“Our future economy will be based on small companies,” predicted Kris Kimel, president of the Kentucky Science and Technology Corporation, while moderating “Growing Our Own: Cultivating Entrepreneurship as an Economic Development Strategy for Kentucky.” Indeed, Fast Company magazine recently ranked Kentucky’s percent growth in the number of startups per million residents second in the nation between 2011 and 2012.
“The barrier to entrepreneurship is so low right now because of the easy access to technology,” explained panelist Ian Mooers, executive director of the Center for Economic Development, Entrepreneurship and Technology at Eastern Kentucky University. “We have helped entrepreneurs who don’t market at all outside of using Facebook and Twitter, and they are making money.”
EKU, which added a major in entrepreneurship to its curriculum this fall, also offers an Introduction to Creativity class to help students from a variety of disciplines learn how to turn their dreams into reality.
“An entrepreneur is just someone who takes risks, and companies are attracted to employees who look at problems in a different way,” Mooers said. “You don’t have to start a business. We are providing resources and training so that entrepreneurship can also flourish among arts and engineering majors.”
“It takes a certain skill set and a willingness to work very hard to be an entrepreneur,” Cottle noted. “One of the populations most likely to be successful is the people who have been out there working for a while, but have no business background.” The four-month intensive program is extremely selective and offers a wide variety of entrepreneur-taught classes. “It can be tough to find help if you need something in between an MBA and a few night classes,” Cottle acknowledged. “We aim to be a one-stop shop for starting a small business.”At Jefferson Community and Technical College, where Griffin Cottle serves as director of the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Center, the average participant in the school’s Focused Entrepreneurship program is in his or her mid-30s.
“It’s the soft skills and values that distinguish entrepreneurs — particularly the desire and capacity to acquire new skills,” remarked Geoffrey Mearns, president of Northern Kentucky University. NKU’s Fifth Third Bank Entrepreneurship Institute provides students with an intentional curriculum and extensive networking opportunities, boasting a mentor/student ratio greater than 8:1. “Mentors inspire students to be creative and ambitious,” he explained, noting that networking plays an important role in helping students develop those skills needed for success.
One of the primary questions on panelists’ minds was if entrepreneurship can be taught. Mearns believes that, while managing risk is an individual ability, both ethics and principles are teachable. “What we ask is if NKU’s academic culture models the values of entrepreneurship,” he explained. “If we do a good job of modeling those values, then we will teach entrepreneurship in the most effective way. We are focused on a long-term commitment to creating that culture.”
Cottle added that you can also teach functional skills such as sales and marketing, as well as the mindset of seeing problems as opportunities. “At some basic level, you have to be a self-starter, but if you’re willing to act on your idea, then you can turn it into something that can make money,” he noted. Cottle’s suggestions to improve future entrepreneurship education included expanding the general education curriculum to incorporate classes in entrepreneurship, sales and marketing, as well as adding a major-specific entrepreneurship class to each academic department.
Mooers emphasized that entrepreneurship can emerge from many sources and that labeling it only narrows the range of possibilities. “Just strive to get students out of their typical frame of mind,” he encouraged. “Call it innovation, creativity, whatever — the point is that these kids have a lot of solutions and the capability to be the next Steve Jobs. I want to see us move to a living, learning community where students incubate their ideas with us and spend four years on them.”