Startup U

The Jones College Entrepreneurship program helps MTSU students turn wishful ideas into concrete business plans.

Given their history and experience, millennials have witnessed and enjoyed a tremendous amount of entrepreneurial prosperity (think companies like Uber) made possible by people who said, “Here’s a problem: How can we solve it in a way no one has thought of before?”

A 2016 BNP Paribas Global Entrepreneur Report found that millennials—people born between the mid-1980s and late-’90s—are discovering entrepreneurship significantly earlier than boomers did. According to the report, “While the older generation launched their first businesses at roughly 35 years old, so-called ‘millennipreneurs’ are setting out around 27—which means some of them already have almost a decade of experience.”

A key factor enabling this rise in entrepreneurism is the rampant growth in technology. Today anyone with an idea and an Internet connection can essentially start a business at a computer. It’s never been easier to start a business and to do so without a lot of money.

How does this relate to colleges of business?

About four in 10 students want to start a business, according to a 2015 Gallup student poll. Colleges and universities across the nation have taken note.

A 2015 New York Times story asserted the number of higher education institutions that offer courses related to entrepreneurship “has grown from a handful in the 1970s to over 1,600 today.” Recognizing the demand, Jones College offers an Entrepreneurship major and minor to help students turn wishful ideas into concrete business plans.

An Academic Incubator

“It’s a young discipline,” said Bill McDowell, holder of the Pam Wright Chair of Entrepreneurship at MTSU. “An increasing number of students don’t want to rely on someone else for their security.”

Pam Wright, an MTSU graduate who founded Wright Travel in 1981, pledged $1.25 million to her alma mater in 2007 to establish the chair McDowell currently holds. Wright said she did so in an effort to better engage in the economic fight America has on its hands in competing with the developing world.

According to Wright, MTSU’s Entrepreneurship program “serves students who want to pursue their creativity and curiosity to make their own way.

“Many students are not interested in the traditional ‘let’s go work and then retire’ plan,” Wright added.

“MTSU has done a great job at addressing that. It has risen to make those changes creatively.”

Why not just start a business? Why major in it?

“It’s vital,” said Mario Avila, entrepreneur-in-residence for higher education at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center, a Nashville-based nonprofit organization on a mission to connect entrepreneurs with critical resources to create, launch, and grow businesses.

As students and graduates emerge from their early 20s, Avila contends that creative juices shift. “We have to harness it in the early years, before they haven’t been pinned into a certain task,” he said. “It’s critical to engage with them early.”

Wright, who graduated from MTSU with a bachelor’s in Psychology and a minor in Sociology, launched her travel agency business following years as a social work administrator. She said she would have benefited from the knowledge now being offered through the Entrepreneurship major.

“I was lucky to follow my passion into travel. I saw an opportunity, did some low-level business planning, and jumped in,” she said. “I had to be open to and jumped in,” she said. “I had to be open to seeking out how to do something. It’s fabulous now that students can train in this.”

Her advice to budding entrepreneurs is straightforward but strategic: “Just be absolutely sure you want to do it, because building your own business takes so much energy. I can’t count the times I would get up and go to the office at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning.”

McDowell believes college creates opportunities for future entrepreneurs to get experience without risk. “We work with people to organize their ideas and build a structure: a marketing plan, a production plan, financing options,” he said.

“Jones College can really help idea people launch their ideas.”

Along with the curriculum, Global Entrepreneurship Week each fall features free lectures, workshops, and panel discussions aimed at giving students and aspiring entrepreneurs useful information.

Jones College leads students through the nitty gritty of owning and managing their own businesses by teaching management skills, accounting, marketing, and more.

“We have reworked the entire curriculum for the major and minor, and we focus on more specific courses like our Innovation Acceleration course to learn how to think like an entrepreneur,” McDowell said. “We added courses for majors and minors that teach basic startup marketing, current trending social media, how to use QuickBooks—things more in line with entrepreneurship than big business.”

A new option for Entrepreneurship minors also allows students to take four courses in Jones College and a fifth course in another college. “The School of Music, for example, teaches a course specific to its students. We’re really excited about that,” McDowell said.

At its core, McDowell said the MTSU program helps students find opportunity and focus. “We deal with startup aspects and talk about how to identify opportunity,” he said. “Traditional business curriculum is more for established firms. Here, we focus on opportunity recognition to get things started.”

Student loan marketplace LendEDU gave the program a strong endorsement in a recent report: MTSU ranks 17th among U.S. programs for aspiring entrepreneurs.

Under McDowell’s guidance, the program has rapidly increased the number of internship opportunities for students to have direct contact with startups.

“We are working to create a database of startups in middle Tennessee. We also bring to campus a lot of guest lecturers and have students interview an entrepreneur,” he said. “By the time they are seniors, they can have an actual plan for fundraising.”

One way McDowell is helping create a culture of entrepreneurship on campus is the annual Pam Wright Chair of Entrepreneurship Business Plan Competition, open to all students and alumni with the purpose of honing the elevator pitch and solid business planning.

The three-step judging process starts with open submissions, which are cut to the 20 best. Those 20 contestants get individual training sessions and present at a trade show in the Student Union at which every student and faculty member may judge. The final round brings in business leaders as a judging panel for full presentations. (Think Shark Tank on a college campus.)

The winner in spring 2016 was Hunter Marlowe, a Recording Industry/Audio Production May 2016 graduate with an Entrepreneurship minor who invented his guitar sound-hole tambourine device his senior year.

As a singer/songwriter and audio engineer, Marlowe would often plug his guitar into his computer and use its snare sounds or other percussion effects to round out his performance. The idea for a physical device that would fit neatly and quietly into a guitar’s sound hole when not needed, freeing him from connecting to a computer, steadily grew in his mind. In January 2016, he showed his developed prototype to friends and a couple of MTSU Music professors, who “flipped over it,” in his words. He named his device Jambourine by Marlowe.

“The competition really made me focus,” said Marlowe, whose favorite Entrepreneurship minor class was Small Business Management. “I worked on Jambourine every night until about 3 a.m. Then I would wake up and do it again. The plan, the design, and the logistics are all so much easier said than done.”

The competition’s top prize was $7,500, which Marlowe used to fund the tooling and its edits for his product’s manufacturing. He started a Kickstarter. com campaign to raise $6,000 to build inventory. By late August, Marlowe, now based in Atlanta, and his team of five were actively selling Jambourines to music stores and individuals. His business is debt-free.

“The Entrepreneurship minor taught me so much,” he said. “It gave me so many different business models and choices for manufacturing. I still have all my textbooks.”

Marlowe is exactly the type of student McDowell hopes the program continues to attract. “With our focus on the minor, we want to grow and develop it. Students can take skills from another major and turn them into a viable business,” he said.

Marlowe is by no means the only success story to emerge from the program or competition. As just one other example, MTSU student Theresa Daniels finished third in the 2015 competition. More recently, the young entrepreneur, who was diagnosed with a form of autism as a child, took the top prize in the social enterprise category of the Launch Tennessee University Venture Challenge. She received $12,500 to invest into her startup idea, Theresa’s Twists—Pretzels with a Purpose, whose mission is to employ and empower persons with Asperger’s Syndrome to become productive future assets in organizations. Her goal is to become so successful selling her pretzels that she can connect with educational institutions, organizations, businesses, and individuals to develop a model to empower young adults with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Creation for a Cause

Daniels is evidence that millennials aren’t just blessed with the entrepreneurial spirit. Another strong characteristic of the generation, according to Management professor Leigh Anne Clark, is that they are “driven to do something of purpose. For some, it may be for society. For others, it could be innovation.”

A strong part of the Entrepreneurship curriculum now focuses on enterprises that serve the public interest, a specialty of Clark, a lawyer who worked at nonprofits before she came to higher education.

Clark contends it’s outdated to focus only on traditional nonprofit management. That, she said, is where the millennials come in. As social innovation and entrepreneurship have grown and for-profit companies have made a difference, those driven to serve have  more choices.

MTSU offers an M.S. in Management with a concentration in Social Innovation and Not-for-Profit Management. There is also a Not-for-Profit Management undergraduate minor, and an undergraduate social entrepreneurship course will be offered soon.

“We take basic management and apply it to nonprofits,” Clark said. “We ask, ‘What’s your mission, and how does it drive you?’ We work on capacity building, marketing services, and   meeting demand.

“On the social innovation side, the handcuffs are removed. Look at Toms Shoes: Buy one, and we provide. There’s a reason for growth and different models to solve problems and make a living.” In five years, Clark predicts nonprofits will have more social innovation components, and  she expects to see more merging.

Like McDowell,  Clark has built awareness of her work at MTSU through an annual event. The third Nonprofit Social Innovation Student Summit in the spring of 2016 attracted more than 225 students from 40 majors to mingle with representatives from 30 nonprofit organizations. A $2,500 grant from the Jennings and Rebecca Jones Foundation funded the event. Clark coordinated the summit with fellow professor Deana Raffo, who is also coordinator of the Leadership Studies interdisciplinary minor, and with Organizational Communications professor Janet McCormick.

“Cool people care,” senior Kelly North said when asked to describe the event. “It was fantastic! I reached out and networked, thinking, ‘How could I work with this one? How could we collaborate for change?’”

A long-time community volunteer, North, 36, enrolled at MTSU in an effort to transition out of the corporate world as an event planner and find a career more in line with her passion—serving her community and schools.

North has been involved at her children’s school in Tullahoma, organizing successful fundraisers and engaging the community. As an Entrepreneurship major, she’s learning the ins and outs of small business management and is working on a big idea that has already won the Social Innovation Award at the Business Plan Competition.

“That competition was the catalyst for a business plan,” North said. Her idea for a non-instructional education consultancy would help K–12 educators navigate school culture and social climate challenges by providing assessment, strategy development, and program implementation to fill gaps.

“The feedback I got at Jones College was wonderful,” North said. “I went to all of my professors asking, ‘How would you do this? How would you do that?’ They’re all very open and willing to advise me. I love MTSU.”

Many, like North, come to Clark’s class on fire to serve. Senior John Bosworth, 21, a Recording Industry major with a minor in Not-for-Profit Management, lives, eats, and breathes his calling—to help youth. His business plan was born out of time spent volunteering at a Boys and Girls Club in his home state of Virginia. There he taught young children music, which became inspiration to learn and do homework.

“The director pulled me aside to tell me he could see the change,” Bosworth said. “It was like a train hit me in the chest. I realized the work was truly making a difference. From then on, that became my purpose.”

Bosworth’s social enterprise, Music for Youth, is a comprehensive program designed to inspire youth to love learning through music. Bosworth graduated in December 2016.

“I grew immensely through the classes, learning all aspects of nonprofit management while running my own,” he said. “It’s such an amazing curriculum.”


The Future Is Now

Every generation has its own iteration of the American dream. If it means building a business from the ground up, then students couldn’t be living in a better time. Mix the lessons they learned from the recent economic recession with rapid advancement in the technological realm, and what results is a perfect recipe for entrepreneurial growth.

“The ultimate goal is to help students build skills for collaboration and be architects of their own futures,” Wright said.

In the end, whether for profit or not, the cutting-edge Entrepreneurship program at MTSU aims to prepare young minds for the challenges and opportunities ahead. ■


Story by: Vicky Travis
Illustrations by: Sally Govan

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