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Entrepreneurship programs support economic growth

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Fresno City College graduate Mike Pronovost speaks at a White House conference on entrepreneurship.

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For 22-year-old Mike Pronovost, Fresno City College (FCC) was the perfect place to learn about developing his own business.
 
FCC “set me up perfectly in helping me build and run my company,” said Pronovost, a 2011 graduate of the two-year institution in California.
 
He started Pronovost Technology Corp. while working on his associate degree in business administration as an honors student at FCC. The company, which has 25 employees, uses “powerband” technology to provide broadband internet access to rural communities.
 
In November, Pronovost spoke at the White House at an event honoring the Empact 100, the most successful entrepreneurs under 30. 
 
“I never would have accomplished this without the help of some great mentors and teachers” at FCC, Pronovost said. Entrepreneurship instructor Maryanne Dunklin “opened a lot of doors for me,” he said, and other teachers helped him resolve business law and human relations issues with his company.
 
“Even the dean of the school was always there cheerleading me along,” Pronovost said.
 
Entrepreneurship programs are not all about helping start-up, high-tech companies. They help students and clients interested in running a wide range of businesses. Tiffany Lowe said an introductory entrepreneurship course she took at Reedley College (California) in 2008 inspired her to turn the caramels she and her mother, Justina Lowe, had been making for years “into a real product.” 
 
“Being with other like-minded students and having a professor who was passionate about entrepreneurship encouraged me to find my path,” said Lowe, who owns and operates Justina Confections. She plans to earn a bachelor’s degree in business administration from California State University, Fresno in May.
Multiple pathways
 
FCC’s and Reedley's strong support of entrepreneurship stems from their participation in the Lyles Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship's  Entrepreneurial Pathway program.
 
Tips for developing a successful entrepreneurship programThe Pathways program, developed in 2007 with support from the Coleman Foundation, is aimed at “making sure any student in California’s Central Valley has access to entrepreneurial education,” said Timothy Stearns, executive director of the Lyles Center, which is based at CSU, Fresno. 
 
The program connects the Lyles Center with 11 community colleges and 20 high schools in a hub-and-spoke network to facilitate articulation, helps colleges establish entrepreneurship centers and encourages economic development in an area with an unemployment rate approaching 17 percent, Stearns said.
 
North Iowa Area Community College (NIACC) offers a wide range of programs to help budding entrepreneurs through its John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center, named for the founder of an insurance company who has donated $100 million to various organizations, including $4 million to NIACC.
 
NIACC is one of 10 colleges selected to participate in a Virtual Incubator Network for small business start-ups, an American Association of Community Colleges project to be launched later this month with support from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.
 
Among other initiatives, NIACC offers a 10-week FastTrac entrepreneurship course developed by the Kauffman Foundation and provides consulting services to local entrepreneurs in partnership with the college’s economic development partners, said Timothy Putnam, associate director of the Pappajohn Center.
 
Extensive outreach
 
Entrepreneurship education at NIACC starts early. Fifth-graders come to campus for the Entrepreneur for a Day program, and the college hosts a summer residential program, the Youth Entrepreneurial Academy, where high school juniors and seniors pitch business ideas to investors.
 
A venture capital fund administered by NIACC  provides loans of $150,000 to $300,000 to support entrepreneurial projects, with funds contributed by individual investors. NIACC also administers the U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded Rural Business Enterprise Grant (RBEG) program.
 
According to Putnam, RBEG funds have helped a group of physician assistants start a family health clinic, a NIACC graduate develop a hardware store, and another entrepreneur create a business called Games by Gamers that makes 5,000 to 10,000 bags a month for carrying dice and other supplies for games like Dungeons and Dragons.
 
NIACC’s micro-financing program provides loans of up to $2,500 for home-based enterprises with funding from the United Way and local banks. Examples of projects funded with these “nano loans” include a recycling redemption center for cans and bottles, bakery, consignment shop, a computer repair shop and an online photography business.
 
To receive financing, applicants are required to have a degree in business or take a business-planning course and they must write a business plan.
 
Putnam believes one role of community colleges is “to connect people and ideas.” The Pappajohn Center serves this purpose by hosting symposiums, such as a recent forum for community leaders on how to engage the millennial generation so they will stay and find meaningful work in rural Iowa.
 
In Florida,  the Small Business Development Center at Indian River State College (IRSC) was responsible for 12 new businesses, the creation or retention of 1,030 jobs, and nearly $311,400 in sales growth in 2010.
 
IRSC’s new “innovation incubator” will allow people with home-based businesses to rent office space and computers. In addition to a wide range of courses on entrepreneurship and specific business topics, “learn at lunch” workshops and conferences for local business leaders, IRSC provides free consulting to residents thinking of starting a business or taking their company to the next level.
 
Individuals who sign up for consulting—which includes such assistance as developing a business plan and filling out a loan application—must take an introductory course to explore whether they are cut out for entrepreneurship.
 
“You need to be able to take responsibility for your life,” said Jan Pagano, associate dean of business and entrepreneurship. “You need to have fire in the belly and have a good idea and be able to execute it.”
 
‘A matter of survival’
 
When the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship (NACCE) was created about 10 years ago, about 10 percent of community colleges were running various aspects of entrepreneurship programs, said NACCE Executive Director Heather Van Sickle. 
 
"I think it’s grown exponentially since then," she said, attributing the growth to changes in employment trends and attitudes. People are less likely to stay with one company and there is more interest in striking out on one’s own, she added.
 
The pathway for most people is not linear, Van Sickle noted. It’s become more of an “in and out sort of thing,” with people going back and forth between running their own business and working for other companies. And with the recession, “there is a feeling that things can shift and nothing is permanent.”
 
According to Stearns, many people in their late 20s and 30s are enrolling in community colleges, and this is the demographic group that is most interested in starting their own business. That makes community colleges good places for entrepreneurial education, he said.
  
“Entrepreneurship is a matter of survival” for rural communities like those served by NIACC, said Putnam, who noted that small businesses are “the lifeblood of our community.”
 
At the same time, “communities are recognizing more and more that the way to build economic wealth is to support the creation of businesses, not to steal employers from their neighbors by offering tax breaks,” added Stearn. “That is a broken mechanism,” he said.
 
A well-rounded education
 
When colleges began offering entrepreneurship programs, they were doing it in a traditional way—as part of the business department, said Van Sickle. Today, entrepreneurship is seen more as an outcome—like a job—rather than a course of study.  NACCE advocates fewer degrees in entrepreneurship and more instruction on entrepreneurship woven into other courses.
 
For this to happen, a college needs a “champion” who understands the importance of entrepreneurship and would promote that concept to faculty in various content areas, Van Sickle said. Rather than training lots of faculty in entrepreneurship, she advises colleges to bring in outside experts, such as successful business leaders, to talk to students.
 
For colleges with tight budgets, Van Sickle urges college leaders to “meet with people inside and outside the college, assess the needs in the community, and figure out how you can form partnerships.”
 
According to Van Sickles, “a good understanding of what entrepreneurship is all about is critical to a well-rounded education.”
 
Entrepreneurship courses are not only useful for people interested in starting a business, Putnam added. They also “provide the tools to be more successful in a job, such as problem solving, creativity and innovative thinking.”
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