Entrepreneurial thinking isn’t just for business students

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Print this page by Robert Powell
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Photo courtesy College of William & Mary

I recently visited the College of William & Mary’s business school on the day it was celebrating the 50th anniversary of its MBA program. I had come to the Raymond A. Mason School of Business, however, to check out more recent developments, including an entrepreneurship center with big ambitions.

“Entrepreneurship” has been a buzzword in business schools for some time. Many students go to college with dreams of creating startups, perhaps becoming fabulously rich and famous like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. But William & Mary’s Alan B. Miller Entrepreneurship Center has a different purpose.

While conceding that startups are seen as “exciting and sexy” these days, the entrepreneurship center “is not only for business students. Any student can leverage these concepts” to succeed in a variety of fields, says Graham Henshaw, the center’s executive director since 2015.

In fact, Henshaw says, entrepreneurial thinking has thrived throughout the Williamsburg campus for some time. The entrepreneurship center was started in 2010 primarily to serve business students, but its focus  has changed. In January, the center opened a co-working space in the business school and made it available to all W&M  students. 

At the center’s dedication, Henshaw noted that a survey of a variety of William & Mary undergraduates found that 92 percent had a strong interest in incorporating entrepreneurship into their programs of study.

William & Mary President Taylor Reveley sees a historical thread. “William & Mary has been heavily invested in entrepreneurial thinking for hundreds of years,” he said at the dedication. “Previous alumni designed a new form of government for our country and guided that new form of government through struggle to survive. It took bold action, innovative thinking and raw courage, all entrepreneurial virtues we still need today. Our opportunities are vast and so are our challenges.”

Thomas Jefferson, class of 1762, no doubt would have agreed.

So what is entrepreneurship thinking? Henshaw says it involves a skill set and a mindset. The skills include the ability to identify an opportunity, “fail wisely,” improvise and collaborate. The mindset includes grit, self-direction, openness to risk and tolerance for ambiguity.

Failing wisely and having grit are the key words here. Henshaw describes a process that requires repeated trials. You fail, refine your product and keep trying until you get it right.

A serial entrepreneur, Henshaw speaks from experience. He has created three startups. Two failed. The third one, Action Innovation Group, was a success. It created accessories for athletes, including PaceTat, a tattoo-like tool that long-distance runners use to keep track of their splits.

A Virginia Tech graduate with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering, Henshaw began teaching as an adjunct at William & Mary in 2012. Before joining the faculty full time, he was director of venture development at New Richmond Ventures, a Richmond-based firm that invests in early-stage startups. W&M alum Jim Ukrop is co-founder and managing director of the firm. He previously was CEO and chairman of Ukrop’s Supermarkets and chairman of First Market Bank, now Union Bank & Trust, in Richmond.

The Miller Entrepreneurship Center is designed to be a place where people congregate. Tables in the room can be put together or separated so that students can work on projects. A white board for brainstorming covers one wall.  A Skype teleconferencing setup lets people at different sites share ideas, while a “phone booth” is provided for students who want to work alone.

The center is used for workshops and talks by outside speakers, but most of the activity is experiential. Every Friday, for example, the center serves pizza from 2 to 5 p.m. while volunteer mentors from the business community are available to answer questions. Many students, however, get their best ideas by meeting other students with similar interests. “Connecting with each other is really valuable,” Henshaw says.

A recent business plan competition offers evidence of the center’s broadening reach. The winners weren’t business students but a group from the linguistics department who developed a plan for teaching English in a Caribbean country.

Another competition, Rocket Pitch Wednesday, occurs every week during the academic year. Students make 90-second presentations on any opportunity they have spotted.  In addition to the student’s idea for a new product, each pitch describes the size of the opportunity and the competitive landscape.  A panel of judges awards $100 to the best pitch each week while offering feedback on all presentations. Students who do not win are invited to revise their presentations and return as many times as they like.

For promising projects, the center has raised about $11,000 from students and alumni in a crowdfunding campaign to provide grants ranging from $250 to $750. Henshaw hopes eventually to establish an endowment for seed funding.

Creating a startup, however, is a long way from making an appearance at Rocket Pitch Wednesday. The feedback and the grants, however, can mean the difference between “thinking about an idea forever and doing something about it,” Henshaw says.

He assesses students’ projects in the same way he vetted startups at New Richmond Ventures: Who is your customer? What problem will your product solve for the customer? And how many customers have you talked to? If budding business owners can’t answer those questions, they are not ready for primetime.

So far the center’s membership includes students from 14 different majors. Who knows? One of them may be the next William & Mary alum to lead an American revolution.

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