A one-of-a-kind graduate program in media ventures is training a new generation of media entrepreneurs.
By Corinne Steinbrenner
Americans are devoting more time to media than ever before. Research shows we are still watching television and movies, reading news and listening to radio, but—thanks to the rise of smartphones and broadband Internet access—we’re also spending hours online each day, watching video, listening to music, researching products, playing games and interacting on social networks. With the media landscape changing and expanding so rapidly, is media education keeping pace?
The College of Communication is certainly on the move. Journalism students produce online videos complete with interactive graphics; PR faculty discuss the impact of Twitter, blogs and viral marketing; and last year the College launched a new master’s program designed to help entrepreneurial students seize the opportunities that emerging media provide. The new graduate program in media ventures—offered as a one-year MS or as a two-year MS/MBA—has students studying media evolution, interning with California start-ups and pitching their own business ideas to media moguls and venture capitalists.
Associate Professor Cathy Perron developed the media ventures curriculum after consulting with media executives, many of them COM alumni, about the industry’s evolving needs. The result is a program with a heavy emphasis on entrepreneurial skills that includes classes and internships in Boston and Los Angeles. The program is designed to appeal to two types of students: those who will use entrepreneurial skills and strategies to be more innovative within a traditional workplace, and entrepreneurs who will use the program as a foundation to start their own businesses. While engineering schools teach entrepreneurship from a technology perspective and business schools teach it from a management perspective, Perron says, “We approach it from the content side, and that’s what differentiates us from other programs. We are the College of Communication, and we have been the content people for every distribution platform since the typewriter, so it was natural for us to head in this direction.”
It’s an unseasonably mild December evening in Boston, and media ventures students are gathering in a third-floor COM classroom for the final requirement of the East Coast portion of their program. They’re here to present their business plans to a panel of experienced entrepreneurs and executives. Using the feedback they receive tonight, the students will continue to develop their ideas and make a final presentation to a second panel of experts in Los Angeles this summer.
Phil Mark (’12, SMG’12), one of eight dual degree students who completed a year of MBA training before beginning the COM curriculum last fall, stands confidently before his audience and begins describing a need: While 66 percent of women use Facebook and other social media to stay in touch with friends, only 54 percent of men do. The online networks are good at replicating women’s “face-to-face” relationships, he explains, but men need virtual tools that can better replicate their activity-oriented “shoulder-to-shoulder” relationships. Enter Jaxx, Mark’s group communication platform that allows groups of male friends to play practical jokes, razz one another, make friendly bets and organize outings using their smartphones.
Mark began developing Jaxx last summer with a group of business partners and with seed funding from COM’s Harold G. Buchbinder Fellowship competition, an entrepreneurship prize funded by businessman and angel investor Brian Cohen (’78). Although Mark, a former TV producer, originally came to BU looking for business skills to advance his television career, it’s clear he’s a born entrepreneur and that he fully intends to launch Jaxx once his studies are complete. The panelists are impressed and offer Mark advice for further polishing his plans and presentation.
Later in the evening, Rakshita Saluja (’12), a former news producer who left India to spend a year at COM, steps to the front of the room and describes another need: Over the past decade, broadcast networks have sprung up across India and other South Asian countries. These networks want to include foreign news in their broadcasts, but they don’t have the budgets for foreign bureaus or foreign correspondents, and they dislike paying wire services for stories that aren’t produced with their local audiences in mind. They need an affordable way to access relevant foreign news content. Saluja then outlines her plan (which she’s asked us to keep confidential for now) for using the Internet to efficiently and inexpensively fill this news hole.
Mark and Saluja are two examples of students who are making the most of the entrepreneurial components of the media ventures program to develop business plans they can execute after graduation. Classmate Jamie Newton (’12, SMG’12) is also working on a compelling business pitch, but he is especially enthusiastic about the internship experiences the program is providing.
A dual degree student, Newton moved to California after completing his MBA classroom work last summer for a pair of part-time internships. One was with Tongal, a young Los Angeles–area company that employs crowdsourcing to produce advertising spots at a fraction of Madison Avenue prices for clients that include Ace Hardware, Mattel and McDonald’s. This semester, Newton is back in L.A. interning full-time with Tongal and taking media ventures courses at night. Company headquarters comprise just five desks and a couch, Newton says, and though he’s relegated to the couch most of the time, he loves working in the small office and soaking in the high-energy start-up atmosphere. After he completes the media ventures program, he says, “I would love to be part of a small, growing company like this one.”
A similar wish came true last year for James Jerlecki (’11), one of the 11 students to earn degrees in media ventures during the program’s inaugural year. While studying in Los Angeles, Jerlecki landed an internship with Gogii, a start-up company cofounded by BU alum Zack Norman (CFA’91). Just a week and a half into the internship, Jerlecki received a full-time job offer from Gogii, and today he’s a product manager for textPlus, Gogii’s free texting app for smartphones.
—James Jerlecki (’11)
The job is providing him excellent exposure to the internal workings of a start-up company. “My end goal has always been to start my own technology business,” says 23-year-old Jerlecki, who is continuing to develop the business plan he pitched as his COM thesis project and is reveling in the opportunity to talk regularly with Gogii’s founders about their business decisions and their venture capital connections. “I came to the media ventures program with the specific plan of making it a launching pad for my own business,” he says, “and so far that has played out the way I hoped it would.”
Former classmate Hannah Wurzel (’11), also in the very first batch of media ventures students, came to the program with broader goals. “I was working as a producer at MTV and becoming increasingly interested in new media and new technologies,” she says. “I knew that I wanted to get involved in that space, but I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do. I figured that getting into a program that allowed me to learn but also have real-world experience and to network with a lot of people would be the best next step for me.” COM’s program was the only one she found that met her criteria, and the program fulfilled its promises, she says.
Her internships with the IPG Media Lab (a physical space where the advertising firm’s clients can explore new technologies) and with Clicker (a start-up that was acquired by CBS Interactive during Wurzel’s time there) enabled her to explore different career options; her classroom work honed her critical-thinking skills; and while she doesn’t plan to act on the business plan she produced in the program, the exercise was valuable on several levels. One of the panelists who heard her final pitch in L.A. recommended her to a colleague at OMD, a major media planning and buying firm. Wurzel now works as a strategist for OMD in New York. “My employer has pointed to my thesis project as one of the top motivators for wanting to hire me,” she says. “After hearing about what I had created, they wanted that creativity—that different kind of thinking—on their team.” ■