The value of textbooks and lectures delivering theory in a graduate business curriculum is unquestioned, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned over the past two years of the pandemic, in these uncertain times they are not sufficient in preparing students for today’s anomalous real world economic and societal climate. Indeed, taking the living pulse of business communities must be an integral part of graduate education to meet the challenges of this dynamic new world.
Entrepreneurship has become an essential, pragmatic approach to business
The impact of the global pandemic has made the critical nature of practical entrepreneurial studies more cogent because the rules of the business world seem to be constantly changing. This uncertainty has thrown just about every business owner into the entrepreneurial pool to sink or swim. Businesses of all sizes, from large corporations to small mom and pop stores, have been reeling under the strain of economic and social upheaval no one could have imagined at the start of 2019. Business owners who took a pragmatic or entrepreneurial stance by pivoting to innovative supply chain and monetization strategies have been able to weather the storm. Those who treated the pandemic like a deer in headlights, waiting for normalcy to re-emerge, often had to close their doors. Many lost everything. Like all of us, students continue to experience this reality as they go about their daily lives, and the opportunity in this crisis can be more fully realized when it is brought directly into the classroom for observation and experimentation.
Business owners who took a pragmatic or entrepreneurial stance by pivoting to innovative supply chain and monetization strategies have been able to weather the storm.
Preparing students for the real world
When the long-term impact of the pandemic became tragically more apparent in early 2020, I polled faculty from institutions around the country, asking about the last time they had visited a shopping center in their communities, fully recognizing that many retailers were boarded up, struggling, barely surviving or simply out of business. I then asked the rhetorical question: How can faculty charged with preparing students to become the business leaders of tomorrow turn a blind eye to the economic and societal upheaval of the pandemic by continuing to teach the same syllabi year after year? Westcliff University is deeply committed to setting students up for success in entrepreneurship and leadership — providing a wide range of unique resources and programs that enable real-world learning. As director of entrepreneurship, I saw an opportunity to provide students with an even more comprehensive tool set upon which they can launch successful careers. It seemed intuitively obvious that an essential enhancement to those curricula requires a practical introduction to the current state of business for exposure, analysis and insight.
We’re living in historic times
It’s now early 2022, and the fallout of this global roller coaster is not letting up, and we are likely going to be studying this unique period in our history for generations to come. From a purely academic perspective, it is exciting to have the opportunity to engage with and study this global phenomenon as it happens. This is truly a living laboratory in which faculty serve their students best by making a concerted effort to engage with community businesses of all shapes and sizes in a diversity of industries to learn how they are coping, what worked and what didn’t work.
Creating enlightened students
It’s difficult to achieve a comprehensive understanding of today’s business reality simply from observation and third-party accounts. Students benefit greatly from becoming immersed as active participants in the business ecosystem during these difficult times to learn of the successes and to study how failures were resolved, paving a more effective path toward their own future success. I watched students discover this in real time with the introduction of a timely course, Crisis Management in the Pandemic Era, implemented in 2020. Students interviewed business owners to capture their personal perspectives on the past two years of the pandemic and to see how they have navigated the conditions and restrictions brought on by the pandemic. Through that exercise, students experienced the raw emotions of business owners who had to make difficult decisions they never expected to encounter. The experiences gained from the field ran the full gamut of success and failure, but in the end, students recognized the stark reality that literally no one could escape the effects of the pandemic. Many voiced the realization that without this practical exposure to a broad section of the business community they would have been less prepared in applying for jobs upon graduation.
Business community outreach
Encouraged by the success of that course, in the later part of 2021, we reached out to local incubators and well-established angel funds to gain access to their portfolio’s startup companies. The objective was to invite entrepreneurs into the classroom in a manner that would resonate with our business and technology-oriented curricula. Having been involved with incubators over the past two decades, I understood that resident companies are amenable to opening the proverbial kimono to their mentors and advisers. I was certain that the offer of consulting services from university students would resonate with established incubators. I found that most incubators welcomed the help, particularly since they also were not immune to pandemic conditions. Most had to sacrifice their resident campuses in favor of virtual operations. Many mentors and advisers were less available because they were dealing with their own personal and professional issues. This made the offer of such assistance from a university an even greater attraction.
The capstone approach
We’ve found that one of the most effective ways to engage students and faculty with startup companies is via a capstone program we deemed the Strategic Management of Applied Research and Technology, or SMART. Teams comprised of MBA student and faculty teams acting as consultants take on projects defined jointly by the university and each company. It might be a survey of the competitive landscape for their product or service, the establishment of a new marketing plan, or simply due diligence on a company’s P&L. In this process, students get an immersive experience within a startup company that, like everyone else, is attempting to map a course through the shifting sands of the global pandemic. They typically interact directly with the founder/entrepreneur and gain access to how he/she ticks. The beauty of this relationship is its synergistic quality. The company and incubator receive much needed consulting resources. The students gain real-world consulting experience with startup companies and a line item on their resume/CV. They also establish networking within a company that will likely be hiring within the year.
A real-world, immersive “Shark Tank”
Another source of practical engagement is a take on the very popular television series, “Shark Tank,” where students attend elevator pitches by entrepreneurs presenting to seasoned investors of established angel funds. Attending the pitches, interacting with the presenting entrepreneurs, and taking what was learned back into the classroom creates a microcosm of the regional business community signaling its health and status. This exercise also teaches students effective communication as they observe how effectively these entrepreneurs get their message across. The biggest value to students may be hearing the unfiltered discussions of investors determining the pros and cons of each company and whether they can achieve viability. In the process, the seasoned investors, who are also highly successful business leaders in the community, offer insight into the direction and focus of each startup’s industry as well as their educated opinion on the B2C or B2B appetite for the startup’s product or service. In some cases, an angel fund might be enamored by a presenter, albeit with a caveat that something is missing from their investor deck. In such instances, the investors can suggest the company apply to the university’s capstone program or submit to a more limited case study assessment within an appropriate course for clarity and resolution before reapplying to the funding group.
Students gain by supplementing their theoretical studies via practical engagement with business owners attempting to maneuver through the recovery process post COVID.
The benefits to these types of community engagement are plentiful. Students gain by supplementing their theoretical studies via practical engagement with business owners attempting to maneuver through the recovery process post COVID. They also experience the excitement of startup entrepreneurs by assisting them with many of the fundamentals of their business models, investment decks and funding pitches. The university provides companies with mentoring and support that better prepare them to seek funding while angel investors and incubators receive much needed, pro bono research and due diligence resources. The university gains name and brand recognition as the glue between all stakeholders as it serves as a catalyst for additional outreach initiatives, bringing the educational community, regional businesses, funding entities and entrepreneurs together to create mutually beneficial bonds.
Bottom line: Through effective outreach and active student engagement with the business and entrepreneurial community, a university’s curricula will become both timely and relevant for students entering today’s dynamic business landscape. As a result, upon graduation, students will be able to hit the ground running, better prepared to define and map the direction of their careers and position themselves to become tomorrow’s business leaders.