will present their final business plan at the festival—a test of presentation and salesmanship abilities.

McGarry expects that proposed startups will mainly be centered around technology or have a social component.

"What I'm expecting to see, 90 percent, will have a technology foundation. Not necessarily an innovative technology, but maybe an innovative application of existing technology," he said.  "Connecting people together is not an innovating technology. We have dating sites, we have Facebook, we have LinkedIn, but there might be an innovative application for that."

Although Luo and Zhang said they're both excited to help grow a startup culture at Columbia, they think at least this year, the money might not go to an undergraduate proposal.

"To be honest, I think the reality is that we won't see a lot of undergrad businesses win or make the finals," Zhang said. "But what I do think [the competition] does is be the light at the end of tunnel."

"We want to make sure if we give someone $50,000, hopefully that's going to help them in a company that will actually succeed," Luo said.

Emma Bogler contributed reporting.  |  @ezactron

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