Alumni clubs in universities’ entrepreneurial networks

Matteo Landoni
Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore

Daniela Bolzani
Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore

Alumni clubs are associations run by former students ─ “alumni” ─ that maintain linkages with the university where they have been educated. These clubs support members (alumni but also current students) accessing networks and providing skills that enhance new jobs opportunities. More recently, following the view that entrepreneurship can represent a meaningful career option, alumni have been also engaged in starting “entrepreneurial clubs”, aiming to help members in developing an entrepreneurial mindset and launching new ventures. Unlike technology transfer offices and other university supporting instruments, alumni and entrepreneurial clubs offer different and non-replicable factors that can foster entrepreneurship, such as contacts with entrepreneurs, sharing of experience with peers and role models, and a greater dissemination of hands-on entrepreneurial practices. To date, however, the literature has overlooked the role of alumni clubs and entrepreneurship clubs in the current evolution of universities as entrepreneurial universities.
Aiming at filling this gap, we explore the alumni clubs and entrepreneurship clubs created in around 80 universities in Italy, to explore the services offered to and from their members, particularly those designed to support entrepreneurial activities. Building on previous research that points to the importance of networking and building social capital to the new venture creation process, we contribute to the increasing literature about the entrepreneurial university documenting the role that alumni clubs may play in supporting entrepreneurship and creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Alumni organizations help members in accessing networks with their peers, obtaining benefits related to career support, accessing inspiration, training and education, and using campus facilities. Alumni engagement generates revenues, career opportunities and role modelling for students and staff at their alma mater. Only a small group of alumni organizations carry out activities in the domain of entrepreneurship, such as organizing awards, events and lectures, community building, or financing start-ups. These activities are spread not only at the most prestigious higher education institutions, but in larger ones, better performing in terms of collaborative research and consultancy, having higher number of spin-offs and larger international student populations.
This paper focuses on the role played by alumni organizations in fostering and supporting entrepreneurship within universities – a phenomenon which has been generally known and documented by some organizations providing guidelines to create entrepreneurial ecosystems in academic institutions, for example by the EU-OECD (2012) report, but which is almost ignored in the existing literature on entrepreneurial universities. Alumni organizations are nowadays commonly present in most universities worldwide, and their contribution in sustaining entrepreneurship is not unimportant. Our empirical analysis shows that alumni organizations can draw on the entrepreneurial skills of their members to support the dissemination of an entrepreneurial mindset and to raise resources to finance students’ start-ups. These organizations are therefore relevant for the creation of a significant stream of initiatives within the universities third mission, in particular those aimed at transferring knowledge, facilitating business relationships, and raising financial, human and social capital resources for academic (graduate and staff) start-ups. These voluntary organizations exemplify the opportunities offered by a good matching of entrepreneurial enthusiasm with complementary entrepreneurial and managerial skills and business relationships, which are key to foster successful business creation. This finding should be taken into account when designing policy measures to support entrepreneurial universities, for instance by rewarding those universities offering assistance to new entrepreneurs through alumni organizations within competitive financing programs provided by international and national funding bodies. Students and graduates by definition are younger than alumni. They might lack experience as well as financial resources which could prevent them from starting their firm directly. Although numerous policy initiatives exist to promote academic entrepreneurship, obstacles to entrepreneurial initiatives could be at least partially removed with the support of some alumni experience and relationships that could be shared within alumni organizations.
The positive influence of infrastructure support and peer support on university entrepreneurship is worth to be taken into consideration if a sound development of the university third mission is desired. While more formal support by means of providing infrastructure helps to speed up entrepreneurial formation, peer support by means of encouragement of former students is also a crucial factor for spreading entrepreneurial initiatives within universities.
Our results are limited because of the cross-sectional, single-country research design. Universities must take into consideration that peer support can be as important for spreading entrepreneurial initiatives within universities as other more formal supporting measures.
We contribute to the increasing literature about the entrepreneurial university providing evidence about the engagement of alumni organizations in supporting entrepreneurship and creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem.