Learn Entrepreneurship, Save the World

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Tuesday, February 1, 2022
By Sharon Shinn
iStock/SDI Productions
Rowan University’s Think Like an Entrepreneur program teaches high school students that they can make a difference.
  • Think Like an Entrepreneur started with one high school that serves marginalized populations. The program has expanded to nearly 50 schools.
  • Students learn how to develop, prototype, and pitch ideas aimed at solving some of the world’s great challenges.
  • The Sustainable Development Goals provide a framework for students to learn about social issues and potential solutions.

“At any age, you can make a difference in the world.”

That was the takeaway for one high school student who recently completed the Think Like an Entrepreneur (TLAE) program at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey. The summer program, run by the Rohrer College of Business, shows high school students from underprivileged and underrepresented backgrounds how powerful entrepreneurship can be—and what roles they can play in making the world a better place.

TLAE got its start in 2017 when the dean of the Rohrer College, Sue Lehrman, met with staff at a local charter school to explore how to create pathways to success for high school students. The result was a two-week nonresidential immersion program in which one faculty member and volunteer guest speakers taught students the fundamentals of entrepreneurship. As part of the program, students were asked to develop solutions to real-world problems.

The initial program was supported in part by the TD Charitable Foundation and in part by seed funds from the Rohrer College of Business, which covered the full cost of tuition for the TLAE program.

After the success of the pilot offering, Rowan quickly began to expand the program and eventually moved it online. The school also added more faculty, new partners, and a focus on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 2021 version of TLAE, which lasted six weeks, welcomed students from 47 schools in seven states.

Throughout these changes, the goals have remained constant: to help students develop entrepreneurial mindsets; help them understand business models and basic business skills; teach them to transform ideas into feasible businesses; introduce them to the excitement of working with a team toward a common goal; increase their awareness of social issues; and provide first-generation college students with a realistic preview of college life. To this day, roughly 85 percent of the participants are from underprivileged and underrepresented populations.

“Given the population we are aiming to serve, we need to work to remove barriers, not add them, so we have adopted an inclusive approach,” says Eric Liguori, Rohrer Chair of Entrepreneurship. “When we shifted the program online, our team felt it was important to make access as open as possible, so we built things to scale to more students rather than tightening up criteria to exclude students.”

Staffing and Setup

Through TLAE, interdisciplinary teams of Rowan faculty deliver lectures, guide hands-on learning activities, and line up guest speakers. Liguori has been involved in the program from the beginning, overseeing it in its first year and co-teaching it for the past four years with Mike Dominik, a lecturer at the Rohrer College. Other teachers, speakers, and coaches are pulled from the school’s network of mentors and advisory council members.

In addition, the program employs six to eight Rowan students every year to serve as peer mentors. “They work roughly 60 hours over the course of the summer, learn how to coach and manage teams in a remote environment, and learn how to give developmental feedback,” says Liguori. Some mentors are recruited through the Entrepreneurship Center mailing list; others are referred by faculty.

To find high school students who might want to attend TLAE, Rohrer College markets the program to principals, administrators, guidance counselors, and business program educators in the New Jersey and Philadelphia area. Administrators also post application information to their social media networks, which has helped the program gain traction among parents and high school students living outside the region.

Individual students apply to join the program, and Rohrer faculty divide the students into teams of about five members each. Coordinators aim to create diverse teams that include participants from different schools.

Students develop entrepreneurial mindsets, learn basic business skills, and increase their awareness of social issues.

In its current format—online because of the pandemic—the class meets synchronously twice a week for two-and-a-half hours. Instructors cover the full range of entrepreneurial activities, including problem and opportunity recognition, design thinking, market definition, rapid prototyping, the Business Model Canvas, finance and resource modeling, intellectual property, the power of networking, the advantages of accelerators, pivoting, pitch development, and product development. Participants also meet weekly with the Rowan students acting as their mentors.

In the final week, participants present their ideas to a panel of judges. In the past, during in-person iterations of the program, participants received certificates and pitch winners received prize bags—and, one year, a judge handed out 100 USD prizes from her personal account. However, since the program went virtual in 2020, TLAE has only offered digital certificates.

Sustainability Spotlight

In 2019, administrators decided to revamp the TLAE to focus specifically on the SDGs. They made this shift because the SDGs provide an excellent framework for teaching entrepreneurship concepts in a short period of time to students who don’t have business or college backgrounds.

“Pragmatically, we can either get students doing problem validation or solution validation, and solution validation is the better mechanism for us to teach through,” says Liguori. “The SDGs are validated problems, so we can focus on potential solutions. The SDGs have also been a good choice because they’re consistent with our mission and we have the complementary resources to teach them.”

Students are introduced to the SDGs in the first class, when the theme is “Our world needs you to think like an entrepreneur.” Students learn the concept of sustainability and the attributes of the entrepreneurial mindset, and they’re shown examples of how entrepreneurs can support the SDGs. During the second class, a guest speaker from the U.N. lectures on the importance of the SDGs, “which helps students appreciate the possibilities of genuinely deep impact and develops their empathetic perspective,” says Dominik.

At first, students were asked to choose from among a curated set of five SDGs. But since that time, participants have been allowed to design solutions for any of the 17 development goals. The result has been a wide range of startup concepts, including Learn & Earn, a teacher training program for developing countries; Embrace Change, a mobile software app teachers and parents can use to teach about racial literacy; Eco3, a ride-sharing service that utilizes sustainable hybrid and electric power vehicles; and H2Slow, biodegradable hand-washing pods that aim to slow the spread of disease.

Powerful Partnerships

As part of the focus on the SDGs, Rohrer faculty have built relationships with officials from the U.N. and the International Labour Organization. For the past three summers, these officials have conducted SDG workshops for TLAE participants on a volunteer basis. Says Liguori, “There’s not a formal contract, obligation, or MOU. Participation has just been based on the collective goodwill of U.N. staff and leadership who found the work we were doing with high school students inspiring and wanted to support it.”

Other key partnerships have also been essential for the program’s success. For instance, the TD Charitable Foundation has continued to provide funding, increasing its support as the program has grown. Another partnership that has been in place since the program’s inception has been a collaboration with the International Council for Small Business (ICSB).

“We were one of the first universities to sign on as an ICSB Knowledge Hub,” says Liguori. “Our student participants have access to ICSB’s member resources, which means they can access the organization’s video library, which has a lot of SDG-related content. They also are invited to participate in ICSB’s summer webinars related to the SDGs. In the summer of 2022, they will be invited to attend the Micro, Small, and Medium-Sized Enterprises Day at the United Nations as part of the ICSB delegation.”

The Sustainable Development Goals provide an excellent framework for teaching entrepreneurship concepts to students who don’t have business or college backgrounds.

Another partnership was added in the third year of the program, when TLAE brought in Rowan’s School of Earth and Environment. Faculty from that school now lead sustainability workshops, serve as mentors, act as judges for final pitches, and draw on their deep expertise to assess the viability of solutions.

Similar collaborations would be useful for other institutions wanting to launch programs like TLAE, says Liguori. He suggests that schools join the new K-12 Connection social interest group formed by the United States Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship and the KHUB initiative of ICSB. Other schools could also partner with Rowan University, he says, as a way to expand both networks.

Online Opportunities

Rowan itself might partner with other universities for the 2022 program as a way to scale the online offering. “Pandemic permitting, we want to resume the in-person program for students in our area, but we also want to continue to offer the online opportunity because of the wide geographic reach,” says Liguori.

Switching to an online format in 2020 had both positive and negative consequences, says Liguori. On the plus side, administrators were able to line up a wider range of speakers and mentors; they also could afford to hire more peer mentors, using the money they saved by not providing food to participants.

The virtual format also allowed them to open up enrollment to students throughout the country. “We attracted a much more geographically dispersed population, and their perspectives have enriched course discussions and informed the solutions the students have come up with,” says Liguori. In 2021, the virtual program expanded its reach even farther when the TLAE enrolled its first two international participants—one from France and one from Egypt.

However, in 2020 and 2021, faculty and staff had to spend more time executing the digital programs, and student attrition rates were higher. In addition, the all-virtual program presented two major IT hurdles.

“One, we had to onboard students into an entire university system for them to access course content, grades, and other materials through secure channels,” says Liguori. “Two, students from this population have very disparate access to technology resources. It was a definite challenge for some participants to have good WiFi, acceptable computer access, and spaces where they could work uninterrupted.”

While the school made efforts to help students through the challenge of limited access, Liguori admits it’s a sensitive issue that’s difficult to address. He says, “The better solution is to get the in-person option available again and to keep building an asynchronous resource library, two things we continue to work on.”

Student Successes

In 2021, the program achieved a major milestone: For the first time, one of the peer mentors was a Rowan student who had completed the TLAE program a few years ago. In all, 29 students have matriculated into Rowan following completion of the program. While the TLAE program was not created as a recruiting tool, Liguori says, it’s helped familiarize participants with Rowan University—and with college education in general.

All participants who complete the program earn three hours of college credit in an entrepreneurship course. Those credits appear automatically for students who choose to attend Rowan; Liguori expects that most other universities will honor the transfer credit.

Whether or not TLAE participants decide to attend college, Liguori believes the program has had a positive impact. According to student assessments, 52 percent of those who complete the program indicate that they intend to set up companies in the future, 45 percent say they are actively spending time outside of class learning about starting their own firms, 79 percent indicate they have become more resourceful in finding and leveraging resources when responding to new problems and opportunities, and 70 percent say they would like to see themselves as entrepreneurs.

In video testimonials and written feedback, students also attest to the program’s impact. Students say that they appreciated learning how diverse entrepreneurship can be and enjoyed meeting new people. One student sums up the program’s entire goal with one simple statement: “I was beginning to believe in my ability to really change the world.”

Authors
Sharon Shinn
Editor, AACSB Insights
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