Positive Impact Through Entrepreneurship Education

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Wednesday, January 10, 2024
By JK Aier, Crystal Fickers, Rebecca Howick, Ajay Vinzé, Benjamin Kessler
Photo by iStock/Flashvector
How one school aims to lower barriers to entrepreneurial education and bring economic empowerment to communities across the state of Virginia.
  • The SOAR Initiative at the Costello College of Business at George Mason University will provide holistic entrepreneurial training to three populations of aspiring entrepreneurs: refugees and immigrants, people of low socioeconomic status, and residents of rural and emerging communities.
  • One SOAR program supported refugees and immigrants, primarily from Afghanistan and Pakistan, for a six-week entrepreneurial boot camp, 12 weeks of business mentoring, and 13 weeks of consulting.
  • The school hopes that this inclusive training model will generate a virtuous cycle in which its outcomes attract help and funding that then can be used to positively impact more aspiring entrepreneurs in Virginia.

 

The increasingly volatile economy of the last 15 years has culminated in economic shocks arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of these shocks, more students are looking to hone their entrepreneurial skill sets and pursue the financial autonomy that entrepreneurship provides.

That demand has inspired the rapid expansion of entrepreneurship education. Between the 2017–18 and 2019–20 academic years, business schools have beefed up their entrepreneurial offerings by nearly 24 percent.

George Mason University’s Costello College of Business (CCB) in Fairfax County, Virginia, is no different. Our recent 50 million USD naming gift from the estate of entrepreneur Donald G. Costello will support our school’s commitment to economic betterment through entrepreneurship, especially in Mason’s backyard of Northern Virginia. This landmark donation is earmarked for scholarships designed to prepare students to become entrepreneurs.

But our approach to entrepreneurship also corresponds with two relatively recent developments in business education—the “unbundling” of education into modular offerings and, more profoundly, the obligation of business schools to demonstrate societal impact. Our efforts to contribute to the local entrepreneurial community align not only with the broader mission of George Mason University, but also with Standard 9 of the AACSB 2020 accreditation standards, which emphasizes the need to achieve societal impact.

At the Costello College of Business, our core belief is “Everything is business.” By this, we mean that no matter what their calling in life might be, all individuals will need business skills to navigate evolving markets and secure long-term success. By the same token, we also believe that all individuals, regardless of educational status, should have the opportunity to control their own business destinies—that is, to become entrepreneurs.

Driven by this conviction, we worked to develop novel solutions for empowering future entrepreneurs. In 2022, our Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) identified opportunities to reimagine programs and initiatives according to institutional strategic priorities and stakeholders. In particular, we sought to lower barriers to formal business education, in line with the Mason Virginia Promise to make training more accessible, and bring economic empowerment to strategically selected communities.

In September 2023, CIE launched the SOAR Initiative, which addresses both goals. At SOAR’s foundation is a model of inclusive entrepreneurship education.

The SOAR Initiative and RISE Program

SOAR is a holistic program that offers entrepreneurship training, mentoring, resources, and other forms of support to startups and individuals in our community who do not currently have adequate access to entrepreneurship training opportunities. The SOAR acronym stands for a startup approach that empowers underserved communities; opportunities for community-building and engagement; access to mentoring and credentialing assistance; and a roadmap to successful business, career, and life outcomes.

The program is designed for aspiring entrepreneurs who belong to one of three populations. These include refugees and immigrants; people of low socioeconomic status, especially those who live in the Northern Virginia urban areas of Franconia and Alexandria; and residents of rural and emerging communities, especially those living in the Southern Virginia city of Danville. We hope to create discrete programs that address the unique needs and opportunities of each of these three communities.

We launched the first of these programs in September 2023. The Shrivastava Family Refugee and Immigrant Success in Entrepreneurship program, or RISE, was made possible through a 1.5 million USD donation from alumnus Sumeet Shrivastava. The son of a successful immigrant entrepreneur, Shrivastava was an executive in the government IT industry, who now is a dedicated community leader.

Many of the newly arrived immigrants taking part in RISE were highly skilled entrepreneurs or held academic degrees in their home countries, and now they need help setting up and managing businesses in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Through the other two cohorts of SOAR, we plan to offer participants in Franconia/Alexandria entrepreneurial education that complements vocational training provided by partner organizations. We will steer participants in Danville toward the entrepreneurial ecosystem springing up around a new Caesars casino resort scheduled to open there in 2024.

We want to provide participants with guidance, equip them with bankable business plans, and help them obtain the funding they’ll need to establish sustainable enterprises.

We are currently seeking funding for the remaining two programs, with input from government officials from the state and Fairfax County and other stakeholders. Eventually, all three programs will feature six-week entrepreneurial boot camps, followed by 12 weeks of mentoring and 13 weeks of hands-on consulting from students across the university enrolled in entrepreneurship-based courses. The consulting phase will provide Mason students of diverse backgrounds with an experiential learning opportunity that not only will build their own professional portfolios, but also could inspire them to consider starting their own businesses.

Through SOAR’s programs, we want to provide participants with guidance, equip them with bankable business plans, and help them obtain the funding they’ll need to establish sustainable enterprises. Program graduates will then be prepared to tap Mason Enterprise, the university’s economic development organization, and the Mason Small Business Development Center as sources of post-program support.

Our Progress So Far

The first-ever Shrivastava Family RISE boot camp concluded in late October. We began with 47 participants, mostly of Afghan or Pakistani origin, 31 of whom graduated from the six-week training. The drop-off was due to a swift launch and an attendance requirement. Participants who missed more than one of the six consecutive Saturday sessions were invited to try again as part of the next RISE cohort, scheduled for early 2024.

Having faced discrimination in the past, these participants were hungry for a path to an alternative future. The boot camp was designed to show them that entrepreneurship was one such path that could have a profound impact on not just their own lives, but the lives of their families and members of their communities.

The boot camp featured a diverse roster of guest speakers. These included Brian Wendroff, a certified public accountant and founder of accountancy firm Wendroff & Associates; Mahesh Joshi, an entrepreneur and associate professor of management at CCB; Rudy Dekrooj, senior vice president at Virginia-based MainStreet Bank; and Grace Mittl, a recent BBA graduate from the University of Richmond and co-founder of Absurd Snacks, a company dedicated to selling snacks that are safe for people with food allergies. The speakers introduced key business support services to participants and served as connections to the university’s wider entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Overall, the first iteration of the boot camp was a resounding success. Participants were even more engaged and enthusiastic than we expected. Plus, at the closing certificate ceremony, we were impressed by the range of proposed ventures from the cohort, which encompassed everything from coffee shops to childcare centers to IT consulting services.

One participant shared a particularly transformative moment, saying, “I had an entirely different business idea before I joined this class. But because of your lessons, I changed it completely. I ran the numbers like you taught us and found that the original version wouldn’t work. Now I’m more confident in my new idea.”

CIE organizers will continue to develop RISE from a diversity perspective. Working with our existing partners, they hope to expand the program to welcome participants originally from Iran, Iraq, and Syria, among other countries. CIE also intends to expand official partnerships to reach more people within the refugee and immigrant communities.

The inaugural RISE cohort is overwhelmingly male, so organizers will work toward better gender balance in future cohorts. In addition, as the program continues to evolve, they will look for ways to remove barriers to participation in areas such as transportation, childcare, and access to personal laptops.

The Primacy of Partnerships

Throughout our planning, we have partnered with organizations that work closely with individuals who lack adequate access to entrepreneurship training opportunities. With our partners’ input, we have been able to understand how we could use CIE and CCB resources and expertise to design innovative trainings that meet the unique needs of community members.

For example, SOAR has been working with Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area (LSSNCA), a human services and immigration relief and refugee welcome agency that serves people in need throughout Maryland, Virginia, and the Washington, D.C., metro area. LSSNCA has been instrumental in helping us identify and recruit prospective RISE participants; the organization also has provided participants with basic needs such as food, shelter, and full-time employment, so that they are primed for success before starting the program.

We have partnered with organizations that can help us understand how we can design innovative trainings that meet the unique needs of community members.

We now are seeking a partnership with the W.I.S.H. Center of Fairfax County, which we hope will connect us with people currently in a low socioeconomic status. W.I.S.H. (which stands for Workforce, Innovation, Skills Hub) helps underemployed workers refresh their professional skills so that they become empowered to earn a living wage.

Additionally, SOAR borrows the structure of its programming and fundamental aspects of its pedagogical materials from the Urban Poverty and Business Initiative (UPBI). Offered by the McKenna Center for Human Development and Global Business at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, UPBI programming promotes entrepreneurship within communities affected by adversity. CCB is one of only 30 global partners licensed to use the tried-and-true UPBI framework, which CIE customizes to the unique needs of SOAR participants.

A Virtuous Cycle of Impact

Several key CCB stakeholders also participate in our inclusive entrepreneurship education model. Faculty with entrepreneurship expertise are serving as volunteer guest speakers in our boot camp sessions, and we are recruiting mentors from our robust network of alumni entrepreneurs. To bridge coursework and practice, we are pairing early-stage entrepreneurs with a diverse team of talented business students in what promises to be a mutually beneficial co-learning opportunity.

Additionally, with the help of CIE director of research Toyah Miller, we are gathering and analyzing data to track the results of our programs. Miller will be working with Michelle S. Dromgold-Sermen, assistant director of the Institute for Immigration Research, part of Mason’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences. Miller and Dromgold-Sermen, with help from the CIE student-staff team, will document the successes and challenges of participants two to three years after program completion. In addition, they will track relevant metrics such as number of ventures started and jobs created, generating applied research with real-world impact.

In short, we anticipate these activities will form a virtuous cycle. By demonstrating SOAR’s impact, we will place CCB in a strong position to obtain additional outside funding, which we plan to use to make SOAR financially self-sufficient and scalable. As we scale, we will achieve greater impact, which we hope will attract more help and support from faculty, alumni, and donors who want to make a positive change in their communities.

Indeed, the virtuous cycle is already active: A community member recently responded to a CIE social media post by offering to broker a meeting with a banker specializing in multicultural lending.

SOAR is positioned to effect tangible and lasting positive change, both within and outside the Costello College of Business, by aligning key stakeholders and partners around inclusive entrepreneurship education. We hope that our experience will encourage other schools to explore how they can share with their communities what is perhaps the most powerful engine of economic advancement available to business academics: the entrepreneurial toolkit. Through entrepreneurship education, business schools can help people revitalize their dreams, transform their lives, and boost their local economies.

Authors
JK Aier
Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Global Engagement and Associate Professor, Costello College of Business at George Mason University
Crystal Fickers
Associate Director of Student Programs and Community Initiatives, Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Costello College of Business at George Mason University
Rebecca Howick
Director of Operations and Engagement, Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Costello College of Business at George Mason University
Ajay Vinzé
Dean, Costello College of Business at George Mason University
Benjamin Kessler
Research Communications and Outreach Officer, Costello College of Business at George Mason University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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