Friday, June 11, 2010

Villgro Blog: Social Enterprise Education, Part II

In this post I will be reflecting on the article, “Entrepreneurship Education in Forty Hours-You Can Do It!” by Riffe, Borchers and DeMonte. All three authors are professors at Kettering University in the U.S.

As the title of the article suggests, Riffe, Borchers and DeMonte describe a course that introduces students to the processes used in entrepreneurship in approximately forty hours of class time over eleven weeks. The authors say that because of Kettering’s academic schedule, this course is shorter than courses in entrepreneurship at other universities, which tend to be fifteen to thirty weeks long. Therefore at Kettering, the main objective of the course is for students to produce a business plan, rather than to fully create an enterprise as with other courses.

The business plan that Kettering students produce should be based on an innovation in product, service or delivery that is economically viable and environmentally sustainable. However, of the three examples of student ideas that the article presents, in only one is there even an indirect link apparent to environmental sustainability. This is the potable water generator for disaster zones, which it can be inferred will lead to improved environmental health.

To return to the question I raised in my last post, “How would this course look different if the focus was on innovations in products, services or delivery for the BoP?” For one, I think the goal of producing a business plan in one semester becomes even more ambitious. Riffe, Borchers and DeMonte state that defining and researching the market, which is one of the seven sections of the course, has become much quicker and easier due to the Internet. Therefore, “this keeps the time allotted for the class and the work required for the project within reasonable bounds”. However in defining and researching the BoP market, it is most likely that students will have to interact directly with the poor. This means additional time spent in traveling, in building rapport with poor communities, and in collecting and analyzing data.

Another difference may be in the amount of class time that is devoted to presentation skills. In the Kettering course, students make a persuasive speech, an idea pitch, an elevator pitch, a rocket pitch and a final plan presentation. While it is important for all students, regardless of area of study, to gain presentation skills, in India it seems that the “elevator pitch,” at least to impact investors, is not as critical to obtaining funding as it is in the U.S. If this is true in other developing countries as well, then perhaps courses focused on social enterprise at the BoP may spend less time on practicing pitches of varying lengths.

Nevertheless, there are important lessons that can be learned from this article for all courses on entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship. The first is the central role that faculty play. The course at Kettering is co-taught by one engineering and one business professor, and in order to ensure integration, both professors attend all the classes.

In addition, the business professor has industrial / entrepreneurial / intrapreneurial experience, and the students have every opportunity to benefit from it because they are required to interact with their professors outside of class. Two key requirements of the course that facilitate this interaction are the weekly meetings and journals. Student teams are required to meet weekly with faculty members to discuss their progress along the journey from idea to “final” product. The weekly meetings seem to be a good strategy to ensure that student teams do not leave their projects until the last minute. However, since in teams one or two members may dominate the discussion, the journals also provide opportunities for each student to “converse” with, through writing to and getting responses from, their professor.

Another lesson that this article provides is on the project selection process. Each student presents his/her idea to his/her peers, who vote for the ones that they would like to see become class projects. The only stipulation is that you are not allowed to vote for your own idea.

In designing the minor at IIT-Madras, we struggled over whether students should be allowed to work on their own ideas, or whether ideas should be assigned to them. Students are often interested in classes like this precisely because they have an opportunity to work on their own ideas. However, from a faculty perspective, it is important for students to learn that for a product or service to be commercially viable, it must meet a felt need of the customer rather than the innovator. In addition, we were concerned that if the faculty were viewed as favoring some ideas over others, students whose ideas were not selected might resist or resent having to join other teams. The project selection process employed by the Kettering course seems to successfully navigate these dilemmas.

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