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Developing a successful entrepreneurship program

Jack Huck

Editor's note: This is an excerpt from an article in the December/January edition of the Community College Journal, the bimonthly magazine of the American Association of Community Colleges.

One way to provide students and entrepreneurs opportunities to work with and contribute to the success of local economies is through the creation of an on-campus entrepreneurship program.

When done right, such programs, which often include business incubators that allow young companies to grow amid the comfort and resources afforded a college campus, offer a win-win for colleges and industry partners.

At Nebraska’s Southeast Community College (SCC), where I serve as president, our five-year-old Entrepreneurship Center has brought to light many of the benefits and challenges inherent in integrated business partnerships. If you are interested in pursuing a comprehensive entrepreneurial education program on your campus, consider these lessons learned:

Lesson 1
A successful entrepreneurship center requires three essential elements: a comprehensive model; an ambitious team of employees to deliver services, drive projects and explore new opportunities; and entrepreneurial vision at an administrative level to ensure overall innovation and growth.

The first step is to establish a vision. That vision should be predicated upon the college’s strengths, the needs of the community and the projected impact of the project. Your vision is more likely to be successful when it is shared by the CEO, key administrative players, the board of governors, employees and community partners.

Lesson 2
Develop a team of creative thinkers who are not afraid to try new approaches. Their hard work is necessary to realize your vision. These individuals should be challenged to identify potential industry partners, create services and seek opportunities to fulfill the vision. In a college setting, team members must be able to educate entrepreneurs, innovate and offer business expertise. That is why it is important to include individual team members with hands-on business experience.

Lesson 3
Adopt a model that is equally effective for the college and community. An effective entrepreneurship model consists of, among other elements, education, business resource services and coaching, and community outreach and partnerships. Through these services, the goal should be to educate, enhance and empower each entrepreneur or aspiring entrepreneur who walks through the door.

Lead by example

The CEO or college president is critical to the success of any entrepreneurship center through his or her role as an internal and external advocate, supporter and leader. Strong leadership sets the tone and atmosphere in which entrepreneurship takes root, grows, and, eventually, thrives.

But even the best leaders are likely to encounter challenges.

It’s a safe bet, particularly in this economy, that certain constituencies within the college and the wider community will question the need for entrepreneurial pursuits and the attendant allocation of resources. The CEO must persistently connect the dots so that everyone understands the future of the college and its impact on the community, the state, even the nation.

As leaders, we must effectively target our advocacy and related support to students, staff and faculty within the college via consistent, effective communication. We must spread the word through interactions with key stakeholders, including local service clubs, workforce investment boards, community leaders, politicians, economic development groups, chambers of commerce,
K–12 schools, banks and other groups—all of which will be anxious to embrace entrepreneurship if given the opportunity. It is incumbent upon college CEOs everywhere to engage all constituencies and to cultivate and grow the spirit of entrepreneurship on and around campus.

The SCC model

Any postsecondary student at SCC interested in entrepreneurship can earn an associate of applied science degree with an entrepreneurship focus through our business administration program.

Students in other vocational programs can earn a certificate in entrepreneurship, which aims to equip them with the skills necessary to run a business without completion of an additional degree. Our philosophy—that any student, on any degree path, can benefit from entrepreneurship education—has led to the integration of entrepreneurship education into each of the Nebraska Department of Education’s career pathways. The model has been adopted by community colleges throughout the state.

The primary goal of the SCC Entrepreneurship Center Business Incubator is to support growth at participating businesses, ensure each participating business has what it takes to be competitive in its respective market, and, ultimately, to “graduate” the business from the facility within three years.

During that three-year period, incubator business owners are required to continue their education or training, meet with the staff for coaching and goal setting, and write a comprehensive business plan. Incubator business owners also give back to the college through a variety of mutually beneficial arrangements and partnerships. We believe it is important for all of our participating businesses to feel connected to the college.

Center staff offer one-on-one coaching to anyone interested in starting a business. Information is provided to guide aspiring entrepreneurs through the startup process or take a business to the next level. No matter what stage the entrepreneur is at in his or her entrepreneurial venture, the entrepreneurship team has developed coaching and advising pathways specific to the needs of that client.

Huck is president of Southeast Community College in Nebraska.