Swarthmore may not have a business major, but it has the annual Lax Conference on Entrepreneurship.
This year’s conference, held on April 5th, included traditional alumni speeches and discussion groups. It also included the culmination of the SwatTank competition and SwatTalks, a series of three presentations based on the popular TED Talks.
SwatTank is an innovation competition in the style of ABC’s show Shark Tank. Its four finalists presented their projects to alumni, students, and an alumni panel of judges. The teams each presented an app; the goal of each ranged from a language learning app to a travel itinerary app.
The winner, Brennan Klein ’14, presented the Wall.it app, which allows merchants to connect with users in a more relevant way than just through advertisements on social networking sites like Facebook. Klein received $3,000 and interest from influential Swarthmore alumni for his efforts. Despite the cash prize, the goal of SwatTank and the Lax Conference is not necessarily to draw Swarthmore students towards the corporate world.
“I think a lot of students think that you can either take your raw talent and put it into social work […] or academia or sell yourself out to corporate America,” Aldo Frosinini ’15, one of the founders of SwatTank, said.
SwatTank aims to take the raw talent that Swarthmore students have to offer and channel it into entrepreneurship and business.
“We [current Swarthmore students] don’t need to launch companies. […] We’re not trying to become Wharton, we’re not trying to become the next business school,” Frosinini said.
SwatTank and the Lax Conference, named after entrepreneur Jonathan Lax ‘71, work as a mentorship program for student entrepreneurs. Students had the opportunity to start business relationships with Swarthmore alumni.
“The relationships [formed the weekend of the conference] that were very helpful were from alums. There’s also the fact that alums talk to each other […] so by Monday morning word had gotten out that there was this project at Swarthmore that a few people had liked,” Klein said.
The fact that Swarthmore does not offer a major in business can work against new graduates. The idea that entrepreneurs with liberal arts degrees face greater difficulty breaking into the market than technically-trained graduates emerged several times over the course of the conference.
“We [the Swarthmore community] produce kids that don’t have specific backgrounds, but [if] you drop them into an entirely novel situation they can look at it in a couple of different ways and then figure out how to best execute,” Frosinini said.
The idea of the liberal arts as preparation for any future occupation can be difficult to see, especially when students are in the thick of writing long papers for a philosophy class or a research paper in biology.
“It’s very easy to say how beneficial a liberal arts education is in a very intangible way […] and it’s tough to make that jump until you realize, whenever you’ve written a paper and you kind of think to yourself, that’s an idea that I had that I implemented in this paper,” Klein said, emphasizing how the skills that Swarthmore students are expected to use on a daily basis for class can translate well into entrepreneurship.
Joe Turner ‘73, an independent director of emerging firms in the biotech industry, gave opening remarks at the beginning of the Lax Conference. He commented on the strengths and weaknesses of a liberal arts education in terms of breaking into business as a young graduate. He takes a pragmatic approach to success in entrepreneurship.
“Soon [after getting a job] what’s important is what have you got. Not where did you get educated, but what have you got as a business person? So it’s [about] your success and your ability to contribute to a company,” Turner said.
Ultimately, the Lax Conference on Entrepreneurship allowed students to put their passion for business and entrepreneurship on display. It encouraged them to think critically about where they want to go post-Swarthmore and about how they might implement their working business plans.
For Klein, who plans to move to Palo Alto to start up his business, the conference acted as a platform for promoting his work and for connecting with members of the business community who might help him take Wall.it to completion. Though the logistics may be difficult to carry out, Klein’s enthusiasm for his app reflects the conference’s entrepreneurial spirit.
“Please ask questions,” Klein said immediately after completing his presentation at the competition. “I love talking about this.”