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Monday, September 25, 2023

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SDSU has started a Founders' Pledge program to encourage philanthropy by future entrepreneurs. Pictured above: A view of the ZIP Launchpad work space. SDSU has started a Founders' Pledge program to encourage philanthropy by future entrepreneurs. Pictured above: A view of the ZIP Launchpad work space.

Make it Big, Pay it Back

Founders’ Pledge gives future entrepreneurial success stories a chance to show some thankfulness for SDSU after they’ve achieved success.
By SDSU News Team

They met mentors and investors who pushed them to their best, saw the tangible benefits of learning to network, and picked up key principles for starting a business.

For the first four alumni to sign on to San Diego State University’s new Founders’ Pledge program, ZIP Launchpad played what they now realize was a key role in bringing their entrepreneurial dreams to fruition. They may not have yet reached the point of success where they can pay it forward — but what they can do is promise not to forget.

Founders’ Pledge is a nonbinding commitment to support SDSU in the future with a gift reflecting their appreciation for the part the university played in making it big; whether it was learning the art of the 30-second elevator pitch or building an effective entrepreneurial team. Donors decide how much to give, what to give to, and when.

Cathy Pucher, executive director of ZIP Launchpad, said many graduates of the campus incubator stay in touch and show interest “to give back and share what they’ve learned with others.”

“The pledge will be another way in which they can express their gratitude,” she said.

One thankful pledge is from Cody Barbo, co-founder and CEO of Trust & Will, an online estate planning service that boasts a staff of 90. After entering SDSU as a film major, Barbo got a foot in the door of the business with an earlier entrepreneurial startup idea at what was then the Zahn Innovation Center, which he remembers for its free coffee and “a space to work out of.”

“I credit Cathy Pucher and the staff over there at the ZIP Launchpad who gave us a home when I didn’t have one,” Barbo said in written responses to a questionnaire on his involvement with Founders’ Pledge. “Kudos to San Diego State for fostering such a great entrepreneurial mindset for students and for alumni.”

ZIP Launchpad is a free extracurricular program offering undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff assistance and expertise for early-stage ideas that address a significant problem. Those accepted into the program receive what Pucher calls “step-by-step learning on how to bring their ideas to life” and experience in essential skills through hands-on, applied learning.

ZIP (short for Zahn Innovation Platform) launchpad has a full-time staff of four, assisted by additional part-time staff and student interns. About 35 teams are in development at any given time.

In 10 years “we have helped over 350 unique ideas, most of which have come from undergrad students,” Pucher said. At least 33 of those have gone to an actual launch resulting in over $20M in early stage funding

Founders’ Pledge is modeled after a program of the same name at the University of California, Berkeley, where more than 400 alumni have signed on. UC Santa Barbara, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and Columbia Business School are among more than a dozen other institutions with pledge programs.

Along with Pucher, the SDSU program is administered by Alex DeNoble, professor of management and executive director of the Lavin Entrepreneurship Center in the Fowler College of Business, and Tommy Martindale, director of technology transfer. The three officials have teamed up on previous projects, Pucher said, and “we're all super proud of what we've been able to advance together.”

In addition to Barbo, the pioneer pledges for SDSU are:

Luke Sophinos (‘18), founder of CourseKey, a software management platform for trade schools.

“When people ask me what it takes to succeed as an entrepreneur, I tell them to surround themselves with smart people and be ready to work hard,” Sophinos wrote. “The ZIP Launchpad and SDSU gave me the opportunity to do both. I met mentors and investors who pushed me to be my best, and the (center) gave me and my co-founders a free place to put the long hours necessary to get our company off the ground.”

Shan Cureton (‘16, ‘18), a transfer student from Southwestern College who developed an idea for a transportation service for children in San Diego.

“I was able to learn the core elements of launching a business that can scale and be sustainable,” said Cureton, now working for a different company and planning a new venture for possible launch next year. “At the core of my entrepreneurial journey lives the heart of SDSU.”

Breanne Acio (‘14, ‘16), a first-gen student who started Sekr, a mobile app assisting travelers to campgrounds.

“What the SDSU ZIP Launchpad did for me was open up a world and a network that I never knew existed: venture capital and startup,” Acio wrote. “It wasn’t that I lacked the ability to raise capital, it was that nothing in my environment had showed me it was possible.”

It’s too soon to tell how many other success stories will come aboard for the pledge, but there’s a strong pool from which to draw.

“The individuals that have expressed interest in participating are incredibly talented individuals,” Pucher said. “It could be game-changing for what their philanthropy can do in terms of the ZIP Launchpad and other places on campus.

“I think our participants realize the value of what was given, and they're grateful.”

Learn more about SDSU’s Founders’ Pledge.