Students' entrepreneurial thinking caps do not come off for substitution by mortarboards come December or May. The passion, dedication and hard work of the students who have taken the Venture Creation course does not fade when they become alumni. The relationships formed during the course with the professors, alumni mentors and fellow student team members continue to blossom.
"Students begin relationships that they continue well after graduation. They come back for advice, they come back for applause, they come back to connect with other alums to give their support," said Venture Creation instructor Carol Hamilton.
Working World Hamilton and John Rothenberger ('88), co-creator of the class and JMU's Entrepreneur in Residence, not only teach and support the launching of undergraduate businesses but they continue tracking and mentoring their Venture Creation alumni.
Cory Suter ('05) founder of BioNeighbors, a sustainable roofing company in Philadelphia, says the course was a real incubator that provided him with a safe and resourceful space to explore and develop his ideas.
Suter, who enrolled in the first Venture Creation class offered at James Madison University in 2005, advises aspiring entrepreneurs to jump in with both feet and network right off the bat. "What I've often found is that other people help shape my thinking about what services are most needed in our community," said Suter.
Greg Marut ('09) is currently focusing his entrepreneurial energy on Talk Stream Live, an iPhone application that allows the user to stream over 700 talk radio programs live. He frequently updates Hamilton on the challenges and successes of starting his business.
Unexpected Career Path The unique makeup of the class, the only course in the College of Business to enroll non-business majors, has resulted in unexpected careers for some alumni. "We have many examples of students who would not have gone where they are now had they not taken the class," said Rothenberger.
Matthew Langan, a 2007 graduate with a degree from the School of Media Arts and Design, realized while taking the class that he wanted to pursue working for startup companies. His journey took him to California, where he worked as a social marketing specialist for the startup company, Involver.
"I think that Venture Creation provided me with a strong enough foundation in business principles so I could listen to and understand complex discussions about business and finance, which has allowed me to learn a lot over the past few years," said Langan.
Class of 2007 communications major Gwendolyn Brantley credits the class with fueling her desire to pursue her MBA in the future and with giving her an advantage as a marketing manager with Cisco Systems. Brantley says the class taught her to surround herself with team members who have different strengths and to face professional challenges with open communication and realistic expectations.
"I have not endeavored in entrepreneurship in the formal sense, however the class enhanced my ability to think and work creatively within a large company that fortunately fosters a spirit of innovation," said Brantley.
Applied Entrepreneurship Hamilton says it is important that students get the experience that gives them the confidence to be successful in their entrepreneurial endeavors. "As a professor, I encourage them to find their own journey that fits their skills and matches their own personal pursuits," said Hamilton.
Hamilton wants students to apply the skills they learn in Venture Creation throughout their lives. "I would like our students to be able to think entrepreneurially in any setting, whether they are a volunteer, in their startup, a mid-size company, a corporate setting or at home," said Hamilton.
James Madison University senior Ashley Kehoe thinks a little differently than most students and according to her professor, Carol Hamilton, this is the goal. Kehoe is the entrepreneur-founder of Rebound, a sticky medicinal hoof-packing product for horses, and one of Hamilton's students in Venture Creation.
Venture Creation (MGT 472), a senior-level management class, offers students with entrepreneurial interest the chance to develop and focus on the first five years of their businesses. The success rate is impressive with at least one business launch per year since the class began. Four or five of the businesses from this fall's class will launch starting in early 2011.
As the economy continues to stall, these undergraduate entrepreneurs chose to create their own paths in an environment that both challenges and supports their ideas.
Creating a Class It only seems logical that the course for entrepreneurs started as a venture between a faculty member and an alumnus. Seeing a need in the academic market, Carol Hamilton, management lecturer, and John Rothenberger ('88), then a member of the Executive Advisory Board for the College of Business, created the Venture Creation class.
Rothenberger, currently JMU's entrepreneur in residence, has started two successful businesses and is the CEO of SE Solutions. He was looking for a way to engage with a faculty member. Hamilton wanted undergraduate students to see entrepreneurship as a viable career option.
The 20 to 24 students who take this elective course each year are placed into groups by Hamilton and Rothenberger. A lead entrepreneur heads up each three- to four- member group and the team focuses on their startup business for the semester.
Rothenberger travels from Reston, Va. every three weeks to hear the student teams pitch different aspects of their businesses including their elevator speech, business model and investment plan.
"My role is to inject a lot of realism about entrepreneurship, startup business, small business operation and to open up a window of possibilities for these young, innovative people," said Rothenberger. "It's to get them to think differently. To explore the possibilities of entrepreneurship now or in the future."
Advanced Elective Venture Creation is about starting your own business, working on a team, researching the market and creating a five-year plan. Students should expect to roll-up their sleeves for hard work and get their feet wet in the world of innovation.
Kyle Houser and Jacob Henderson were eager to sign up. Developers of Cool Wax, a ski and edge protection product, they created their business in Management 372, Entrepreneurship. In Venture Creation the team has focused on proving the viability of their company through market research and testing.
"Venture Creation has been very beneficial in pointing out things my team and I would have otherwise missed," said Houser. Houser and Henderson say the coaching they receive from Rothenberger and their alumni mentor is a unique aspect of the class.
Like their classmates, Kehoe and her team have just spent the semester focusing on their business. Kehoe says the hard work is worth it. "My favorite part of the class is that you get to research and learn about something you want to learn about," she said. "The fact that I got to choose the product, Rebound, then make phone calls and do market research. It's really rewarding."
At the end of the semester private equity investors judge the viability of the students' startups at a business competition. For the fall 2010 competition nine teams presented their plans. In addition to Rebound and Cool Wax, the student businesses covered a wide range of interests including the music industry, auto parts, book buy-backs, in-home drapery cleaning, event planning, energy solutions and fashion. The Rebound team was declared the winner of the competition.
Economic Impact The Kauffman Foundation, the world's largest foundation devoted to entrepreneurship, says entrepreneurs are the key to economic recovery, growth and prosperity.
Rothenberger agrees. "Ours is a nation of entrepreneurs and our system and jobs are dominated by our ability to be innovative," he said. "I feel like what COB and Carol Hamilton are offering to students is an opportunity to be different and a great opportunity to contribute to the positive change this economy needs."
Change for the Better Hamilton tells her students that entrepreneurs have to constantly assess their business and change to stay successful. The same can be said for her approach to the Venture Creation class.
"The class has changed significantly," said Hamilton. She cites opening the class to all JMU majors and introducing experienced alumni mentors as having the most positive impact on the course.
Venture Creation is the only undergraduate class in COB that is open to non-business school majors. This year the class is 50 percent non-business majors.
Hamilton says including all majors in the class brings creativity, skepticism and a different approach to the business that the students have learned in their own disciplines. "The pollination of technical expertise with a process-oriented, pragmatic thinker is invaluable," said Hamilton.
Alumni mentors communicate with their groups on average every other week throughout the semester. The seasoned mentors share their experiences with the innovation process, but also challenge the teams to help them take their ideas to the next level.
The students have only positive things to say about their interactions with their alumni mentors. "Having the opportunities to learn from all the venture capitalists and entrepreneurs has been really valuable," said Kehoe. "It enabled me to think on a bigger scale."
Moving Forward Although the Rebound team won the business plan competition, they will not be the only business to launch following the class. Venture Creation has consistently produced start-up businesses since its inception. Since most new businesses are formed by entrepreneurs 10 years out of college or with more than 10 years of experience, this accelerated launch is significant.
Houser thinks it is the real-world application of the class that makes this possible.
"More classes should be offered that focus on entrepreneurial activities and thinking outside the box," said Houser. "I have greatly benefited from Venture Creation, not only with Cool Wax, but as an individual who will be pursuing an entrepreneurial career path."
Rothenberger thinks the class has lasting results. "The class teaches them how to think differently, prepare and plan for something that will last, work on teams that are more like work-world teams and it gives them a mentor to ask post-graduation and preparation type questions. The class changes lives for people."