(Guest blog by Courtney Shelton, Director of The Space to: Impact program. You can reach Courtney at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
This Saturday, 43 student-created businesses and community impact projects will demo at Wofford College, a small liberal arts college in Spartanburg, South Carolina. At a time when entrepreneurship, innovation and design are hot topics and programs are launching all over the world to help people develop ideas into commercial and social solutions, why is a pitch competition at a southern private college important? Here are four reasons:
1. The entrepreneurship education offered by higher ed and private industry isn’t doing enough to help students be successful. In the best higher ed courses, most students create a business plan for a hypothetical organization. In industry courses, students are taught just enough to get their business idea to the pitch competition or demo day. While there may be a few exceptions out there, the vast majority of students aren’t being given the tools they need to be successful beyond the end of the course.
Students at Wofford create businesses and projects that are real, not just ideas developed on paper. The projects our students will present in our Impact & Launch Competition on March 22 are in varying stages of development, but they are in development. Our students build upon a broad, interdisciplinary liberal arts education and then learn from business professionals who have started companies and can pass on real-world expertise. And all of our students learn the same planning and strategy methods whether they’re creating a for-profit businesses or a social good project. But the most important difference is they learn by doing. Period.
At Wofford, our students develop in what could be called an “incu-celerator” – a combined incubator (support services to allow projects to develop at their own pace) and accelerator (boot-camp approach for fast startup). Students enter our Impact (community impact and social good projects) and Launch (entrepreneurship) programs at varying stages. Some come in with a vague idea of something they are interested in pursuing, others have a business or project that is already up and running. But all students receive advising, mentoring and skill development regardless of where they fall on the spectrum of idea to execution.
The students presenting on Saturday have worked on idea generation, business plans, strategy development, value proposition, pitching and storytelling, web development, social media strategy, marketing plans, crowdfunding and networking. This goes well beyond the support students receive in any incubator or accelerator I’ve seen. These skills will allow our students to be successful at further developing and growing their ideas long after they graduate. And these skills are highly transferable to the workplace, making Wofford’s entrepreneurship education highly relevant regardless of the outcome of a student’s business or project.
We have plenty of evidence our approach works: Last year, our three senior Impact & Launch Competition students graduated and now employ themselves (and others) in their businesses.
2. Entrepreneurship training at Wofford is open to all students, not just business majors and MBAs. The students presenting on Saturday represent nearly every major offered at the college. We don’t have a B-School or even a business degree. Our students bring a wide variety of knowledge and experience to their ideas. (Check out the Impact & Launch Competition website website to see the wide variety of academic backgrounds our students come from.)
3. It’s about more than a pitch competition or demo day. In a pitch or business plan competition, students typically present their ideas for a business. In a Demo Day, they present the actual business. If you’ve ever seen the reality television show “Shark Tank,” you’re familiar with the premise: aspiring entrepreneurs pitch their idea to a panel of investors, known as “sharks”, to have their idea ripped apart and potentially funded. 10 Wofford students will pitch to a panel of judges on Saturday. They are, however, not looking for the judges to invest or take equity in their organizations. 33 additional student projects and businesses will also be pitching, but to an audience of parents, friends, community members and other students. Our goal is less about students winning funding and more about helping them become proficient in public speaking, storytelling and pitching. We also want them to receive feedback from a panel of experts and have an opportunity to promote their businesses and projects to the larger community that will, hopefully, support their businesses during college and beyond.
4. It’s not all about funding. Yes, these students need funding to make their ideas happen. The winners of Saturday’s competition will split $10,000. We work with all of our students to create and execute a plan to receive the funding or investments they need. But we believe that money is not the only thing that will insure a business’s or project’s success. We’ve also secured over $12,000 in services from a variety of generous organizations (including legal, marketing and creative services firms and a coworking space). Rather than handing them a check and sending them out into the world, these services will help our winners continue to develop and grow what they are working on, further increasing their chances of success.
If you’re interested in seeing entrepreneurship education done in what we believe is the right way, I encourage you to come out on Saturday to see our Impact & Launch Competition. I promise you’ll be blown away by what these students have not just imagined, but accomplished. If you’re too far away to attend, I’d love to talk with you about our programs.
Do you agree or disagree with how we’re teaching entrepreneurship at Wofford? Know of any programs doing it differently or better? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.