Notre Dame College Students Drive Entrepreneurship Curricula with Extracurricular Innovation
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, small companies, the self-employed and new business establishments play “a vital role in the growth of the U.S. economy.”
President Obama has stated, “From the mom-and-pop storefront shops that anchor Main Street to the high-tech startups that keep America on the cutting edge, small businesses are the backbone of our economy and the cornerstones of our Nation’s promise.”
And nearly two centuries ago, in the late 1830s, French historian Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his Democracy in America that “Americans always display a free, original and inventive power of mind.”
Vanessa Matthes (left to right), Ian Dawson, Jamie Robinson and Suzanne Morris serve as the inaugural officers of NDCe.
Entrepreneurship at Notre Dame College is more than study or money; it is spirit. And the ingenuity is student-driven.
The academic program, which has existed as a minor in business administration for several years at the College, likely will become a major next year. But the sense of entrepreneurship on campus already has expanded beyond economy via the endeavors of the newly established, student-run entrepreneurship club, called NDCe.
“We’re not just training students to start new businesses, but rather we are teaching them to develop ideas,” said Vincent J. Palombo, DBA, assistant professor of business and chair of the Division of Business at the College.
And cultivating thoughts at Notre Dame in any discipline amounts to more than just making bank.
The NDCe-inspired and innovation- infused curriculum crosses academic divisions and not only contributes to the global economy via job creation but also values sustainability, revitalizes community, nurtures talent, empowers initiative and perpetuates vision.
“We recognized a group of students kept coming to us, asking for our help with ideas,” said William L. Leamon, MBA, assistant professor of marketing and director of the entrepreneurship program at the College. “So we are responding to the students.”
Entrepreneurship on campus now incorporates startup pitch contests for funding from business accelerators, education programs in commercial concepts for area elementary school students, collaborations with Cleveland executives to reinvent an inner city establishment and the actual creation of interdisciplinary business ventures—specifically the formation of a socially conscious College company in the coming year.
Many of the entrepreneurship projects highlight Notre Dame collaborations with Cleveland-area community organizations, and some come with class credit. All prepare students—and not just in business majors—to make a difference in more than the GNP.
Value Sustainability: Campus Composters
Two Notre Dame students recently have turned notions into new business ventures on their own: Ian Dawson ’15 invented MemCare, and Stefan Bogdanovic ’16 co-founded bookwork. com. Both have business majors.
Next up is a collective, environmentally friendly enterprise on campus.
A group of interdisciplinary NDCe members are planning a Collegeowned composting company that will recycle organic waste and deliver nutrient-rich fertilizer to South Euclid, Ohio, residents, especially for use in community gardens.
“Basically we saw a need. Throwing away trash is an international problem. Actually, we aren’t throwing it away. We’re just putting it somewhere else,” said Hannah Conway ’15, a biology major and member of NDCe.
Tracey Meilander, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology, is writing grants to try to raise money—not just to establish a place to compost on campus but also for the College to grow its own community garden. She said both can be incorporated into the science as well as business curricula for research and management experience, respectively.
As for the aptly named Campus Composters enterprise, the business plan is for student employees to collect the waste, first from just on-campus sources but then to expand to area businesses. Transport will be handled by bicycle to stay sustainable.
“Social entrepreneurship is basically community-based enterprise,” said Suzanne Morris ’15, also a biology major and the first chief administrative officer for NDCe.
Campus Composters has received some seed funding from the Cuyahoga County Solid Waste District for purchase of an oxygen composting system. Students will be able to track the amount of food waste collected, temperature, pH and physical description of the compost and amount of compost generated as part of this reimbursement grant, Meilander said.
Conway said she knows nothing about business and has never been interested in the field but was recruited to help her colleagues problem-solve the science of composting on campus.
The original idea did not take into account how and where the waste would be composted. Conway said she helped NDCe prepare specs for an odor-resistant space in which to periodically turn the decomposing material to avoid unhealthy bacteria growth.
“Compost gives off gas. The sulfur smells bad. If the dorms are downwind, you are going to have trouble,” Conway said.
In an unexpected return on the investment of her expertise with NDCe, Conway made connections. She networked at several area startup events with the club. One contact landed her a full-time job in prostate cancer research at the Cleveland Clinic.
“It doesn’t take a strong business background to learn some of the business concepts and techniques you can use to succeed,” Conway said.
The next steps for Campus Composters involve more fundraising— and not only by Meilander. Money does matter to some extent.
New members of NDCe will prepare to pitch for startup funds for the company this fall, particularly with the help of partnerships with Rust Belt Riders Composting, an environmentally friendly Cleveland cost-based waste removal program; SEA Change, a new social enterprise accelerator; and ENACTUS, an international nonprofit organization that inspires students to improve the world through entrepreneurial action.
Revitalize Community: The Re-imagination of Collinwood High School
Notre Dame entrepreneurship students are helping to save Cleveland’s Collinwood High School.
A campus composting enterprise was not the only socially conscious business strategy on the NDCe agenda this school year. The aspiring student capitalists also experienced entrepreneurship through community service.
About 15 students, many from the club, joined area executives in the Leadership Cleveland 2 (LC2) Fellows program and embarked on an initiative to save a historic landmark—and community benchmark—Collinwood High School.
Notre Dame has been developing a multi-faceted partnership with the Cleveland Leadership Center, which included entrepreneurship students spending spring break 2015 in a downtown Cleveland hostel and learning about nonprofit organizations in the area. College President Thomas G. Kruczek is a member of the Leadership Cleveland Class of 2015.
LC2, made up of members of the Leadership Cleveland Class of 2014 who wanted to continue their collaboration, volunteered to take on the re-imagining of Collinwood High School—which has only about 500 students in a building constructed for more than 1,700.
The group’s goal is to help decide the fate of the structure, which the Cleveland Metropolitan School District has considered closing for more than a year. LC2 also wants to use the building to help revitalize the neighborhood.
“Social entrepreneurship is a new way of thinking about business to make a community better,” said Ryan Kennedy ’15, marketing major and member of NDCe.
Kennedy served as the project manager for the LC2 collaboration, and the Notre Dame student teams aided with programming, community outreach and financial planning committees. The group was expected to submit its recommendations to the school district in summer.
The final proposal likely would advocate repurposing space in support of the high school’s New Tech Academy curriculum. According to Kennedy, the group will recommend recruiting programs and services to rent space in the structure—but only businesses that will help further the school’s new model of teaching, which focuses on project-based learning.
The solution addresses the space issue, attracts new businesses and honors the residents’ connections to their town square. Bolstering the school system also will improve the neighborhood’s ability to attract families, which can lead to community renewal.
“We learned from executives outside of class, which is really valuable,” Kennedy said. “And it is really cool to see how, with even the simplest ideas, you can be creative.”
The interdisciplinary student teams helped determine the infrastructure of the high school building is sound, though in need of some updating. They also learned its tower is a central hub for neighborhood activity and a source of pride for community members.
Kennedy said Collinwood residents did not want to tear the school down or build new.
So the group investigated construction companies and real estate investors who might finance development of the unused space. They considered closing down underutilized parts of the building. They discovered legal codes—and lack of funding—prohibited many of their plans.
“It was interesting, at least for the students, to see how the ideation process took place and changed direction. Basically we found out a lot about what they can’t do,” Kennedy said. “You see how it’s not always that easy to transform something. Some projects can end up being very complicated.”
Collinwood High School was built in the east side Cleveland neighborhood of the same name in 1924. In June 1939, the graduating class consisted of 5,211 members. The present building, which officially opened in the fall of 1926, was erected around an existing tower structure, established in 1906, that was the community’s original 16-room school house.
“You can be entrepreneurial without starting a business,” Kennedy said. “You can revitalize a community by recreating business rather than starting new businesses.”
Nurture Talent: Junior Achievement
Ian Dawson (left) and Jamie Robinson introduce elementary school students to business concepts in collaboration with Junior Achievement.
This year members of NDCe also discovered entrepreneurial activity is sometimes about maintaining rather than manufacturing or recreating energy through another community- based learning experience.
Jamie Robinson ’15, an accounting and business administration double major with an entrepreneurship minor, and about 10 other students, many members of NDCe, spent six weeks teaching the basics of business to first- through fourth-graders at Richmond Heights, Ohio, Elementary School.
And they learned plenty of transferable skills, themselves, in the process.
“I’ve become used to talking to business people about much more complex subjects. It’s different to have to make those same concepts seem simple,” Robinson said.
The program is part of a new partnership between the College and Junior Achievement (JA) of Greater Cleveland. JA is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to educating young people about business, economics and personal finances. In Northeast Ohio, JA programs are taught by volunteers during and following classes in more than 270 schools and organizations throughout four counties.
Robinson, who is the first chief financial officer for NDCe, and teammate Dawson, the first chief marketing officer for NDCe, practiced the audience-specific communication and flexible problem-solving required of entrepreneurs in more ways than just simplifying complex business concepts for children.
“When you pitch business people, they have to be polite and listen to you. If first-graders don’t like you or what you are saying, they will tell you—or you will lose them,” Robinson said. “You learn to drop an approach that isn’t working and adjust pretty quickly.”
The Notre Dame duo kept the curriculum simple for the 6- and 7-year-olds. They started by asking the children to identify businesses in their community. Hospitals along with fire and police stations were popular. Robinson said he was pleasantly surprised when one student named a recycling company.
Robinson and Dawson also introduced the first-graders to general needs and wants, asking them to identify items like clothing, shelter and toys as one or the other. Most, but not all, of the children were tripped up when their B.A. student-teachers asked them to classify a college degree.
The youth also were assigned to imagine a storefront and signature product—and price a cake—for their personal, pretend bakery businesses. Their drawings ranged from superhero facades to popular candy desserts. And most charged around $20 for the cake.
“The students are super creative. Sometimes as we get older, we are actually taught to be less creative. It was helpful to get back to that visionary-type thinking you see in first-graders. They are completely open,” Robinson said.
That childlike imagination inspired Robinson to think not just about entrepreneurs but about the idea of “intrepreneurs” or who he calls innovative, creative thinkers who drive business from within already existing companies.
Robinson said he thinks many of the children he and others met have the potential mindset to affect change in current industries and create new markets, especially if they continue to be exposed to programs like the JA and NDCe partnership.
The collaboration itself is transforming business education from within—at the elementary school and the College.
“I was definitely impressed by the first-graders. I would like to see their progress,” Robinson said. “They all have great ideas and pure hearts. This gets them excited about business, about what is to come.”
Empower Initiative: Shark Tank
Jamie Robinson and Vanessa Matthes practice a winning pitch for startup funding.
In the more traditional entrepreneurial spirit of starting new businesses, NDCe this year created a chapter of the Northeast Ohio Student Venture Fund (NEOSVF), named the Student Venture Fund at Notre Dame College. The initiative is called NDC Shark Tank, after the ABC reality show in which self-made moguls invest in new American business and product ideas.
Notre Dame students, led by several from the club, evaluate area startups, select one each semester to support and then sell the businesses to NEOSVF for funding.
In its first year of competition, NDCe took on teams from several other colleges and universities and won both the fall and spring funding cycles, earning $25,000 each for the two companies the students chose to endorse.
“It puts students in the position of venture capitalists. When we have entrepreneurs come to us to pitch their ideas, it presents an opportunity for us to critique as well as make funding decisions,” said Vanessa Matthes ’15, an accounting major and the first chief executive officer of NDCe. “You have a much better idea of what investors look for.”
Through partnerships with area business accelerators like Flashstarts, Shaker LaunchHouse and Bizdom, entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to interdisciplinary groups of students, including NDCe members, on campus. The students scrutinize the business plans as well as the presenters’ skills, provide pointers and then invite back the two high-tech startups they decide are the top contenders for a final round each semester.
“We utilize the exposure we get to a lot of aspects of founding a business. I’m an accounting major, but this is a chance not just to look at the numbers but all the other factors,” Matthes said.
The College’s Shark Tank selected the new online tool at GiveNext.com, which allows donors to track their gifts to multiple charities year-round and set up recurring contributions, as the fall champion and Tapin2, also an online tool but one that allows spectators to order concessions from their seats at live events, in spring.
“It’s great to give feedback, to help make the entrepreneurs’ presentations significantly better as well as to pitch them successfully on our own. It allows us to represent ourselves and our ideas much better,” Matthes said.
Assessing the startups hones students’ business planning and promotional skills and provides them insight into the competition they may face if they decide to create their own companies. NDCe also hosted a one-time Shark Tank event this spring in which several social entrepreneurs vied for startup funds from SEA Change and the Business of Good Foundation.
According to Matthes, access to innovative ideas and new knowledge of available resources motivates the students to go beyond beginning businesses by building sustainable enterprises, like Campus Composters.
“We see what else is out there, what opportunities there are to start our own businesses,” Matthes said. “This one activity brings together all the different majors and sparks the entrepreneurship mindset.”
Perpetuate Vision: Entrepreneurship Club
The interdisciplinary study of entrepreneurship at Notre Dame includes an emphasis for an art degree—since many fine artists are self-employed—and this year the joint public relations minor with the College’s department of communication.
Working with a public relations class this semester, NDCe expanded its business practices with succession planning.
The core group of students, including all the officers, in NDCe graduated this spring, so the club sought help in recruiting rising juniors and seniors to catch the entrepreneurial spirit, according to Martin Lange ’15, a marketing major with an entrepreneurship minor and member of NDCe.
The club enlisted Lange, who was enrolled in the CA403 course, and some of his communication classmates to increase its membership, partially by promoting the social entrepreneurship campus Shark Tank competition. The project became part of a course assignment.
“The value of class projects that serve real-life clients is huge,” Lange said. “I would love to do projects like this more often instead of working on an imaginary project that will never be used for anything except getting filed away somewhere on my hard drive.”
Lange said by implementing their integrated public relations strategy, which included promotional emails, campus media pitches and table tent advertisements, his team drew nearly 100 students, many of them underclass, to the event. The group also presented their plan as part of the College’s first Celebration of Scholarship Week Student Scholar Day.
“When I look back at all the presentations from entrepreneurs I have seen throughout my last year, I have seen a strong connection of successful entrepreneurs and successful public relations,” Lange said. “An entrepreneur who is seeking funding but cannot get anyone excited about his idea is going to fail.”
Lange also has vested interests in seeing NDCe thrive—beyond his grade for the PR class. He is one of the principal co-founders of Campus Composters and one of the first students to talk to the business division about starting an entrepreneurship club to bring startups, as well as to start new student businesses, on campus.
“I always enjoyed listening to the thought process of the entrepreneurs and their background stories in how they came up with their ideas. They give you valuable insight on how to start and execute an idea. You learn from mistakes they are making and from things they are doing right,” Lange said.
In addition to the startup experience and interdisciplinary energy from NDCe, Lange said the networking opportunities the club provided him were invaluable. He went up to a new business owner after a campus presentation and now has a new job. A native of Germany, Lange is working with Tapin2 to expand the service in international markets.
The actual number of new members in NDCe won’t be official until next school year. On-campus recruiting continues.
Students from different disciplines have several incentives to get involved with NDCe and not just employer networking, business experience and innovative ideas. The College recently received a $15,000 grant from The Burton D. Morgan Foundation to support the growth of its academic entrepreneurship program— and activities of its student entrepreneurship club.
William L. Leamon (second from left), MBA, assistant professor of marketing, directs the entrepreneurship program at the College.Megan Skouby
NDCe faculty advisors Palombo and Leamon are seeking additional grant and gift support to continue to grow the entrepreneurship program, and potentially create an enterprise development center on campus in the coming years. So money can make the difference.
According to Lange, funding is part of the overall equation. But entrepreneurship, whether on campus, in the country or around the world, starts not just with ideas but with solutions.
“I think entrepreneurship is about solving a problem. Entrepreneurs come up with a solution for this particular problem and make life easier,” Lange said. “I think being a part of the club no matter your major is of great value. You get to be part of a group of students that are motivated to do more.”