Sharon Alpi on “What I’ve Learned About Teaching Entrepreneurship”

This post is an excerpt from USASBE’s Annuals of Entrepreneurship Education and Pedagogy, Vol. III, edited by Charles Matthews and Eric Liguori.

Millikin University was founded by entrepreneur James Millikin. His vision for the University was for it to be a place where the industrial and the practical resided with equal importance with the literary and the classical.Today this tradition of learning is evident in the Millikin brand of Entrepreneurship through Performance Learning that spans all 4 schools; College of Arts and Sciences, School of Theatre and Dance, Tabor School of Business and School of Professional Studies. Students participate in student-run ventures, ideation workshops, and interdisciplinary agile teams and collaborate to build ventures.

Building on this heritage of Millikin’s founder, we wanted to develop an “ethic of entrepreneurship” rooted in our shared values and beliefs about how we accomplish our work in and out of the classroom. Our testimonials, narratives, and celebrations speak to the assumptions that we call our “ethic of entrepreneurship”. At Millikin, this philosophy is carried out in the Center for Entrepreneurship’s many programs and courses. We wanted our work to be self-evident in the manifestation of an entrepreneurship culture. The Center’s mission is to inspire, connect and advance entrepreneurs, aspiring entrepreneurs, and those who can positively influence entrepreneurs every day.It is a physical place, a sanctuary if you will for thoughts and ideas that are nurtured and cultivated through

Exposing students from every discipline to entrepreneurship both inside and outside their major
Providing the tools necessary for students to view self-employment as a viable career option
Identifying faculty from each College/School who will incorporate and champion entrepreneurship by developing courses and activities in their specific discipline
Providing infrastructure, financial support and leadership for faculty teaching entrepreneurship

For our students who are in our entrepreneurship courses and cross disciplinary teams, we believe entrepreneurship strengthens their position to have the grit, inner strength and confidence to persevere.

Professor Peter Jamieson at the University of Melbourne in his workshop on “Creating New Generation Learning Environments” (2007) remarked that “knowledge is not ‘transferred’ from teacher to student, but is personally constructed. Student’s learning should involve students in ACTIVE construction of their own knowledge; learning is fundamentally about changing the way an individual understand an aspect of the world they are learning about and how to make sense of it. “

This notion of “active” construction of learning was the underlying principle for our development of student-run ventures as a pedagogical tool. These entrepreneurship laboratories are courses taught by Millikin faculty within the context of their own discipline. But decisions for the venture, including those related to operations, marketing and finances are made by students. This model allows students to experience first-hand the successes and failures of their decisions, with real money and relationships at stake.

“It is important to learn how to ask questions, to organize data, to compute, and to write;

But to make these skills meaningful, students need opportunities to use such skills in meaningful ways” (Hibbard et. al, 1996)

“Knowing how to succeed, how to fail, how to recover from a failure and not letting a success get to your head before having this be your real job is a definite positive to the course.”

-Alex Scholinsky (B.A. Theatre 2012)

Since 2000, Millikin has charted a multi-disciplinary path in entrepreneurship education on campus beginning with the College of Fine Arts enrolling students from all majors-studio arts, music, theatre, graphic design, and literary arts. This multi-disciplinary focus provides integrated learning opportunities for students to understand each other and come to know performance from many perspectives.

Interchanges between disciplines uncover basic differences and areas of “ignorance” from all parties
Provides opportunity for all to learn and agree on a common way to communicate concepts to the class
Reduces barriers between majors
Faculty become coaches and learners
Artistic effort has commercial value
Avoid no

“I learned how to work as part of a diverse group where everyone has different personalities and different projects they are working on, while we all have the same shared goal.” -Domoique Howell (Entrepreneurship Major 2011)

“Every time a mistake was made, or something had to fail, real money was lost.” -Chloe Day ( B. A. Theatre 2011)

Entrepreneurship is a passionate expression of what we at Millikin have come to know as Performance Learning exhibited through our student-ventures which are:

A laboratory of practice delivered as a course grounded in an academic discipline
Student-centered with faculty, alumni, and practitioner coaching and mentoring
Value driven
Operating or performing in a community where students discover, design, produce, promote, and deliver
Adaptive, offering ample opportunities for student experimentation
An environment to experience risk with real opportunities to learn through failure

“(Performance based learning) environments recognize that students must have a way of ‘doing, seeing, feeling, and communicating things’” (Gibb, 1998)

Teaching and learning in a multi-disciplinary academic environment has been both challenging and rewarding. The following are some of the ways I ask students to engage with entrepreneurship.

Experience it– passive participation will lead to mediocre results
Embrace Healthy tensions- they lead to multiple right answers
Don’t come to know too soon- don’t settle on what you already know, iterate
Perform early and often- build confidence to succeed
Authentic self — know what you value and how you value it.
Do something that matters-personally and professionally
Cultivate soulful alliances-people who bring out the best in you and bring energy
Engage deep and reflect on your efforts

Maslow provides us language as frameworks for our student’s reflections on entrepreneurship:

“The people who have been living in a world which always told them what to do-which made life easy for them and told them what the next steps was, and put them on an escalator so to speak-this world never let them discover their weaknesses and failures, not to mention their strengths.”

“Highly evolved individuals assimilate their work into the identity of the self, i.e. work actually becomes part of self….”

-Abraham Maslow

It is very interesting to take notes of peoples’ strengths and weaknesses, and be able to watch everyone succeed and fail too.” -Wade Tischauser (B.F.A Theatre Administration 2012)

“I had pride in seeing my hours of work for the company produce results, and most importantly see the groundwork I had laid down be continued by new members of the company.”-Bekki Lambrecht (BFA Design/Production 2011)

In designing and redesigning curriculum in a multi-disciplinary environment, helping faculty transition into a different and often uncomfortable role in the classroom requires that they use information of their discipline for relevant goals and purposes of cultivating an entrepreneurial mindset (Caine et al., 2005).

Embracing risk taking, pursuing innovation, and living with ambiguity and possible failure can be intimidating but my experience suggests that the student-venture experience helps both faculty and students develop an entrepreneurial mindset through the practice of their craft. Yes, it is messy! There is great opportunity for failure and a large time commitment beyond the ordinary classroom. The challenge of keeping the experience “fresh” for each new class is always there but the reward of seeing each new class experience ownership and venture creation is great.

Sharon Alpi is the Founding Director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at Millikin University (ret.) and the 2017 recipient of USASBE’s John E. Hughes Award for Entrepreneurial Advocacy.

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