entrepreneurship programs in ohio's colleges and universities give boost to young innovators
On any given day across the State of Ohio, row upon row of entrepreneurial seedlings are pushing up towards the light on college campuses.
From Cleveland to Cincinnati, the state's colleges and universities have launched student entrepreneurship programs that nurture big ideas. Whether a student aims to ply her skills as a baker, launch a startup from the chemistry lab or create a product that improves health care, the key to bringing a superstar idea to fruition is an entrepreneurial sensibility, particularly in today's rapidly changing business environment.
"You can do a lot with entrepreneurship skills," says Dean McFarlin, Chairman of the University of Dayton's Department of Managing and Marketing. "People are starting to realize that entrepreneurship skills metastasize in a good way beyond just starting a business. You can manage your own career. You can help existing companies develop new products and create new business units. You can turn companies around. In effect, entrepreneurship touches every aspect of business in some way, shape or form, whether it's a start up or an existing company."
McFarlin should know. Both Dayton and Miami University earned coveted spots in Entrepreneur Magazine's list of the top 25 undergraduate entrepreneurial programs, which are chosen from a pool of 2,000 U.S. institutions. This was Dayton's seventh year in the ranking and Miami's fifth.
Deborah Hoover, President and CEO of the Burton D. Morgan Foundation, says that entrepreneurial education is also being integrated into a range of programs at liberal arts colleges. She cites the inclusion of Oberlin College and others in the Northeast Ohio Collegiate Entrepreneurship Program (NEOCEP), which her foundation supports in collaboration with the Kauffman Foundation.
"Whatever they're going to do," says Hoover of students poised to step into a career, "they need to learn to market their talent, to market themselves. It's about self-actualization. It's about taking who you are, taking your passion and using it and developing it in a way such that you can support yourself."
Oberlin, which hosts the Creativity and Leadership program, is one of five schools that make up NEOCEP, along with Baldwin Wallace University, Hiram College, Lake Erie College and the College of Wooster. The program aims to incorporate the entrepreneurial mindset into the liberal arts experience so that it is "embedded across the whole curriculum," says Hoover. This is important, she adds, because "great ideas can come from any corner of the campus."
The programs are as varied as the colleges that host them. At the University of Dayton, for example, students must take a one-year course called the Sophomore Experience, in which they work with a team to establish and operate a real-world business for one year. The university gives each team $5,000 in seed funding for efforts that have included selling bobble heads, flipping a house and opening a smoothie stand.
"The $5000 we give them is not charity," says McFarlin. "We want our money back." He adds that each short-term business endeavor is rife with real-world lessons. Intellectual property rights, sourcing, manufacturing, shipping and financial matters are some of the complexities that students encounter.
Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business Center for Entrepreneurship also offers a program in which students start and run businesses. The "Wolstein Scholars" are a select group of students who compete to enroll in the program.
"These are like the cream of the crop of the entrepreneurship minors," says the Center's Academic Director, Sharon Alvarez. Some of the products that this year's participants are offering include a biodegradable litter box, prepackaged Jello shots and a mobile phone app that helps students coordinate meetings.
Internship programs are also popular for those majoring in entrepreneurship. For example, students at Hiram College work for a minimum of 120 hours with an entity that may be for profit or nonprofit. Green Energy TV, the Genomics Store and the Women in Action effort in Tanzania have all hosted Hiram interns.
The long-term impact of formal entrepreneurial programs is difficult to measure, since the programs were almost nonexistent before the mid-1990s. Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business launched its Center for Entrepreneurship in 2001, Miami University's program began in 2003 and Ohio University launched its Center for Entrepreneurship just last year. NEOCEP was started in 2007.
"Over the last five years, those schools have gone from having no programs to very vibrant programs," says Hoover of the schools that are part of NEOCEP.
Dayton has one of the state's oldest programs, dating back to 1999, when just a handful of students participated. Last year, enrollment spiked to 300 students.
"The growth from '99 to now has been the most rapid straight line growth of any majors in the school of business," reports McFarlin. "It mirrors some of the trends that have occurred in higher education in the last 10 to 15 years with respect to entrepreneurship programs across the country. There's been kind of an explosion. So I think we're riding that wave upward. It's been pretty phenomenal."
Ohio State University's minor-only program boasts a whopping 700 students.
"It's an interdisciplinary minor," says Alvarez. "You don't have to be a business school student. You can come from anyplace in the university." The minor-only structure, she says, was strategically designed so that any student can learn how to put together a business, whether they study art, engineering or food science.
As for challenges, McFarlin says that Ph.D. tenure track entrepreneurship faculty are very difficult to find. Then there's the matter of changing stodgy attitudes.
"Academic institutions are siloed by discipline, and so entrepreneurship has no natural home because it cuts across everything," he says. "There are some people in academia that will still say unabashedly that it's not a discipline and it's just a collection of stuff; or that its some kind of fad that's going to come and go."
"I reject both of those arguments," McFarlin says emphatically. Yet the University of Dayton is not the only institution to struggle with where entrepreneurship fits into its curriculum. Liberal arts colleges also had misgivings at first, says Hoover, in part because business has not historically been one of their areas of study.
Acceptance of these programs has grown as their success has become obvious. To name just a few examples: the online farmers market, Fresh Fork Market, was the brainchild of a group of CWRU students who came up with the idea during a 2007 Immersion Week competition; the Olive Branch free trade store and the Terrier Bakery were created by students on the campus of Hiram College; and four Miami University students developed Libre Clothing, which caters to patients undergoing chemotherapy and dialysis and has sold more than 1,000 garments.
And then you've got the goo guys.
Enter Noah Gostout, Mayank Saksena, Nich Barron, Curtis Obert and Chimadika Okeye, all CWRU students and co-founders of Hole Patch LLC. The sprouting company aims to smooth the pavement for travellers with its pothole patch product, a bag of ecofriendly "goo" that plugs the hole and can be reused.
"We’re a rag-tag bunch," says Gostout, who is also a member of Case's storied Science and Technology Entrepreneurship Program (STEP). He met Barron at a mixer for the university's Saint Gobain competition, which challenges entrants to create an innovative use for an existing material. The Hole Patch team won first place in the 2012 competition and hasn't looked back since. Their inexpensive asphalt patch system, which replaces labor-intensive cold-patching, has garnered the attention of East Cleveland's Service Director Ross Brankatelli, local media and a host of online fans via services such as reddit and YouTube. The product is still in the testing phase, but with the likes of this team, it's bound to be successful.
"I was the kid who asked for wire for Christmas instead of toys," says Gostout. "I've been tinkering my entire life." The STEP program was a good fit, he adds.
"There's a lot of technology that spins out of physics departments that just ends up sitting on the shelf," says Gostout. "Universities are really great at making technology and then forgetting about it and moving on to the next thing." The STEP program, he says, is different. Students are encouraged to learn about what compels them and to keep a focus on marketability. And as Gostout is learning, when an entrepreneurial idea comes alive, the prospect can be daunting. Suddenly, his reputation and those of his co-founders were on the line.
"If you want to be a successful entrepreneur, it doesn’t look good to have road kill behind you," he says. Potential investors scrutinize a founder's past endeavors. "You really have to know something’s going to be viable before you run after it."
And when you do, says Gostout, the first thing you run into is commitment. That's both a challenge and an opportunity for entrepreneurs. Four out of five startups crash and burn, yet exceptionally executed ideas can also create real success.
"The most terrifying part is that as soon as you take a company and you make it public and you start raising hype around it, you’re 100 percent obligated," he says. That's one reason why entrepreneurship programs that teach young people how to vet and test ideas are so important. "There's no backing down at that point."