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Business Fellow joins Venture for America

Elon University senior Austin Rhoads, who graduates this spring with degrees in international business and marketing, hopes to use his own business startup experience to help a technology firm create jobs for a city growing its entrepreneurial reputation.

Elon University senior Austin Rhoads joins Venture for America this summer as he delves into the world of entrepreneurship while helping to create jobs in a city with a transitioning economy.

It was all about market opportunity.

Elon University senior Austin Rhoads saw how many small businesses want to expand their online presence through LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. He also knew college students versed in social platforms like to make money and add professional experience to their resumes.

What resulted from those two observations was Lynkforce, a company Rhoads started this year in partnership with a friend from NC State University. Lynkforce matches the social media requests of small businesses in North Carolina’s Triangle region with college students who provide online marketing and public relations functions.

It’s also a concept that helped the graduating Elon Business Fellow successfully apply to Venture for America, a national program inspired by Teach for America that infuses transitioning cities with energetic young college graduates determined to make a name for themselves as entrepreneurs.

He’s the first Elon University student accepted into the three-year-old initiative aiming to generate 100,000 new jobs by 2025 “by helping growth companies expand and training a critical mass of our top graduates to themselves become business builders and job creators,” according to Venture for America’s website.

“Austin saw a rare opportunity to explore and learn within this highly ambitious and prestigious program,” said Professor Kevin O’Mara, executive director of the university’s Doherty Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership. “Very few students make it through the five-interview process, and those that do represent a ‘Who’s Who’ of American colleges.  Administrators obviously recognized the unique qualities that Austin will bring with him to their program.”

Rhoads is currently exploring options with technology startup firms in Philadelphia, New Orleans and Columbus, Ohio. He hopes to make an employment decision within a few weeks.

A native of Cary, N.C., Rhoads came to Elon University determined to learn more about marketing and international business. He also had a passion for identifying new business ideas. Over the years he had considered the development of a device to thwart pickpockets as well as visualization software for elderly to monitor prescriptions.

While those ideas never panned out, Rhoads learned from the experiences. “Get out there. If you have an idea, go for it. The worst that can happen is you’re out a couple hundred bucks,” he said. “Even if you fail, fail fast and learn from it.”

Rhoads also spent two semesters in Spain researching and comparing the business startup culture there with the startup culture in the United States. The knowledge he gained shaped his approach to entrepreneurship and impressed his Lynkforce advisers.

Zack Mansfield is one such supporter. As a vice president at Square 1 Financial, a North Carolina financial institution that provides guidance and support for startup companies, Mansfield spotted a quality in Rhoads that he said is rare in young people.

“I found Austin to be incredibly mature for his age,” Mansfield said. “Like a lot of things in college, you hear about a new idea and get excited, but then you realize the real world is hard. It’s hard to start something from scratch and get it going for a 40 year old, much less for a student in college.”

“But he was willing to take a stab at it and I was struck that he had a long-term vision. That’s definitely the right attitude, and that’s what makes entrepreneurship great. You can fail yet still succeed. I told him to go for it.”

As he prepares to graduate, Rhoads’ journey illustrates the Doherty Center’s growing effort to broaden entrepreneurship opportunities to students of all academic disciplines. His professors say that Rhoads’ legacy at Elon will be felt in the successes of the students who follow in his wake.

“Although Austin in not an entrepreneurship major, he is as entrepreneurial as any student on campus. He is always thinking of new opportunities to seize or businesses to start,” O’Mara said. “The entrepreneurial spirit he displays is shared by many students on campus but they seldom act on their ideas like Austin.  

“At the Doherty Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership we hope to encourage more Elon students from across all majors to see themselves in Austin and begin working on and sharing their ideas.”

Eric Townsend,
5/15/2014 8:00 AM