Spark is a student organization at USC dedicated to helping entrepreneurship thrive at USC. The breadth of this mission serves some purpose: entrepreneurship can mean a lot of things and it's taken various forms in the last several years at USC alone. Supporting entrepreneurship at USC might mean pitch competitions this year, when next year it might mean grassroots community building!
Our origin story
🏬 It all started in Leland Coontz's freshman year at Birkrant, USC's previous honors student dorm.
It all started Leland Coontz's freshman year in Birnkrant, USC's previous honors student dorm.
"There was a crazy sense of community on each floor, where everyone would hang out and do homework together. They mastered this awesome vibe of being smart and enjoying themselves and getting sh*t done. A synergy! - Leland
College went on and Leland would think about Birnkrant frequently: the energy and dynamic and diversity that fueled him to be his best, most curious, and ambitious self during his first semester in an unfamiliar place. At the same time, he was learning about the power of student groups. Over the years his friends from freshman year were joining up to organizations to add positions to their resumes, to collect titles and accreditations.
☂️ Secret Garages & Secret Umbrellas
Leland worked one summer at a startup in SF where he felt the entrepreneurial spirit in full-bodied form. He returned to USC and attended the entrepreneurship events at Marshall, but the vibe at those was the clear opposite.
“Everyone was talking about finance, not entrepreneurship as he understood and loved it. Marshall didn't teach anything [back then] about groundwork, prototyping, or getting heads together and trying to make shit that you could test immediately,” he said. "A handful of folks embodied that approach, but it felt siloed. Everyone was working independently in their own 'secret garage.' There was no space to share what they were working on."
Leland had a group of friends who were spread out across USC's different schools... and there was no place on campus where people could come together and share stuff and try to work on something. He was wondering why this place didn't exist when the schools' individual potentials were so deep. Then he realized: "each school cares about its reputation and image to the external world so much that sharing context with other schools detracts from the individual schools' agendas."
This place was something that should have already existed; its absence was inexcusable.
Leland recruited people from across different USC schools to help him build a community of entrepreneurs who wanted to work on their ideas and pursue their passions together – both in the same space and made better with each other's support. "Among these people was a sense of creating an open community for everyone to have access to this synergistic, collaborative spirit, but our goal was to operate in the background, almost silently. If you looked at all the other clubs, their leaders were somehow always for themselves."
Spark's first mission was born. At the time, our mission was "to inspire a culture of innovation, expose students to their creative potential, and connect makers across diverse communities." The first order of business was to create events and find spaces where students could make things together. Spark's first long-term initiative was 1000 Pitches, a pitch competition born at UMich that we transplanted to USC's campus in 2015. Our alumni collected one thousand pitches from USC students by setting up tables on campus several times weekly for months. They offered free food and t-shirts to everyone who walked up to the table and pitched an idea for a minute – the sole goal was to get people to realize that their ideas had real value. At the end of the semester, Spark got Microsoft to sponsor a closing ceremony where we awarded selected pitches with prizes.
Since 2015, Spark has led countless initiatives in response to the needs of USC's entrepreneurial communities. We've hosted casual walk-in hack nights, fireside dinners with founders, career fairs for startups, an intern fellowship at tech startups in LA, a STEAM mentorship program with a South Central LA high school, an art fair, a design workshop series, an all-women's hardware hackathon, a podcast, a small accelerator, and an influencer mixer. All of our initiatives have no barrier to attend, and they're open to anyone at USC.
Since 2015, entrepreneurship at USC has evolved. The definition of entrepreneurship is broadening past traditional business-building; intrapreneurship and all forms of creativity fit into Spark's definition of entrepreneurship at USC. Simply put, we like to think about entrepreneurship as fervently pursuing one's passions, and our goal is to help anyone at USC or in the surrounding community unlock the opportunity to do that. We even revised our mission in 2019 to be simpler. It now reads" "Spark's mission is to foster entrepreneurial thought and action across communities of all backgrounds and interests within and beyond USC."
That's it. Care to join us?