Encouraging young entrepreneurs
These days, the subject of entrepreneurship is big news. The solution to almost everything, it seems, is to create new businesses — and young people's energy and ideas are increasingly sought after. But that's where the agreement ends. What's the best way to encourage young entrepreneurs? And how can colleges and universities help all students and alumni, not just business majors, think about entrepreneurship differently?
Several of Minnesota's private colleges are taking unique approaches to facilitating entrepreneurship on campus. The ultimate goal of the efforts, whether they take the form of a competition, a center devoted to small businesses or an academic major, is "to create more of an entrepreneurial culture," said David Deeds, the Schulze Chair of Entrepreneurship at the University of St. Thomas' Schulze School of Entrepreneurship.
Deeds sees the spate of new programs and centers promoting entrepreneurship as part of a larger trend. "In the 1990s, most of the major business schools had one entrepreneurship course in their MBA program. In the last decade, most graduate and undergraduate business programs have added a fuller spectrum of entrepreneurship courses," he said. From there, even non-traditional business schools have added coursework, programming and other efforts to encourage entrepreneurship.
What is driving this emphasis? Shane Bowyer, a professor of business administration at Bethany Lutheran College, sees efforts to foster young entrepreneurs as driven in part by tough economic conditions and fewer jobs. "Lots of students are going to school to get a job but don't realize that entrepreneurship is an option that's out there," he said.
And most institutions encouraging entrepreneurship realize that it's a subject that shouldn't be limited to just business students. Trevor Hall, the director of the Kabara Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies at Saint Mary's University of Minnesota, said that from the time it began in 2005, the focus of the Institute was to involve any interested student in entrepreneurial activities it sponsors. "The founder of the Institute, an alumnus, was a scientist. He didn't want this to be just for business majors. He believed that the spirit of innovation needs to be there for all students, including science majors and others."
A twist on the entrepreneurship major
One field that has been recognized as having many entrepreneurs is art — and in many ways, the creative spirit artists possess is an asset for entrepreneurs in general. At the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD), a Bachelor of Science in Entrepreneurial Studies has been offered for about 13 years, said Jerry Allan, chair of the B.Sc. program and a professor. It provides "an entirely different way to look at and do business," he said, and can supplement a student's chosen artistic medium or stand alone. "The program is perfect for students who say, 'I always wanted to go to a creative school but I didn't want to be an artist,'" he said.
As a project-based program, students begin devising solutions to various issues faced by their clients' businesses or organizations early on. Emphasizing teamwork, collaboration with students across departments and a sustainable global outlook, students currently have clients on five continents.
One recent student project involved collecting 50,000 books to send to Gambia — and then working with MCAD furniture designers to design a bookshelf to be made from the crates the books are sent in. Other projects include designing green roofs, a student taking over an organic farm and students starting a portable ice cream vendor business that travels around the South Minneapolis lakes. "These are not theoretical classroom projects, but real-world projects with real-world clients; that's what really makes it unique," Allan said.
Centers for innovation on campus
The idea of having a center devoted to entrepreneurship on campus has been embraced by several Minnesota private colleges. However, while their goals of exposing students to entrepreneurship are similar, the models used by Saint Mary's University of Minnesota and Bethany Lutheran College are quite unique.
Bethany's partnership with the Regional Center for Entrepreneurial Facilitation (RCEF), a local entrepreneurship center, is new to campus. RCEF is a nonprofit organization that is both state- and county-funded — and since it had been assisting existing small business owners and entrepreneurs in the start-up phase for years, having students work on projects there seemed the perfect way to facilitate hands-on learning, Bowyer said.
This week, students from several business classes will help RCEF host its open house; students have also begun helping with the center's rebranding by planning a focus group. Graphic design students will also be assisting in the creation of a new RCEF logo. In the spring, the center will have its first intern.
"There will be lots of new opportunities for students from different majors," Bowyer said. "Entrepreneurship is one of those things where a student could be in theatre or graphic design, too. It's not just business majors that need to think creatively and communicate well."
Bowyer noted that several Bethany students have already become entrepreneurs as undergraduates; one student has a freelance film business and designed a commercial for the Mankato Convention and Visitors' Bureau; another books gigs as a DJ. Both students use Bethany's equipment for their work, keeping costs low.
At Saint Mary's, the Kabara Institute also provides hands-on opportunities for students and alumni to learn about entrepreneurship, said Hall. The Institute organizes business plan competitions, workshops for non-majors to learn about entrepreneurship and elevator pitch competitions. In addition, it brings speakers like Dave Anderson (founder of Famous Dave's restaurant chain) and Jake Leinenkugel (president of Leinenkugel Brewing Company) to campus.
But the aim of the Institute is also to help current students and alumni get small businesses off the ground. One alumnus who recently sought out the Institute's assistance is Tucker Robeson '09, who owns a business that helps trucking companies better manage employees and avoid high turnover rates. Hall said he helped Robeson with his business plan and assisted him in making calls to potential clients — and the efforts paid off. Robeson's company landed a large trucking company as a client and is now making a profit.
Hall, who owns a wholesale coffee roasting business, said the kinds of tasks he helped Robeson with are just what the Institute was designed to do. "If they see the opportunity, we can give them the skills and assistance to make it happen."
A low-risk way to innovate
For three years, students at St. Thomas have had the chance to participate in an innovative contest that helps minimize the risk involved with starting a small business. The Fowler Business Concept Challenge was designed by an alumnus who wanted to support entrepreneurship at his alma mater. The Challenge, which Deeds facilitates, took place last month and offered $39,000 in scholarships. In all, 85 students or teams submitted their ideas; four teams in the graduate and undergraduate divisions took home scholarships ranging from $1,000 to $10,000 per person. "This is different than a business plan contest because that requires students to submit a 40-page plan; this only requires five pages," Deeds said.
Already, four projects submitted in previous years of the Challenge are moving forward with their businesses — and one, a website for job seekers, just signed its first client. This year, winning projects included a variable-camber wheelchair and a website for swapping tickets, among others.
"Every year, not only have we had more submissions, but the quality of the projects gets substantially better," Deeds said. "We had the executive director of the Minnesota Angel Network [a program that links entrepreneurial companies with investors] attend this year and he said that the projects he saw were as good or better than those he encounters in his work."
Deeds sees the competition as part of a larger commitment to entrepreneurship at St. Thomas, he said. In addition to the Schulze School, both the undergraduate business major and MBA programs offer business classes focusing on the challenges of starting and growing a business, as well as marketing classes that concentrate on negotiating around established distribution channels.
"When you put it all together with the other classes students take, you're building not only effective managers but entrepreneurs for a modern, technology-based economy," Deeds said.
By Erin Adler, Communications Associate