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PIE in the Sky

news1The Project for Innovation and Entrepreneurship gives young entrepreneurs local opportunities
A world-class university, UC Santa Cruz is known for cultivating young talent and innovation. But, faced with the prospect of Santa Cruz’s tough job market and a seeming lack of entrepreneurial opportunities, many graduates pack up and head out after receiving their diplomas. The city and UCSC have been trying

to figure out how to retain the auspicious workforce for some time now, and have finally come up with what they believe will curb this outward flow of talent: the Project for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, or PIE.

A collaboration between the city and UCSC, PIE is an internship program designed to place highly talented and motivated students into high tech and green tech startups. It aims to funnel some of the vitality back into the city.

“PIE is more than internships, it’s a project geared toward fostering innovation and entrepreneurship in Santa Cruz by providing local opportunities and mentoring that will result in job creation and retention,” says Bonnie Lipscomb, executive director of the City of Santa Cruz Redevelopment Agency (RDA). Lipscomb created PIE with UCSC Economics Professor Dr. Nirvikar Singh in October 2008. The project is financially supported by both the RDA and UCSC, and receives faculty and staff support from the engineering and economics departments.

At the program’s inception, it was called the Pilot Project for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and primarily focused on “a series of internships and business concepts that supported last year’s AMGEN [bike] race,” says Peter Koht, economic development coordinator for the City of Santa Cruz. He recruits most of PIE’s businesses and serves as a mentor for the interns.

After the race, the project’s focus switched to placing enterprising students into local businesses. From just 10 businesses listed in the winter of 2009, there are now listings from more than 30 businesses, running the gamut from national research organizations like NASA to local enterprise technology companies like Plantronics. Many of the participating businesses are startups, which gives students the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of developing a business.

“Students take away the experience of building a company, of seeing what it takes to actually run a business,” says Eric Gonzalez, internship coordinator for PIE and, currently, its only staff member. “They’re not just filing, they’re not just doing one task.”

The PIE process itself is pretty simple. The project’s website (innovatesantacruz.com) has a list of open and filled internships. Students can browse the open internships, read up on the companies involved, and apply for positions that interest them. If a student gets a “ping” back from the employer, they set up an interview, and proceed from there. The internships usually require about 10 hours a week, and students get credit or compensation for the internship.

The other main component of the project is the speaker series, which aims to reinforce the lessons learned on the job. Every other week, founders and executives from local businesses give talks on various work-related topics, anything from “starting a business to finance to marketing,” says Gonzalez. “A lot of times, it’s more of a discussion, with students asking questions about what it’s like to be where they are,” he adds. The speakers also benefit from these sessions by meeting the students and getting “first dibs on the best interns,” according to PIE’s website.

Colin Mark-Griffin, one of PIE’s interns, says that the speaker seminars are a valuable part of the program and a great way to network. “I’ve met tons of local people,” he says. “It’s really small, there’s only about eight of us, and it’s personal.”

Mark-Griffin, a recent UCSC graduate and one of PIE’s “success stories,” is working with the City of Santa Cruz’s climate change coordinator on a project called CERF (Coastal Energy Research Facility). Their ultimate goal is to make the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf self-sustaining (in terms of energy) through solar panels, wind turbines, and other forms of renewable energy. While Mark-Griffin may or may not end up working on the project long-term (depending on whether they receive a grant), he is hopeful that something permanent will come out of his connection with PIE and the local entrepreneurs he has met.

“I was in the beginning of my fifth year and really trying to figure out if I could find a job around here, kinda freaking out,” remembers Mark-Griffin. “I’m an out of state student from Michigan, so I really didn’t want to have to go home. [The speaker series] really helped me gain a small network of connections. I think [PIE] has the potential to help me stay in Santa Cruz. That’s the goal of the project, and I think it’s actually going to work.”

He’s not the only one. PIE details a number of success stories on its website, and Gonzales says that about a quarter of the interns continue working for the same company after completing their internship. Some program graduates also go on to start their own entrepreneurial endeavors. PIE lets graduates use their workspace to incubate their startups. Six teams from the program have used the space for their own projects in the last two years. (In typical PIE wisdom, the website says of these teams: “Some are still going, some have failed, all have benefited from the experience.”)

PIE’s success stories may have something to do with the type of students who participate in the program. The project’s website makes it clear that it’s aimed at highly motivated, professional students. “If you’re a self starter, if you’re unafraid to make connections, to build your network and hone your skills, we’re here for you,” reads the homepage. “But we’re not able to hold your hand.” Gonzalez, who is in charge of recruiting interns, says that part of his job also involves trying to attract the “right type of students” to the program.

“We’re definitely looking for a student that knows that there’s a lot to learn,” he says. “And [who] has a bit more of a risk-taking personality in their professional development … We look for students that know that there are many different ways to the same solution.” After all, the goal of PIE is to attract the best and the brightest young entrepreneurs to Santa Cruz businesses. As Gonzalez puts it, “We’re injecting the student talent back into the community.”

The current economic climate and job market make PIE an even more vital presence. It serves as an opportunity for students in a time and place where opportunities may be hard to come by. Mark-Griffin explains, “It’s easy to get caught up in going, ‘the economy’s bad, I don’t have a job’…[The PIE program] is a breath of fresh air.”

Gonzalez echoes this sentiment. “I’ve always seen the frustrations of trying to get a job and trying to get experience, it’s like the chicken and the egg,” he says. “Students don’t know even where to look these days as career centers are being downsized and education is getting more expensive. I feel like we’re serving a really essential need for students.”

Koht also says he’s happy with the program’s effectiveness and success so far, and that he hopes it will encourage future collaborations between the city and university. “Eventually we’d like the PIE and [UCSC’s] Business Plan Competition to coalesce into a bigger effort to foster tech and talent transfer out of the engineering and business programs up on campus to the broader Santa Cruz community,” he says.

Watch out, Silicon Valley.

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