Kairos Society Helps Student Entrepreneurs Test Business Ideas

Kairos Society Founder Ankur Jain
Ankur Jain, a senior at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and the president and founder of Kairos Society. Source: Kairos Society via Bloomberg

Hemant Sahal, a 22-year-old college student, said his idea for a business began with a bike ride through impoverished villages in his native northern India.

There he met slum residents with skin-pigment disorders caused by metal pollutants in their drinking water. When he learned about metal absorption in a college chemistry course several years later, he said he envisioned mass-producing a small, sponge-like product to cheaply purify water.

Sahal, a senior at Vellore Institute of Technology in Vellore, India, is among 350 student entrepreneurs who will get the chance to run their business plans past top executives when the Kairos Society hosts its third Global Summit networking event Feb. 25 and Feb. 26 in New York City.

“The desire to do well and change the world is prevalent among our generation,” said Ankur Jain, the group’s 21-year-old founder, who’s a senior at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “It has a lot to do with how connected we are. Our generation seems to look at these problems as opportunities.”

Most of Kairos members, like Sahal, have ideas for improving global living conditions and the environment such as electric motorcycles for city residents or portable solar panels for farmers. The event will include sessions on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and the United Nations headquarters where students from the U.S., China, Europe, India, Mexico and Saudi Arabia will mingle with about 50 business leaders.

Executive Mentors

Among the executives scheduled to attend are: Peter Diamandis, chief executive officer and founder of the X Prize Foundation, a Playa Vista, California-based company that hosts competitions for entrepreneurs; Duncan Niederauer, chief executive officer of NYSE Euronext, owner of the New York Stock Exchange; and Bruce Mosler, chairman of global brokerage for New York-based Cushman & Wakefield Inc., the world’s largest privately held commercial real estate broker.

Mosler said he wanted to mentor Kairos Society entrepreneurs because their technology-focused, humanitarian businesses ideas have good potential to succeed and may create jobs.

“More and more young people are leaving college with viable businesses in hand,” Mosler said. “The more we can create successful entrepreneurs, the more we combat unemployment down the road.”

The U.S. unemployment rate among 16-to-24-year-olds was 18.9 percent in January, compared with 19.8 percent the year before, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Problem Solvers

Diamandis of X Prize said he wanted to attend the summit to help students use networking to build their businesses. “When I was in college, I would have killed for that kind of guidance,” he said.

Young entrepreneurs are not necessarily aiming to create jobs, said Doan Winkel, assistant professor of entrepreneurship at Illinois State University and a member of the Nashville, Tennessee-based U.S. Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship. They want to solve social problems and make money as well, he said.

“They’re recognizing there are ways to address social needs and still be profitable,” Winkel said. “There’s a movement to do both. They have the energy. They haven’t been beaten down by corporate life.”

Jain’s father is Naveen Jain, chief executive officer and co-founder of Intelius Inc., a public records business based in Bellevue, Washington, and previously was a program manager for Microsoft Corp. and founder of InfoSpace Inc., a Bellevue-based Internet search service. Naveen Jain grew up in New Delhi.

‘Not About Luck’

“He came from a world I don’t understand,” Jain said of his father’s childhood poverty. “He taught me it’s not about luck. It’s about a lot of hard work that ends up creating luck.”

The younger Jain, who started Kairos in 2008 to provide business mentoring to would-be student entrepreneurs, declined to disclose membership numbers or the group’s budget, which he said is supported by donations from sponsors such as the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation based in Kansas City, Missouri. Carl Schramm, president and chief executive officer of the foundation, which supports entrepreneurship, said his group donated $50,000 last year.

“These kids are very serious,” Schramm said. “They are self-starters. They know they can do good and do well at the same time. We’re always interested in what’s moving the train of entrepreneurship.”

Working Businesses

Several Kairos members have been able transform their ideas into businesses, Jain said. Levant Power Corp., a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company founded by former Massachusetts Institute of Technology student Shakeel Avadhany, makes a vehicle shock absorber that converts the bumps in the road into energy, according to the company’s website.

MobilEdu is an iPhone application developed by former Stanford students Kayvon Beykpour and Joe Bernstein that universities can customize to let students look up information such as class schedules, events and maps. Their San Francisco-based company, Terriblyclever Design LLC, was acquired in 2009 by Blackboard Inc., a Washington-based company that makes software for colleges, according to a press release.

Jain said the organization subsidizes food and travel for some students to attend, while the majority of those in Kairos, which means “decisive moment” in ancient Greek, will pay their own way to New York. The group is registered in Bellevue, Washington, and has no official ties to colleges and universities. There are no membership dues.

Center for Startups

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a business federation based in Washington, said on Feb. 3 it would contribute a portion of a $1 million grant through its Campaign for Free Enterprise program to Kairos, without disclosing a specific amount. The effort is part of the White House’s Startup America Partnership announced Jan. 31 to encourage startups.

The Chamber also will announce plans to form a new Center for Entrepreneurship during the Kairos event, said Stan Anderson, managing director for the chamber’s Campaign for Free Enterprise. He said the center, which will lobby on behalf of entrepreneurs, wants to hear from Kairos members about what issues are affecting their ability to launch businesses.

“I find enormous opportunity among young people in entrepreneurism,” Anderson said. “Part of it is that they realize that there may not be that job available like there was for their mother or father. It motivates these young people to start their own companies.”

Sahal, the biotechnology engineering student who’s dubbed his water-purifying idea CALLMAT, said he hopes the conference will help him proceed.

“I’ll need more time to bring it to market,” Sahal said. “What I’m looking for is more advice on how to go forward on this.”

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