Drew Harris, Ph.D. of Central Connecticut State University’s (CCSU) Management and Organization Department, discovered a shared characteristic that ties the fields of journalism, engineering, and computer science – among others – together: entrepreneurship. His participation in a group called Connecticut Consortia for Entrepreneurial Educators (CCEE) inspired this idea. In conversation with other faculty, Dr. Harris decided to collaborate with others to research how entrepreneurship ties different disciplines together. Their partnership resulted in the professors founding and implementing an interdisciplinary program unlike any other in the country: the New Venture Challenge.
The New Venture Challenge is an interdisciplinary, accelerated course offered at eight participating Connecticut colleges and universities. The contributing instructors have created a unique program that pairs traditional weekly classroom meetings with an unparalleled weekend group experience that brings all cohorts together. “This course has a greater level of immersion in activity,” says Dr. Harris when comparing the program to conventional curriculums. He explains, “there are two Saturdays and one weekend overnight where students work in groups on a product or business concept.” This weekend component is where the interdisciplinary piece of the curriculum comes to light.
During the weekend sessions, the universities and colleges convene to bring the diverse student body together. “Participation can be across disciplines,” Dr. Harris says. He describes how “some students come from computer science, whereas others are from journalism, or engineering, or business school. We typically break them into groups of six. One of the rules is that no team can have all their members from the same school.” The goal is to create diversity in collaborative efforts, encouraging students from a variety of academic and professional backgrounds to work together to develop a product or concept. With students hailing from various schools and majors, interdisciplinary learning thrives.
Paired with the weekend gatherings, the participating schools run their own weekday classes. For Dr. Harris, this involves teaching a group of roughly twenty-six students from CCSU. Their traditional weekday sessions involve learning new business theories and working autonomously to complete weekly assignments. “I have my students stimulate creativity in thinking,” Dr. Harris explains. He describes the structure of the course, stating, “we watch videos, do class exercises, and they have at-home assignments to complete.” Some of these tasks require students to brand their business ideas by creating a URL for a web presence, researching the costs of rent for their business in the local market, and complying with state laws. Essentially, the students work to create a mock product or business in Connecticut’s current economy. “I want my students to synthesize their ideas for businesses and think about how to test those ideas for ones that will work,” Dr. Harris adds.
The overlapping weekend group sessions and individual weekday classes give students of the New Venture Challenge an entirely new approach to learning the ins and outs of entrepreneurship. “The learning objective of the course is to have students become experienced in using a process called the ‘Lean Launch Method’ for testing business ideas,” Dr. Harris says. The Lean Launch Method is a scientific approach to creating and managing a startup company, which helps entrepreneurs get their business to customers faster. He mentions, “students conduct primary and secondary research on business ideas, competitors, and marketplaces. We want them to be more confident in organizing their thoughts around new ventures in creative ways.”
The creativity that Dr. Harris and the other instructors of the New Venture Challenge look for has been proven in earlier semesters. In one of the classes, “an engineering team designed an in-home water-testing meter for kitchen faucets,” Dr. Harris recalls. He describes another team focusing on journalism by developing an online magazine for undergraduates. The students designed “a web prototype and printed an example of the magazine,” Dr. Harris says. These are the types of projects the faculty members look for late in the course, before the students meet business experts.
By the end of the semester, the students from each college have the unique opportunity to share their business models with experts in professional fields. The students gather their products or concepts, any designed prototypes, and their research findings. “The students get to pitch their projects to business experts and receive feedback,” Dr. Harris says. He goes on to state that “the course then ends with a debrief day to clarify any uncertainties and offer feedback about ideas and the course overall.”
The students receive constructive critiques about their entrepreneurial skills and business models from their peers, the faculty, and volunteer experts coming in for the final review. With so many layers to learning entrepreneurship, Dr. Harris believes this course proves how branding entrepreneurial education is so important. “It’s not about the school of business,” he explains, adding that it’s about “the entrepreneurial energy on campus. We have art students, journalism students, engineering students, computer science students – everyone – who will start businesses after graduating and many don’t know we offer resources to help them to do that. We’re here to serve them.”
The New Venture Challenge fits students from all fields with the necessary skills and knowledge to become successful in prospective business endeavors. The widespread traction and interest this course has garnered throughout Connecticut even made its way to the state legislature. “There was a bill in the state, Senate Bill 1, about stimulating the economy,” Dr. Harris mentions, explaining how “it had nothing to do with any university.” During this time, Senator John W. Fonfara invited Dr. Harris to meet and share details about the course, highlighting how supporting startup companies will foster growth in the state’s economy.
With the passing of Senate Bill 1, Connecticut colleges are now able to participate in economic stimulus efforts, giving faculty a chance to express why they deserve legislative support. “It was gratifying to be able to have the legislature become aware of the wonderful things we do at Central. Particularly, what we do with our students and entrepreneurship. We are seen as the leader,” Dr. Harris says.
With the New Venture Challenge branding participating colleges and universities as leaders in entrepreneurial education, Dr. Harris is more convinced than ever that the program at CCSU is a pioneer in business strategy and education. “Now, we need to do a bit of advertising,” he says.