WMU excels at educating, producing entrepreneurs

contact: Paula M. Davis
| WMU News
Photo of Joshua Teo.

Teo

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Mechanical engineering graduate student Joshua Teo is co-creating a Web-based engineering software company specializing in durability analysis of certain structural components used by design engineers at small- to medium-size manufacturers.

Senior Megan Delp, a public history major and maker of handcrafted soaps, has experienced enough success as a young entrepreneur that proceeds from soap sales online and through local merchants help fund her tuition.

Delp

Both endeavors—educational and entrepreneurial—are securing Delp's plans to start an organization combining her knowledge of nature with her love for local history and for teaching youngsters.

These two are among the many audacious WMU students driven to use their talents to devise livelihoods of their own making. Some of these students begin college with entrepreneurial ambitions in mind, others develop the aspiration along the way.

In either case, WMU has a growing number of educational opportunities and resources inside and outside the classroom designed to support and produce the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Generation entrepreneurship


Most WMU students are millennials—individuals who are between 19 and 35 years old. This is a generation well-positioned to be America’s "greatest" entrepreneurial generation, according to the Kauffman Foundation, which specializes in entrepreneurship.

Millennials are the most educated generation, the most exposed to entrepreneurship education in particular and graduates of business schools these days are increasingly starting businesses, according to the foundation's 2015 feature on "Millennial Entrepreneurs and the State of Entrepreneurship."

"This particular generation has seen their role models become very, very successful entrepreneurs," says Dr. Robert Landeros, chair of the department of management in WMU's Haworth College of Business and a professor of management.

That list includes Spanx undergarment creator Sara Blakely, fashion designer and philanthropist Tory Burch, Bad Boy Entertainment's Sean Combs, Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook.

"They see themselves as creating something that will bring value. They're not interested in working for somebody else. They want to contribute, but they want to do it themselves," Landeros says.

Due largely to technological advances, these students are also coming of age during a period in which it’s less costly to launch an enterprise.

"This generation, like none before it, can then focus on their value proposition and delivering a product instead of the mundane tasks that sucked energy, money and time from previous generations," says Barcley Johnson, a management instructor who also has launched businesses and services.

Recalling that his first e-commerce project in the late 1990s cost more than $100,000 just to get the online payments system "workable," he notes that "this generation has more foundational tools available at little or no cost within two or three clicks.

"Want to incorporate? File trademarks? Patents? Get an e-commerce website up? Open bank accounts and accept credit cards? It can all be done within 24 hours and under $1,000," Johnson says.

Gaining the know-how

But Teo, the mechanical engineering graduate student, expresses a common sentiment among aspiring entrepreneurs.

"I know engineering," he says, "but I didn’t know about running a company."

Photo of participants in the Starting Gate program.

Participants, including Delp and Teo, in the Starting Gate program

Or, it's I know music. Or, I know geology. Or, I know health. But how to investigate the commercial viability of an idea, how to gain mentors and find potential investors, these are skills and knowledge that don’t come as naturally as passion for a business idea.

To equip students with these and other skills, WMU launched an entrepreneurship major through the business college and a University-wide minor that is open to all students.

"We saw a need to offer first-class education in entrepreneurship to meet the needs of our students—and ultimately the needs of the economy," Dr. Kay Palan, business college dean says of the entrepreneurship program.

“Hiring faculty with expertise in entrepreneurship, engaging with entrepreneurs in the business community and offering co-curricular initiatives have all laid the groundwork for rigorous, hands-on courses of study for students looking to launch their own businesses," she says.

Students develop such skills as idea generation, opportunity recognition, resource acquisition and entrepreneurial management.

But recognizing that there is not a single path for entrepreneurs, the University also offers a variety of means to gain essential skills, including the student business accelerator program, Starting Gate.

In addition to classes Teo took as undergraduate and graduate mechanical engineering student, his path to entrepreneurship came in part through Starting Gate.

The two-year-old program provides a fast-track to business launch. Students must demonstrate a promising idea for a product or service, which can be launched within a short period of time.

Through the program, they hone their business or product idea and make connections with entrepreneurial mentors, potential investors and other students developing start ups.

Among the companies or products is a café that specializes in breakfast foods, a mobile training app for pilots, a service that offers a repository of orchestral excerpts and a business built around the use of drones.

"We chose the current group of entrepreneurs based on their innovative ideas, ambition and willingness to take a risk," says Lara Hobson, Starting Gate director of operations.

"All eight companies have been up for the challenge and have been working with mentors, applying for patents, doing extensive customer discovery, writing business plans and much more. This is all alongside full-time course loads and part-time jobs. Their passion and dedication to their startup is shown every week, and I'm very fortunate to be working with these talented students."

Starting Gate, and the entrepreneurship major and minor join other offerings at WMU, including the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation; PITCH: a WMU business pitch competition held each spring; the industrial and entrepreneurial engineering program; Entrepreneurship Forum, a monthly speaker series hosted by the college of business; Entrepreneurial Extravaganza, courses and speaking events in the School of Music; and the Entrepreneur Club, a student-run organization.

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