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Dean's Corner: How Entrepreneurship Programs Help Students Meet the Needs of Corporate Recruiters

November 2013

By James Jiambalvo
Dean and Kirby L. Cramer Chair in Business, Michael G. Foster School of Business
University of Washington

What do employers want from graduates of business schools? Quite a number of articles have addressed this important question (e.g., F. Frank Ghannadian, "What Employers Want, What we Teach," BizEd, March/April 2013). And, while each article offers up a number of unique items, there is considerable agreement that employers want graduates who can (1) deal with complex, unstructured real world problems; (2) integrate materials across business disciplines; (3) work in cross-functional teams: and (4) communicate their ideas clearly and succinctly.

As business school academics, we know what employers want, but how can we ensure that our graduates possess these abilities? Of course, there's no one right answer, and I'm sure many schools have developed a number of effective ways to ensure their students are attractive to top employers. Having said this, I believe that investing in a robust entrepreneurship program can play a major role in developing students who will meet or exceed the desires of corporate recruiters.

I know what you're thinking, "How does entrepreneurship mesh with a career at a large corporation?" Well, the fact of the matter is that most students in entrepreneurship programs go on to take jobs with corporations, rather than executing on the business plans developed in school. Part of the problem is that right out of school, credit cards are maxed out and the focus is on paying off the debt accumulated while learning the theories and frameworks in business school. Most students in entrepreneurship programs are going to seek employment at corporations, and with the skills they acquired in entrepreneurship, they are going to be quite successful!

At the Foster School, our entrepreneurship program offers a number of classes covering marketing, finance, strategy, and other topics from the standpoint of someone interested in starting a company. All provide helpful theories, frameworks, and tools that enrich a student's understanding of business start-ups. However, while these classes are part and parcel of a strong entrepreneurship curriculum, they don't address the soft-skills mentioned above. These skills are honed in the two competitions sponsored by the Foster School's Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship. The first competition is the Business Plan Competition (BPC). In this event, student teams present (not surprisingly given the name of the competition) a business plan. During the competition, they are mentored by business executives, including entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. Each year, around 400 executives support the event. The second competition is the Environmental Innovation Challenge (EIC). In this competition, students must design a solution to an environmental problem that has a viable market opportunity. Perhaps the most difficult part of the competition is that each team must have a solution prototype.

With this as background, I'll explain how the competitions contribute to development of the four skills demanded by executives at top companies.

Complex, Unstructured Real World Problems
The commercialization of medical devices, new modes of clean energy, concepts for 3-D printing, and robotics that respond to input from the brain are some of the recent problems teams have addressed in the BPC and EIC. These are the ne plus ultra of complex, unstructured, real world problems! Students in both competitions learn to take appropriate theories and frameworks from class, make reasonable assumptions, combine them with their gut feelings and drive to a solution. Importantly, they also learn to pivot, if needed, as they receive feedback on their product or business plan.

Integration Across Business Disciplines
The entrepreneurial process begins with a concept, a vision, an idea, a conviction. But as Thomas Edison said, "Vision without execution is hallucination." And execution in an entrepreneurial environment requires strategy, marketing, finance, and accounting. When you present your business opportunity to individuals for feedback, you must be able to articulate your strategy, to appropriately size the market for the product or service, and explain your marketing plan. And you need to carefully consider your plan for funding, backed up by pro-forma financial statements.

Cross-Functional Teams
The corporate world is interdisciplinary, and successful managers must be adept at working with teams that include designers and engineers, as well as individuals from marketing, operations, and finance. Silos can lead to products that don't fit market needs or that have production costs inconsistent with appropriate price points. Entrepreneurial competitions can provide a wonderful learning environment for working in cross-functional teams. A recent BPC team called HydroSense had a PhD candidate in computer science, several undergraduates in mechanical engineering, and two MBA students. They learned to respect each other's skill sets and work together to deliver a sensor- and computer-based solution to water usage in the home. At the final round of the competition, the MBA presented the technology, and the CSE student presented the financials! This, I believe, shows what students can learn from their fellow team members as well as trust and respect.

Clear and Concise Communication
Entrepreneurship requires storytelling, pitching, and selling. And communication with team members, potential customers, investors, and the online community, is nonstop. To be successful, the communications have to be clear and concise. When you've only got one minute to convince an audience of executive judges to come see your demo or review your financials, you learn that every word counts, and the art of persuasion takes on new meaning.

Corporations want capable, confident students who excel at complex, unstructured real-world problem-solving, who can integrate knowledge across business disciplines, work in cross-functional teams, and communicate their ideas clearly and succinctly. Business schools can provide these skills and entrepreneurial competitions offer a terrific mechanism for developing them.


James Jiambalvo
Dean and Kirby L. Cramer Chair in Business, Michael G. Foster School of Business, University of Washington