When the dorm room is the boardroom

Mona Shield Payne

Avetis Mazmanyan, founder of Mezze Foods, meets with Carrie Hogan, owner of Fresh52 Farmers Market on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016, at Tivoli Village during the weekly farmers market.

Avetis Mazmanyan’s grandmother had a golden rule when it came to cooking: Always use fresh vegetables, never canned. She also took the time to skin garbanzo beans, a step she insisted made her meals more delicious. Today, college student Mazmanyan is the head of his own startup, Mezze Foods, for which he and his family make hummus, bean salad and other ethnic dishes to sell to Whole Foods. His grandmother’s culinary rule is a cornerstone of his 4-year-old business. “We take hours prepping vegetables all by hand,” he said.

Mazmanyan, who graduated in May, started Mezze Foods as a UNLV freshman, part of a nationwide trend of students launching startups while in college.

TechCrunch recently reflected on “the social revolution” of Google, Facebook and other giants starting in dorm rooms. “In the past decade, the proliferation of youth-centric startups prevails — and even flourishes,” the report says. “A constantly increasing 54 percent of millennials desire to start a business, according to the Kauffman Foundation, and the number of new business owners under 34 increases by more than 300,000 each month.”

To accommodate this pattern, universities and colleges across the U.S. have added a significant number of entrepreneurship programs. Kauffman Foundation data show that in 1975, educational institutions offered about 100 majors, minors and certificates in entrepreneurship; by 2008, that number had exploded to 5,000 and is still growing.

Nevada State College introduced a course, Entrepreneurial Preparation, in 2015. At UNLV, students can major or minor in the subject, a far cry from the single course offered in 1997. It also has a 10-year-old Center for Entrepreneurship, an administrative unit that aims to help students and staff interested in opening a company.


Theories about students’ eagerness to launch businesses inevitably nod to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Zappos’ Tony Hsieh, who both started companies in their early 20s.

Then there’s the classic reason: wanting to be your own boss.

“Entrepreneurship puts you in the driver’s seat, so you don’t have to worry about a company downsizing or having to move away to follow your company,” said Janet Runge, who taught UNLV’s first class on entrepreneurship and now is associate director of the center. “You can take advantage of what’s out there, and you have the power to do whatever you want to do. I think that’s a powerful position to be in.”

Millennial habits in the workforce aren’t just about the pursuit of independence. Compared with previous generations, millennials are much more likely to change jobs a number of times rather than stay loyal to one company. Their mission is to make an impact, and oftentimes they are unwilling to compromise.

“A lot of students today have a desire to pursue things that they enjoy, and a lot of those things are outside the corporate environment,” said Leith Martin, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship.

Undergraduates and graduates in Las Vegas, he said, are more likely to take the risk of starting a business. After all, this is a gambling town.


Local politicians and higher education officials have long pushed to diversify the economy, a talking point emphasized after the recession. As dependence on the hospitality industry has loosened, startups have taken advantage, including Dronesmith Technologies (formerly Skyworks Aerial Systems), founded by UNLV alumni.

The drone market is one of many industries that could flourish in the area, Martin said, pointing to developments in battery and water technology and e-sports. These possibilities and the expansion of entrepreneurship programs may convince students to invest in a future right where they are. Too often, talented graduates flock to competing states and other countries instead of investing in Las Vegas’ professional landscape.

“There aren’t many cities that have as much potential,” Martin said.

Local colleges have another unique characteristic that might motivate young entrepreneurs — hundreds of nontraditional students. The average age of students in UNLV’s Lee Business School is 26, according to Martin.

“Individuals are older and have worked already,” he said. “That provides them with some initiative to do something different than a service-based job (that could) provide them with a different lifestyle.”


Of course, starting a business is no easy endeavor. First-timers are more likely to fail, and even if they stay afloat in the first year, owners often wait longer before paying themselves a salary.

For student entrepreneurs, the risks are even higher because of their inexperience. Young aspiring employers also are likely to have student loans, which could drain financial resources they’d otherwise put toward their companies.

Nontraditional students, on the other hand, tend to come equipped with work experience and money to funnel into a business.

“They’ve worked at places and know what’s going on,” said Nevada State College assistant professor of business John Laurie. “They see what’s needed in the market.”

Still, there are work-arounds for younger business owners, thanks partly to technology. Runge said that while students may have loans, they could use crowdfunding websites to raise funds. And they should take advantage of free advice while they can.

“Once you’re out in the world, a lot of advisers want a small piece of the company or access to the company,” said James Lutz, a UNLV student whose startup aims to help market and sell a pre-screening device for diabetics created by university professors. “It is a great resource because professors are willing to help students.”

Stuart Davis, a business owner of Delta Video Production and a junior at NSC, said student entrepreneurs also can (and should) start networking early, which could help their business grow.

“The best thing to do is to surround yourself with intelligent and experienced people,” Davis said. “School is a great way to find that.”

Local students and professors agree that one of the biggest gains for student entrepreneurs is the chance to complement what they learn in the classroom with the experience and knowledge they develop as business owners.

“It’s great to learn about things while you’re in class, but to actually experience it and work through some of the problems described in a textbook is a valuable experience,” Lutz said. “It’s certainly been valuable for me.”

But perhaps the greatest benefit of all is a privilege that plenty of graduates nowadays don’t get to enjoy: having a job after college.

“My business supports my family and me and supports our future,” Mazmanyan said. “I started this when I was a freshman. From the get-go I didn’t worry about having a job, and getting to pay my student loans was a blessing.”