UNC students bring the transformative lessons of Silicon Valley to North Carolina

Silicon Valley is celebrated as a global capital of high-tech innovation and transformative economic development. Business leaders and politicians in other regions have attempted to reproduce that accomplishment, almost always with limited success.

Dinner at the end of a long day of delayed flights. Ready to take Silicon Valley by storm!
Dinner at the end of a long day of delayed flights. Ready to take Silicon Valley by storm.

Why has the task been so difficult? What magic combination of institutions, public policy, people and geography transformed the lettuce fields of Santa Clara County into the epicenter of a new knowledge economy? And what lessons can Silicon Valley teach us about the roles that government, universities, and private capital might play in inventing the future?

In the summer of 2017, 16 students set out to answer these questions by participating in a Maymester course called Silicon Revolution. UNC history professor James Leloudis leads the course and takes students on a trip to California to learn about Silicon Valley firsthand, all within a compressed, three-week schedule. Supported by the Innovate Carolina Dreamers-Who-Do Program , this group of students used to the first week of their trip to immerse themselves in the history of Silicon Valley. They spent the following week in San Francisco and Palo Alto,  where they visited UNC alumni working in small startups, technology giants such as Google and Cisco, and a number of venture capital and private equity firms.

When they returned to Chapel Hill, they used the lessons they learned in Silicon Valley to connect to the challenges of economic development in North Carolina.

The Silicon Revolution course is one example of many instructional opportunities that UNC students have to learn about and participate in entrepreneurship. For example, in 2010 the undergraduate Shuford Program in (entrepreneurship minor) had just started and served 100 students in two tracks: social and commercial. Today, the minor enrolls 125 students per year and offers Econ 125 Introduction to Entrepreneurship, enrolling up to 400. It has hubs in Silicon Valley, New York and Beijing (recently moved to Shanghai) and continues to reach more students through nine tracks. Undergraduate and graduate students also have the opportunity to take entrepreneurship courses through the Kenan-Flagler Business School’s Center for Entrepreneurial Studies.