UVA undergrads give entrepreneurs a boost with online news site

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A recent open house at HackCville, a student-centric incubator and "idea clubhouse" on Elliewood Avenue. Photo: Graelyn Brashear A recent open house at HackCville, a student-centric incubator and "idea clubhouse" on Elliewood Avenue. Photo: Graelyn Brashear

When Spencer Ingram launched HackCville in 2012, the 2007 UVA grad saw the student-centric off-Grounds startup incubator as a way for undergraduates to take their aspiring careers in tech into their own hands. Students came to the Elliewood Avenue “clubhouse” with ideas, and got the mentoring and advice they needed to turn them into real businesses and products.

“A lot of the jobs out there now don’t show up at career fairs,” he said. “You have to go seek them, show them where you’ve done something and made a ruckus.”

HackCville has changed since then, but in a way Ingram sees as purely positive: It’s now a 501(c)3 run entirely by its student members, who come from all walks of UVA life—not just programmers and techies, but designers and creatives of all stripes, all looking to forge paths to careers custom-built around their own passions.

Now the group has a public voice in HackCville Media, an online entrepreneurship news site started by Hack members Daniel Willson, a 19-year-old computer science major, and Yunzhe Zhou, a 21-year-old studying psychology and leadership. They’re aiming to highlight the efforts of young local entrepreneurs and their ideas, but they also have a bigger goal: finding ways to connect UVA’s startup-minded undergrads with the burgeoning local build-it-yourself business scene.

Appropriately enough, the idea took shape on the free trolley that connects the University and Downtown.

Willson was running a marketing team for a student entrepreneurship group, documenting events with photography, videography, and web design, but he wanted to zoom out and highlight smart people and good ideas on and off Grounds. “We started working for other student organizations, and I started to see other things going on around town,” he said. “It made sense for us to spin off and fit in with the HackCville mission of trying to bridge these communities.”

He was also interning with local web development firm Storyware, and he kept bumping into Yunzhe Zhou, who had landed her own internship with wedding concierge service Borrowed & Blue. From their bus stop conversations grew an idea: an in-house news crew that would let students share the stories of locals in careers they aspired to.

Now they’re part of a staff of 10 running an original-content site rapidly filling up with brief, sharp interviews with entrepreneurs. Their subjects include locals and people passing through for talks and other events, from the student-run founders and developers at UVA’s independent online course catalogue Course Forum to Reddit co-founder and UVA alum Alexis Ohanian.

They’re funding the effort by offering their video production skills to other student groups for a fee.

“In many ways, it’s like a startup,” Zhou said. The team members swap roles frequently, learning as they go. “We’re just trying a lot of different things, and everyone’s a producer in some way.”

That’s exactly the ethos Ingram wanted HackCville to engender from the start: Want to be an online reporter? Start a company? Go ahead, then. “You unpack all this buzz from around startups, and it’s really just, ‘I want a job that doesn’t suck,’” he said. And HackCville Media’s team isn’t just laying the groundwork for their own future careers. They’re working to link up like-minded students with the people they hope will be offering some of the best jobs in the business—right down the street.

“I think there’s an incredible energy with students at the University, in terms of people who are interested in startup as a career path, these high-impact careers,” Willson said. “We really try to demonstrate that these parts of our community aren’t as disconnected and disparate as we think.”

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