The number of entrepreneur-themed programs developed for non-business students continues to grow across West Michigan liberal arts schools.
Most people don’t enroll in a liberal arts college expecting to start their own businesses, but schools increasingly are being driven to develop in-depth programs to support just that.
According to Peter Snyder, professor of entrepreneurship at Calvin College, his students’ interest in these programs only arose after side projects exposed them to the startup process.
“In some of their courses, they’ve had to spin up their own businesses and then develop strategies around it,” he said. “I had numerous students then say, ‘This is really neat. I’d like to take a class in entrepreneurship.’ The first semester, we had more students than we were able to really handle.”
Calvin, located in Grand Rapids, introduced its entrepreneurship concentration in 2015’s fall semester.
Meanwhile, Holland-based Hope College implemented an entrepreneurship program at its Center for Faithful Leadership (CFL) in 2011. Rather than as a response to student demand, the concept came from Jon Soderstrom, an alum who was instrumental in the creation of the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute. Following some success stories out of Yale, Soderstrom sought to bring the concept back to his alma mater.
“This was a time when Rick DeVos was starting the 5x5 program and Momentum,” said Steve VanderVeen, director of the CFL. “We basically built that model at Hope on a really strong scale.”
Around 50 students enroll every year in the school’s entrepreneurship class, dubbed Leading the Start-Up Process, VanderVeen said. A small handful of those students are then offered part-time employment, working five to 10 hours per week on their projects. The CFL also hosts pitch competitions through its incubator program. The competitions are similar to the 5x5 Night program, which preceded the launch of Start Garden. Some of the students have gone on to gain even more support from Start Garden and other startup services.
For instance, Ring Cam, an engagement ring box with a hidden camera inside, came out of Hope’s program in 2014 and is now available through more than 80 jewelers nationwide. The product also appeared on major media outlets, such as CNN and Good Morning America. Another Hope alum co-founded Songs Against Slavery, a nonprofit now located in Nashville, Tenn. that organizes benefit concerts across the country to support anti-sex trafficking organizations.
HUNTING FOR TALENT
VanderVeen said that despite the success of these programs, finding non-business students to participate can take some work, particularly at Hope.
“One of the things you find at a liberal arts school is that the word ‘entrepreneur’ has some baggage with it,” he said. “We end up recruiting students who are in various majors. Some of our brightest students have come from computer science and engineering, but they’ve come from social sciences and humanities, too.”
For many people, especially liberal arts students, it takes the initial experience with the startup process to discover that route as the best way to facilitate their post-college plans, according to VanderVeen.
“One of the girls from Songs Against Slavery was a psychology and women’s studies major. She readily admits that business was the furthest thing from her mind,” he said. “But she had a passion for a cause and was trying to think of a way to make that passion into something she could devote her life to. Our challenge has been to find those students and try to encourage that and nurture it somehow.”
On the other hand, the classes can also serve to inform students that the risky nature of self-starting isn’t for them well before they head into the workforce, according to Calvin’s Snyder.
‘AGILE’ AND VERSATILE
The recent interest in entrepreneur programs could be due to a number of factors, but Snyder and VanderVeen both cited increased accessibility as a probable driver. Technology such as 3-D printing and online crowdfunding especially have eased startup costs.
“I think there’s sort of a broader shift in culture where you see people out in Silicon Valley not only being successful, but doing that at a young age,” Snyder said. “Students have always wanted to go out and change the world, but that was a difficult thing to do. Now, it’s becoming more and more accessible for them.”
As technology changes the way companies do business, young professionals are changing the way they approach business as well, according to Gayle DeBruyn, an associate professor at Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University.
DeBruyn, who leads KCAD’s MBA certificate in design and innovation management, said students desire a project-based career more than ever before. In general, today’s students seem to have multiple interests that they want to pursue at once. The idea of a 40-year corporate climb within the same company isn’t as appealing to them, she said, citing the new generation’s desire, and necessity, for flexibility.
“You have to be agile,” DeBruyn said. “You have to have the ability to anticipate change and have a plan for change. I think that is more and more clear in this economy than it was when I got out of school a while ago. It’s all moving faster.”
Liberal arts schools specialize in allowing students to be creative and explore multiple interests, especially compared to traditional business schools. When students are educated across a broad range of subjects, they can approach problems in a unique way, according to Snyder.
“Students who go to a liberal arts institution, one of the benefits is that they have to take courses in philosophy and lit classes — these classes where they’re exposed to different kinds of ideas and different people groups,” he said. “They take science courses so they’re exposed to developing hypotheses and testing theories. When you start thinking broadly and asking deeper questions and you have a method for investigating and testing your ideas, then you’re able to create a better product.”
That’s the same idea behind KCAD’s certificate in design and innovation management, developed in 2006. The certificate brings together working design professionals and MBA students from Ferris in four, seven-week courses that teach business skills to designers and, conversely, design thinking skills to business students. Many West Michigan companies, such as Steelcase Inc., Wolverine World Wide Inc. and Herman Miller Inc., have enrolled employees in the certificate in an effort to encourage creative and collaborative problem solving.
Now that the entrepreneur programs are in place, colleges are focused on refining the curriculum to help better prepare students for real-world situations. Educators say schools need to allow room for creativity for entrepreneurs to thrive.
At Hope’s Center for Faithful Leadership, students are encouraged to explore in their own way, said VanderVeen, “as opposed to a class where you have to follow the syllabus and do this or do that.”
That holds true for workplaces as well, according to KCAD’s DeBruyn. Allowing people to practice, with the freedom to fail and try again, is the key to innovation.
“True innovation — the thing that is transformative, not incremental — is going to emerge from those people who are in places where they can really practice their work, their craft, their skills,” she said. “There’s a hunger for the quick, new ‘next thing.’ I think people want to be where the big energy is. They want to be where it’s fresh, exciting and a bit risky.”
Sidebar: Entrepreneurial programs in non-business schools
Various West Michigan liberal arts schools are expanding their entrepreneurship classes, certificates and degrees. Many of these programs are even available to students without a business major or minor. Here’s a list of a handful of available offerings:
Entrepreneurship and small business management class; Social entrepreneurship for developing economics class
Entrepreneurship concentration as part of business major; Social entrepreneurship class available in January 2017, pending approval
Entrepreneurship class for management majors/minors
Grand Rapids Community College
Two-semester entrepreneurship certificate
Management major with an entrepreneurship track; Center for Faithful Leadership with a business incubator, pitch contests and the Hope Entrepreneurship Initiative
Arts entrepreneurship class; Arts, entrepreneurship and social justice study-abroad program in Chicago; student-registered program Students of Entrepreneurship
Kellogg Community College
12 courses in entrepreneurship with various focuses, such as marketing and finance
Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University
Certificate in design and innovation management, in conjunction with Ferris State’s MBA program
Muskegon Community College
Associate in applied science degrees in entrepreneurial studies in several niches including alternative fuel, geospatial programming, web game development
Southwestern Michigan College
Small business management/entrepreneurship certificate program