You have to meet a lot of qual­i­fi­ca­tions to be the CEO of IDEA, Northeastern’s student-​​run ven­ture accel­er­ator. But there’s just one thing you can’t have: A col­lege degree—at least not yet.

In fact, IDEA, which is housed within the Center for Entre­pre­neur­ship Edu­ca­tion, is entirely student-​​run. Everyone on the man­age­ment team is a col­lege stu­dent, from new CEO Max Kaye to social media man­ager Nina Stepanov. And the model is working; new stu­dent, fac­ulty, and alumni ven­tures rep­re­sent every col­lege at the university.

We have a lab­o­ra­tory here that attracts Northeastern’s brightest minds,” said Kaye, a fifth-​​year finance major in the D’Amore-McKim School of Busi­ness. “These stu­dents talking to and working with each other, that’s what brings about the suc­cess you see in busi­ness after business.”

The deci­sion to staff IDEA with stu­dents was delib­erate. They hold the organization’s key lead­er­ship posi­tions and decide what ven­tures will receive funding. Fac­ulty mem­bers serve exclu­sively in an advi­sory role.

We’re pro­viding them with a safe envi­ron­ment to fail,” said Dan Gre­gory, IDEA’s fac­ulty adviser. “And when they’re free to fail, that’s when our stu­dents can really suc­ceed. Of course we want our stu­dents to suc­ceed, but failure sparks new ideas and new poten­tial, cre­ating oppor­tu­ni­ties these entre­pre­neurs may never have even imag­ined before.”

This student-​​centric phi­los­ophy has guided IDEA since its incep­tion almost four years ago, when a small group of North­eastern busi­ness stu­dents sought backing and sup­port from uni­ver­sity admin­is­tra­tors. The group, the stu­dents pro­posed, would coach star­tups and dis­tribute cash to help promising ones advance. Uni­ver­sity offi­cials, espe­cially then-​​dean Thomas Moore, were eager to sup­port their ambi­tious pro­posal, quickly appro­pri­ating the funds to get the orga­ni­za­tion up and running.

Since 2009, IDEA has shep­herded more than 350 busi­ness con­cepts, with 170 active ven­tures, and handed out nearly $400,000 in grants. Ven­tures are eager to par­tic­i­pate, ben­e­fiting from enthu­si­astic stu­dent leaders and an entrepreneur-​​first model that doesn’t stake an equity claim in the busi­nesses it sup­ports. IDEA ven­tures have become main­stays in com­pe­ti­tions such as the Boston-​​based Mass­Chal­lenge, a ven­ture accel­er­ator that draws entre­pre­neurs from around the globe.

Today, IDEA oper­ates from a work­space in the base­ment of Hayden Hall, but its reach extends across campus and beyond. The work­space is a con­stant hub of activity, with stu­dents working late into the evening—and often into the fol­lowing morning—to foster and grow the next gen­er­a­tion of star­tups. Though the stu­dent lead­er­ship team remains in almost con­stant com­mu­ni­ca­tion, they meet once a week to touch base and plan ahead.

While many of IDEA’s stu­dent leaders study busi­ness, an increasing pro­por­tion of them come from graphic design or com­mu­ni­ca­tions, com­puter sci­ence or law.

Each IDEA ven­ture is matched with a stu­dent coach—part of a ded­i­cated staff over­seen by stu­dent Ben Preston—who helps shape busi­ness plans and chart out the tra­jec­tory nec­es­sary to turn an idea into a real world busi­ness. That student-​​to-​​student dynamic, Kaye said, is key to the suc­cess of IDEA’s model.

It’s not unusual to see people here working until two or three in the morning and I think that has to do with the rela­tion­ships we build here,” Kaye said. “Everyone here is working on a peer-​​to-​​peer level, not in a student-​​to-​​adult or student-​​to-​​faculty kind of way.”

Stu­dents also work closely with fac­ulty and men­tors with startup expe­ri­ence. While they don’t direct the oper­a­tions of IDEA and its ven­tures, they help guide the orga­ni­za­tion and its startups.

If the stu­dents were left on their own, it would not be as pro­duc­tive an ecosystem,” Gre­gory said. “Wisely, the stu­dents call on help. And because they’re not being told what to do, they’re far more recep­tive to the idea of asking for help.”

Another student-​​led com­po­nent of the Center for Entre­pre­neur­ship Edu­ca­tion is the North­eastern Entre­pre­neurs Club, a pop­ular stu­dent group that has had been rec­og­nized as one of the nation’s top clubs of its kind. Hun­dreds of mem­bers attend meet­ings each week, with standing-​​room-​​only crowds rou­tinely on hand for high pro­file guest speakers and events. It’s a pow­erful proving ground for entre­pre­neurs: former club pres­i­dent Greg Skloot just received a $1 mil­lion invest­ment in his event man­age­ment soft­ware startup Attendware.

Northeastern’s entrepreneurial success is predicated largely on the diligent work of students, who lead organizations like the E-Club and the IDEA venture accelerator. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

Northeastern’s entre­pre­neurial suc­cess is pred­i­cated largely on the dili­gent work of stu­dents, who lead orga­ni­za­tions like the E-​​Club and the IDEA ven­ture accel­er­ator. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

The E-​​Club has drawn atten­tion from entre­pre­neurs out­side North­eastern. While com­pa­nies used to go directly to col­leges or indi­vidual depart­ments when seeking out tal­ented prospects for intern­ships or jobs, they now go straight to the stu­dents, according to club pres­i­dent Casey Hogan.

People see that we’re pas­sionate about this and that we’re taking a leading role within the entre­pre­neurial com­mu­nity, both here at North­eastern and across Boston,” said Hogan, a fourth-​​year stu­dent studying entre­pre­neur­ship and man­age­ment infor­ma­tion sys­tems in the D’Amore-McKim School of Business.

Stu­dents are encour­aged to take lead­er­ship roles. This spring, first-​​year stu­dents Matt Voska and David Oakes took the reins of one of the E-Club’s biggest ini­tia­tives, the Husky Startup Chal­lenge, a semester-​​long pro­gram that helps first-​​time entre­pre­neurs develop, test, and market their own ven­tures or products.

It’s an oppor­tu­nity to get your hands dirty and turn an idea into some­thing tan­gible, both for the people taking part in the pro­gram and the people run­ning it,” Hogan said.

The work of both stu­dent groups fits snugly into Northeastern’s own system of entre­pre­neur­ship edu­ca­tion, serving as a proving ground where stu­dents are free to develop their own ideas.

We’ve cre­ated an envi­ron­ment where entre­pre­neur­ship isn’t just some­thing people talk about,” said Kaye, IDEA’s CEO. “It’s some­thing that’s hap­pening on every level of North­eastern, and it’s being pow­ered by stu­dents doing very real, very exciting work.”