In Philly, college students power the startup community

Philadelphia Startups From College Campuses

When Pranav Ramabhadran enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, he knew he wanted to become an entrepreneur. Two years later, he’s one of the movers and shakers in the city’s startup community.

It all started at a get-together hosted by PennApps, the nation’s first and largest student-run hackathon.

“It was an incredible event,” Ramabhadran says. “I knew I wanted to be part of it. So I made connections.”

SONY DSCNow he’s director of the program. He hasn’t even gotten his degree and he’s already helping other students follow their dreams.

Startup Companies In Philadelphia

Many budding entrepreneurs choose Philadelphia because of how quickly they can learn how to start and grow their business. And one of the best places to pick up the tools of the trade is the Wharton School. The campus is filled with a growing network of people who steer newcomers in the right direction.

Consider PennApps, for instance. Back in 2009, the first event was easily housed in the school’s engineering building. Today it fills the Wells Fargo Center, an arena that usually hosts professional hockey and basketball games.

When he’s not pursuing a dual degree in computer science and marketing, Ramabhadran finds time to hang out with friends or watch soccer on TV. But the majority of his free time goes to forging deeper relationships within Philly’s startup community and building bridges that connect entrepreneurs and funders.

“The Philly entrepreneurial community is pretty close and tight knit,” Ramabhadran says. “We’re trying to grow the community of people who choose to stay in Philly, and I’m part of a community of people who want to pour all of our resources into them.”

Students finding inspiration

Penn is full of students who are already working on a startup company. Take Amira Valliani, who’s pursuing a duel degree from Penn and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She’s working to launch a food startup called Zomida.

Valliani was inspired to start the company when her mother visited her and pointed out her poor eating habits. Her mother wanted to make sure that her busy daughter always had home-cooked meals.

“My mom used to order a few home-cooked dishes every week from women in our mosque who were amazing cooks,” Valliani says. “She figured there must be people willing to sell their home-cooked dishes for some extra pocket cash, but we found it impossible to find them.”

They started Zonida, first employing student chefs and then expanding to the wider community. Valliani’s mentors have included David Fine, a Penn grad who started a food truck called Schmear It.

“I went over to his bagel truck right next to the Penn campus one day, rode around for awhile, and he led me to a bunch of chefs in the area.” Valliani says. “This was a great way to get to know the chefs off the bat.”

Valliani says that she has easily been able to tap into the community.

“I absolutely love being in Philly and the startup community here,” Valliani says. “The support here is far better than elsewhere. I’m seeing more and more folks who want to stick around.”

For startups in the education tech industry, Wharton student Erik Skantze says it’s hard to beat Philly. This serial entrepreneur is involved in a number of startups, including Ivy Standard, an online resource for vocational consulting and tutoring.

Skantze chose Wharton for two reasons: the name recognition of the business school and the willingness for seasoned entrepreneurs to make time for newcomers.

“Coming to Philly, it’s smaller but it’s advantageous if you’re a startup,” Skantze says. “In San Francisco, when you’re pitching as a tech company, there’s a lot of competition, and you can get lost in the weeds. In Philly, it’s different. There are educational resources out here, a solid and growing venture community and you might get more traction here.”

Funding is also getting easier. Ramabhadran of PennApps is also one of 12 partners at the Dorm Room Fund, managed entirely by students. It not only provides loans for startups, but also helps them with legal and accounting advice.

“The number of startups in Philly has definitely grown over the years,” says Ramabhadran. “I can tell by the number of people who are pitching to the Dorm Room Fund.”

Photo: Daniel Ge/Flickr

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