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Entrepreneurship coupled with real-world experience

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Despite about one-third of entrepreneurs having the "fear factor" and more worry than four years ago, the rate of entrepreneurship this past year is higher than it's ever been in the last decade, according to Ron Thomas, vice president of membership at the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship of Springfield, Mass.

What can account for what seems like an oxymoron? 

People are seeing the changing workforce dichotomy as an opportunity.

"It was, ‘my job went away, I'm going to become a new business owner,'" Thomas explained. "Now what we're hearing is it's not necessarily ‘my job is going away and I have to do this out of necessity,' but rather, ‘this is an opportunity for me.'"

Curriculum is important

At the Appalachian Regional Commission fall conference Nov. 7 in Charleston, panelists discussed ways to continue carrying the entrepreneurial torch forward.

Malinda Todd, associate director for NC REAL Entrepreneurship of Raleigh, N.C., provides entrepreneurship curriculum in the K-12, community college and community settings. She shared what makes the program successful.

The REAL curriculum operates through a series of activities and stimulations. Groups work in teams to carry out actual situations businesses would face, Todd said. 

She said it's also important to utilize the benefits of technology and develop specialized curriculum in promoting entrepreneurship.

"Entrepreneurs and instructors are coming to us and saying, ‘I have a lot of students who are doing farm, agriculture, arts and the regular class doesn't meet all their needs,''' Todd said. "If you have a specialized course, sometimes it's easier to recruit because you can really focus on the student you're trying to recruit for that course."

In order to reach students who may not have time to take an entrepreneurial class due to requirements, teachers are utilized.

"We're helping agriculture teachers, health education teachers or health occupation programs infuse some entrepreneurship in their courses," Todd said. "That way, it doesn't take away from the million other requirements both teachers and students have."

Focusing on teacher development

Jason Hughes, coordinator in the Office of Career and Technical Instruction at the West Virginia Department of Education, said the reality in education is "it will never reach the students if it's not first presented and ingrained in the teacher."

To educate the teachers who will in turn educate the students, Hughes said lots of energy, time and resources were spent emphasizing professional development, along with teaching terminology and vocabulary as well as bringing in outside presenters.

"We spent a lot of energy in teacher training," he said. "They're not entrepreneurship-minded, so you have to bring them along."

Making sure entrepreneurial concepts are ingrained in the curriculum and utilizing the Supervised Ag Experience program, where every student is required to do something outside of school, is another way Hughes said the entrepreneurial torch is carried forward.

Simulating work in a classroom setting

Rhonda Tracy, senior vice-president for Academic Affairs at West Virginia University-Parkersburg, suggests treating a college like a business — exchanging business cards, having students share what they're making, inviting people to events and applying a virtual business model.

The virtual business model includes: 

 

  • Setting up a computer lab cubicle style to replicate workplace settings and getting away from the "professor style" computer lab concept,
  • Setting up classes as "departments," rather than "courses," 
  • Hosting staff meetings in conference room settings for class members at least once a month to approximate the business/work environment, and
  • Requiring students to develop a shared, collaborative business plan through a WIKI.

 

"We have to break old traditions," Tracy said. "Our belief is that human capital is important."

Through a program at WVU-P, students can take a series of four courses to receive a certificate in entrepreneurship. 

With the pilot stages of a stimulated workplace initiative, Hughes said West Virginia students now can experience a workplace atmosphere in a classroom setting.

"That classroom is considered a company," he said. "The skills that are being taught are from students being on time to class to actually calling the instructor if they're not going to be present or taking sick days."

Students begin with $1 million, with the good and bad things that happen either adding to or subtracting from the net worth. Mandatory drug testing also is required.

"I think there's a lot to be said for that model and students understanding how their effort, their behavior and their attributes affect the bottom line of the company," Hughes said. "It's good knowledge to have."

Getting creative

During the presentation, one audience member posed the question: What can you do to change the education in K-12 public schools so there is a chance someone might get through and still have some creativity left?

"We have to have certain practices in place," Tracy answered. "How can we embed (entrepreneurial skills) in other courses?"

And what are the benefits of having entrepreneurial practices in place? Having the ability to understand the strategies and principles of entrepreneurship, recognizing opportunity and being better prepared for the workplace.

According to Hughes, "students who have the entrepreneurial skills, those core skills, will be better employees or business owners, whatever comes their way."

Todd also echoed the sentiment.

"We believe those core entrepreneurial skills are those core sills that are going to help (students) no matter what happens and to see those opportunities," she said.