Starting Gate

Tom Gross

Not everyone who attends Western Michigan University has the desire to work the traditional 9-to-5 job that is considered the norm.  A few of its students feel compelled to become their own boss and launch a business to provide a new product or service.  Unless the newly-minted entrepreneur has sufficient background information to draw upon, the task of opening a new shop can prove to be a sizable hurdle. 

Starting Gate is a program operating in cooperation with WMU aimed at helping students begin the entrepreneurial process.

Formed in 2013, Starting Gate is an accelerator program situated in the Park Trades Center building in Kalamazoo.  It provides support for these enterprising individuals by offering a space open 24-hours a day, weekly workshops, free mentoring from professionals and alumni from the program and other opportunities as they become available.

WMU students interested in the program must be sophomore level or higher, including graduate students, in good academic standing with a solid business plan and the willingness to both passionately pursue making a business work and be willing to accept suggestions and direction.  The viability of the proposed project and temperament of the candidate are determined by an interview.  Starting Gate is available to students of all disciplines, though around 80 percent of participants in the program are from the schools of engineering and business.  The remaining 20 percent are comprised of all other fields.

Lara Hobson, the Director of Operations of Starting Gate, is one of the primary contacts for the students as they work to get their businesses off the ground.  One participant, Carl McAllister, spoke of Hobson’s involvement in his own business with weekly check-ins.  He said it helped to give him the necessary accountability to maintain focus in developing his business.  

Hobson was herself an entrepreneur in the past.  She organized secret shoppers to test stores, banks and restaurants.  Hobson sold the business when she took on her role in Starting Gate, but said she’d like to start another business in the future, though she’s uncertain what that would be at this point.

Starting Gate is not just focused on WMU students.  Last year, the program reached out to high school students of sophomore level and higher through the Entrepreneurship Camp for High School Students event.  Over two days, potential candidates were introduced to the program and afforded the chance to speak with current WMU student entrepreneurs, according to Starting Gate’s website.

While Hobson expressed a desire to see more involvement, she also noted the number of applications exceeded the number of spots available at this time.  For the regular academic year, the cap is between 10 and 12.  For the summer semester, that number goes down to “a handful,” which according to the Starting Gate website was three this past summer semester.

The most recent group of Starting Gate alumni included Nick Shaw of Shaw Aerial Imaging, Emmanuel Machena and Simba Chirara of EZ Timeout, and Aaron and Alicia Clemens of Season for a Reason.  

Starting Gate alumni have made noticeable strides in establishing their businesses. Notable alumni include Daniel Floyd with his SpeechMastrePro, a device to help with speech impediments, and the organization called SafeSense Technologies.  SafeSense Technologies is a group of four graduate students who developed a pressure sensor for football helmets to measure the amount and location of force a player experiences, according to the Grand Rapids Business Journal.  

Hobson said SafeSense Technologies has gone on to win $50,000 from the National Science Foundation and that Riddell, a manufacturer of football equipment, has ordered 70 of these new helmets to use in testing.

Hobson said a future goal was to eventually grow the program to a point where an incubator program open to the Kalamazoo community could be attached to the current accelerator program.  She defined an accelerator program as being short, within a six-month time frame, with no major financial backing, but with plenty of instruction and opportunities.  An incubator program would be years-long and have more funding attached to it.  

Starting Gate is funded by grants and donations.  Hobson said she wished to reach a point where she could give students a $2,000 budget in order to hire other students to help implement their business plan.  The goal of this would be to help the student realize their dream of starting their own business while giving the hired students a chance to practice their craft in their selected field.

The greatest strength, according to Hobson, when it comes to how Starting Gate can help a student follow their dreams, is the environment for experimentation.  She called it a safe place to fail, evaluate and try again.  Or to realize that running a business is not for that particular individual.  The focus is on learning, she said, not just opening new businesses.  She said she could also relate to the difficulty of starting a new business and that opening and running one was something that required constant attention and passion.

The current hurdles the program is experiencing, from Hobson, is funding and being understaffed.  While run through WMU, Starting Gate is not funded by the university and only two individuals are listed in the program’s directory, Hobson and Dr. Robert Landeros, the Interim Director of the Haworth College of Business Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

Hobson encouraged previous and future alumni of the program to remain in contact.

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