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Just getting college students to raise their hand on a Monday morning can be difficult, but it wasn’t a problem for NIU Professor of Management Christine Mooney this day.
Ten minutes into class, her students were laughing, dancing and doing improvisational riffs on everything from zombies in a car wash to an elderly Taylor Swift-wannabe singing “Shake It Off” at an American Idol audition. All in all, just another day in Management 327 Creativity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which is part of the entrepreneurship curriculum in the NIU College of Business.
“The entrepreneurial mindset we help students cultivate can benefit them throughout their careers,” says Mooney, who has taught in the program since 2011. “Even if they never launch a business, they can apply these tools to problems wherever they work.”
In fact, says NIU Chair of Management, Sarah Marsh, that was one of the motivations for creating the program. “Employers tell us all of the time that they want to hire people who can see opportunities within problems, think outside of the box and then develop those ideas into sound business opportunities. That is what we try to teach these students.”
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In the first class of the three-part curriculum, Mooney focuses less on specific business skills and more on changing how students think. “As much as anything, we try to instill in them a willingness to take risks. It takes guts to get up in front of your peers and improvise, or try a musical instrument for the first time – just like it takes guts to pursue a seemingly business idea. In either case, the rewards can be terrific.”
In addition to risk taking, Mooney also teaches students how to advocate passionately for ideas, without getting their ego squashed when they crash and burn. “We try to teach them that the failure of your idea is not a failure of yourself,” she says.
That lesson often comes in handy in the second course in the sequence, which focuses on creating a business model. In that class, students actually create and operate a small business for eight weeks. Last semester, for instance, one team launched a successful crepe stand, while another group’s proposed t-shirt business never materialized. “Both teams learned very important lessons,” says Mooney. “Failure can be great – if you do it fast enough and learn from it.”
All of those lessons get put to the test in the final course of the sequence, where NIU alumnus and veteran entrepreneur Eric Wasowicz guides teams through the grueling creation of a full-blown business plan, with a final exam consisting of a pitch meeting with actual venture capitalists. Ideas hatched in the class have helped launch a couple of businesses already, including Positiontech, a very successful athletic footwear maker.
“I believe that 75 percent of what you need to succeed comes from your gut – the passion and desire,” says Wasowicz, who graduated from NIU in 1980 with a degree in computer science. “But I sure wish I had graduated with a better understanding of the other 25 percent. A program like this would have been very helpful.”
Like Wasowicz, about 20 percent of the students enrolled in entrepreneurship classes are not business students.
“We try to make it non-business major friendly because some of the best ideas come from artists, engineers, health specialists and others. When you bring those students into the classroom you get a much richer, more interesting experience – and that’s the world our students will work in after graduation.”