By Sara Zavorek
ID8 Staff Writer
Almost every entrepreneurship course relies, to a degree, on outside speakers. These entrepreneurs and subject matter experts can inspire and advise students. But that doesn’t mean educators should simply provide a podium and expect magic to happen. Below are best practices from people who have successfully executed programs to help students get the most out of the experience.
How big should the audience be?
Larger audiences of 50 to 60 can be better than smaller ones, said Todd Watkins, executive director of the Lehigh University Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship, Creativity and Innovation. “Our experience is that too small means that the conversation doesn’t go anywhere. The most important thing is that the group dynamic is healthy.”
The trend in recent years has been toward smaller groups in informal settings that allow for interaction, said Erin Draper, director of operations at Clarkson University’s Reh Center for Entrepreneurship.
Class size should depend on the goal, said Patricia Sias, director of the McGuire Entrepreneurship Program at the University of Arizona. If the goal is to impart a lot of information, than an entire class can be included. If the target is to mentor and provide project-based feedback, then meeting with one team at a time is optimal.
What to talk about?
Most entrepreneurs love to talk about themselves, but that’s not necessarily best for students.
Lehigh’s Watkins wants entrepreneurs to talk about trends in the industry. “Forget the PowerPoint and just let the students ask questions,” he said.
Draper stresses the importance of Q&A time, which engages the students because it is more personal and gives speakers the chance to answer based on their own experiences.
One of the students of the Reh Center who benefited from a speaker is Bryce Bandish, creator of The Pet Pita. Bandish said when Scott Kaminksi, president and CEO of Storus Corporation, came to campus the most valuable piece was his guidance on Bandish’s business, offering solutions that he would not have reached without the additional guidance from a professional.
“Studying and research have their place in entrepreneurship, but nothing can compare to an account of real-life experience,” said Clarkson student Evan Jennings, owner of E3CubeStore and Outland Manufacturing.
University of Arizona speakers are always given a topic and goal, Sias said. For example, an expert on sales and e-commerce will discuss the challenges/benefits of e-commerce versus brick-and-mortar stores; a social media marketing professional will talk about startups and social media marketing.
Finding the right speakers
Mentors typically are from the area and want to help younger entrepreneurs get started. Often, they’re alumni, but others have a connection to the school, the community or are just interested in providing guidance. Most schools do not pay for speakers, unless it is a university-wide program. There are more than enough entrepreneurs willing to donate their time.
Arizona’s program has been around long enough that former students with entrepreneurial experience return with firsthand knowledge of the curriculum to help the teams work through their projects.
“Bringing in Clarkson alumni gives an obvious connection, so it makes conversations a little easier and the students are very free-flowing with their questions,” said Draper. “It also increases engagement with alumni because they realize that they can have an impact on the students.”
Watkins said there is a lot of informal mentoring, such as business competitions in which people are mentored within the community. “Entrepreneurs love to connect and pontificate and help because they’ve been helped by other people,” he said. “You can’t build successful organizations without reaching out to people; it is just part of their DNA.”
What is the best format?
How speakers present to students depends on what the school hopes to accomplish.
When speakers come in for an hour, they usually discuss their business experiences. Clarkson guests typically talk for 15 to 20 minutes, then answer questions. One-on-ones can be especially helpful when the speakers are willing to give students realistic advice.
The Adventure Series in the Master’s program at Lehigh offers graduate students one-credit programs taught by people in the industry. The speakers, given a topic beforehand, make a 16-hour commitment over two days and talk about trends in the industry to give the students some insight into the climate and culture.
At Arizona, the emphasis is on mentoring over lecturing. Experienced entrepreneurs advise student teams as they develop a project from idea to investment. A speed-dating type workshop is held in the fall to provide early-stage feedback to the teams and lecturers on specific topics work with them.
“It is consistent with our mission, which is to learn about entrepreneurism by doing it,” said Sias. “It’s a way to incorporate more diverse mentoring into the program and help the students make connections and network.”
Watkins stresses the importance of inviting, not only entrepreneurs, but venture capitalists, lawyers, bankers, investors, etc.
What prep work is involved?
Students typically are given a biography of the speaker and are asked to research questions.
At Lehigh’s Silicon Valley Program, students do in-depth research on the companies, founders and investors prior to the event..
“Those speakers work best when you just open the floor,” said Watkins. “Those sessions are so much fun because the students are driving the questions. You get much more insight into how this process works. The struggles, the dirty laundry, where they are as a company, where they’ve been and where they are going. ”
The sessions work because everyone understand the ground rules from the beginning, Watkins said, adding that sometimes students sign an agreement to not share information.
Clarkson student Bandish said speakers are more helpful than larger meetings, but said follow-up meetings would be helpful to get input on the next steps.
What should students get out of it?
The goal of bringing in entrepreneurs is to give students a deeper understanding of entrepreneurship. Building a business from the ground up is difficult and students need to know the struggles ahead.
“I always want (students) to come back having learned something they didn’t know before,” said Sias. “We don’t bring (speakers) in to confirm what we’ve already taught students; we bring them in to teach the students something they don’t already know.”
Speakers also show that there is no one right way, Watkins said. “We want speakers to provide a broad understanding of the ecosystem, what it looks like and how entrepreneurs navigate it. A single answer can’t possibly be what you are after. I think that is why we like so many different real people coming in; the story is different every time, so there is no theoretic pathway.”
Getting the most out of the speaker events can be another lesson. Students get out of it what they put into it. While some just listen, others follow up with an administrator to get contact information and reach out the speaker. The most persistent continue to reach out for help.
While speakers break up the classroom lectures and help with mentoring, too many speakers can tip a course into the “war story trap,” as Watkins called it. “You do need a lot of time on your own to work through your own ideas and work with faculty on your business model and ideas.”
Arizona students provide feedback on speakers, information that is shared with them. “Knowing that they had an impact keeps (speakers) coming back,” Sias said.
Speakers are a great way to supplement an entrepreneurship curriculum. The talks are beneficial and capture the students’ attention. Entrepreneurship courses are different than, say, political science or accounting classes. Feedback, discussion and bouncing ideas off of experts are key to an education in entrepreneurship.
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