UTSA Entrepreneurs Learn by Doing
Graffiti isn't something most people admire, but Davin Gutierrez is working to find ways for creators of the ubiquitous urban scrawl to channel their creativity into art that can be appreciated by a much wider audience.
Gutierrez, an amateur artist who has spent years working in the information technology field, is a senior in UTSA's College of Business. Last spring, he started GRAFFITI Foundation, a social enterprise committed to supporting artists and the community. The company, whose name stands for Gathering Responsible Artists For the Fight In Transcending Irresponsibility, aims to support graffiti artists by connecting them with other venues for creating and displaying their art and even providing the supplies they need. But Gutierrez also wants his company to support public arts programs and serve as a collective that helps artists—not just graffiti artists—earn a living doing what they love.
"We're not trying to say everyone is irresponsible who does graffiti," Gutierrez says. "We're just trying to say that there's a better way to do things. … Some do it for a purpose; some do it for their name, to get recognition. I don't know what the root of that is but we're trying to get them to be more responsible and help them build on a skill that they have. These guys and girls have great talent, and we want to use that instead of having them pay fines or go to jail or any of that."
On its Web site, graffitifound.com, the company sells original art as well as T-shirts, calendars and other items featuring participating artists' work. Plans include offering local businesses plagued by unwanted graffiti the option of having a mural created on their property, Gutierrez says.
What gave Gutierrez the push to start his company was a class he took last spring as part of his Small Business Entrepreneurship concentration. His instructor, senior lecturer Anita Leffel, requires her students to start a business. Leffel teaches students what goes into creating a business and encourages them to get out there and try it for themselves.
What sets GRAFFITI Foundation apart is its higher purpose, says Leffel, who teaches students not only about for-profit businesses but also social enterprises.
"Social entrepreneurship is taking all of the tools that a business person learns—accounting, budget, spreadsheet, business plan, hiring and firing, profit, sustainability—all of that, but you are geared not toward making a profit for your shareholder, [but toward solving] a social issue. So, yes, it's a not-for-profit, but it's one that has to be sustainable.
"Davin starts a business so that he can help others," she says. "That's what social entrepreneurship is. He's an artist, but he has a business mind."
Gutierrez graduated in December. He and classmate and business partner Castulo Jimenez worked on the business this fall as their practicum project, including setting up a nonprofit and holding a graffiti "slam" and auction event.
"It's more of a whole new approach," Gutierrez says of their business model. "Instead of trying to be a gallery where I have to pay [for] the space, I have to pay [for] lighting and all of that, we don't have those costs. We're also like a street team—we try to … promote artists at the events they go to. If they have pieces they want to sell, they can direct people to our Web site."
One GRAFFITI Foundation artist, 16-year-old Noe De Dios, had gotten in trouble for tagging school property. Since that experience, the high school student has focused on refining his graffiti—now using an airbrush instead of spray cans to create his work on canvases provided by GRAFFITI Foundation.
"I wanted to prove to my dad it isn't a bad thing to do," he says of his reasons for getting involved with Gutierrez's company.
De Dios is trying to recruit other graffiti artists to join GRAFFITI Foundation, which also offered him his first chance to create art "live" during the graffiti slam and artist expo supported by the College of Business and UTSA's Center for Innovation and Technology Entrepreneurship that was held at Centro Cultural Aztlan in October. Pieces created during the event were to be auctioned at the slam.
De Dios loves experimenting with vivid colors and the "wild" style he has developed as his signature, but he plans to avoid illegal graffiti. He hopes to do his own murals. "I haven't got into trouble for a while now," he says. "I like this."
Learning by doing
GRAFFITI Foundation is one of a number of businesses—some social enterprises, some not—created by students in Leffel's classes over the past several years. Students have published a magazine, created an eco-friendly cleaning service that gives employees the chance to go into business for themselves, found and marketed Guatemalan products while ensuring fair prices for the artisans who crafted them, and designed a Craigslist-style Web site for the UTSA community. Leffel wants students to learn to be entrepreneurs by being … entrepreneurs. Classroom learning takes students only so far, Leffel says, and is not a substitute for getting out and doing the work.
Leffel champions experiential learning, an idea whose roots can be traced to ancient philosophers such as Confucius, whom Leffel quotes in her e-mail signature: "I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand."
Says Leffel: "I feel like my job is to take those ideas and not to say, ‘No, you can't do that,' but to say, ‘Why not? Let's do it. Let's try it. We're in a protected environment, why not? And then you tell me why it would or wouldn't work.' Changing from a theory-directed approach to an experiential approach is challenging. It's very difficult to do because you have to let go and guide them, but … I see the learning taking place every single time."
Cory Hallam, director of the university's Center for Innovation and Technology Entrepreneurship (CITE), says the university is trying to give students the tools they need to tap into their innate business sense. "What we're trying to do is unlock that inner entrepreneur," he says.
These hands-on experiences writing business plans, exploring social entrepreneurship and launching startup companies distinguish UTSA from institutions that feed students a diet rich in theory and abstraction, he adds.
"A lot of the research says classes are about learning skills and cases and ideas, but it's really the application that infuses that skill into the student," Hallam says. "So I think what we're building with UTSA puts us well ahead of other schools where it's just coursework."
Bringing it all together
"Studies talk about whether you are born or trained [to be] an entrepreneur," Hallam says. "We do know that some people have personalities that lean more toward it. We can identify those and in doing so give them some experiences that let them self-identify, [and say], ‘Wow, this was tough, but I really liked it.' " The experience can be as enlightening for students who realize they would prefer the stability of an 8-to-5 job to the challenges of being an entrepreneur, he adds.
"And that's fine. But for those that we're able to really touch and give the experience to … they are going to be the ones spinning off a new company."
CITE is a joint venture of the colleges of Business and Engineering. In addition to the Technology Startup Competition, CITE also runs a daylong tech startup boot camp twice a year that is open to students, faculty and local entrepreneurs. Faculty involved with the center also perform research in the field of entrepreneurship to better inform the center's work and focus. The center also strives to give students real experiences rather than classroom projects hatched from hypothetical scenarios, and to that end, pairs faculty or outside companies with graduate students to work on projects. One such endeavor is a startup guidebook that faculty wrote with two management of technology graduate students that awaits publication.
Also in the works is a certificate in technology entrepreneurship and management that would initially be available to biomedical Ph.D. students and then to others.
The long-term vision for UTSA's entrepreneurship offerings include an entrepreneur residence hall, where students can live and work with office and meeting space conveniently nearby, says Hallam. He also envisions an entrepreneur hub on campus, where area businesses, students and faculty can readily share ideas and innovate in a dynamic setting.
Eyes on the prize
Begun in 2007, the twice-yearly Technology Startup Competition pairs senior engineering students with senior business students and now offers $100,000 in prizes. The engineering students spend a semester developing a product and then partner with business students to come up with a plan for commercializing the product in the second semester.
Past competitions have yielded products including a baby monitor intended to alert parents to potential signs of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, as well as motorcycle helmets with built-in signal equipment, a computer glove that wirelessly interfaces with the computer, and a hydraulic system for splitting tractors for repairs.
By the end of the competition, which is not graded, the student teams are able to show that their ideas work and are ready to be funded to create a version for sale, Hallam says.
New this year is a mentoring partnership with the local Harvard Business Club, in which members of the club will consult with the tech startup competition teams.
"Young students have ideas, they have energy, but they have no experience whatsoever," Hallam says. "Part of this experiential learning is to have good mentoring."
One of the judges at the spring competition was Vin Montes '04, CEO of Nerd Energy. While a pre-med senior at UTSA, Montes created Nerd, a focus and energy beverage intended to increase students' study stamina. He researched ingredients and made batches in his kitchen that left others in his study group clamoring for more. But without any business background, it took him two years to formally launch his company, now based in Roanoke, Va. He is on an indefinite leave of absence from medical school while he concentrates on his business.
"My hat goes off to Cory. What he's doing is great," Montes says of CITE's Hallam. Had the entrepreneurship resources now available at UTSA been around while Montes was a student, he adds, "I would have been able to [start my business] in a quarter of the time."
For Castulo Jimenez, chief operating officer of GRAFFITI Foundation, going through the process of setting up a business while in college makes his dream of starting his own video and entertainment retail business seem all the more possible. And that kind of awareness and self-assurance is just what Leffel and Hallam are intent on fostering.
"It's given me the confidence I need to start a business," Jimenez says. "It's stuff you couldn't learn from a book."
- Kate Hunger