By Kim Hachiya, University Communications
It's the second-oldest university-based center for entrepreneurship in the country. Its classes are jam-packed. And its students are in demand. The Nebraska Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is poised to leverage its own entrepreneurial spirit to help students become the next business leaders.
Located in the College of Business Administration, the center was founded in 1981 and is now an independent center answering directly to college Dean Donde Plowman. Its faculty have tenure-homes in departments across campus and searches are under way for a new director and another full-time faculty member.
Acting Director Kathleen Thornton said 300 to 350 students take entrepreneurship (ENTR) courses each semester; courses are at capacity and demand is growing. Courses in the center are cross-listed with those offered by the new Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources. The business college waives its prerequisites for students interested in entrepreneurship courses, and more students from disciplines as diverse as journalism, agriculture and music are enrolling, Thornton said.
She defines an entrepreneur as "someone who recognizes an opportunity and exploits it, someone who sees a need and thinks, 'I can do that better.' Maybe that means they can do it faster, or with a new product or by delivering a service differently. They fulfill a need in a better way."
It's a myth, she said, that entrepreneurs are motivated solely by profit-making. Many of the ideas she sees each day come from what Thornton calls "social entrepreneurs," people who have ideas that promote societal or charitable purposes.
"It's really interesting to see the range of ideas that come from students," she said.
The Nebraska Center for Entrepreneurship also functions as a connector for faculty who have developed a product or process with commercial potential, working with NUTech Ventures, UNL's technology transfer office. The center also works with members of the public interested in starting a business.
"Often if it's a 'mom and pop' business, I will encourage them to connect with the Nebraska Business Development Center," she said. But because there are no prerequisites, non-traditional students often find their way into the center's ENTR courses.
The center's signature program is its Students in Free Enterprise organization. Since coming to UNL about four years ago, Thornton has worked to revitalize the SIFE group, growing it from eight members to 60. Last year, they landed several top prizes in a national SIFE competition and this year the students are again preparing to compete for cash prizes in upcoming spring competitions. SIFE prize money supports projects and team travel; SIFE also awards scholarships.
UNL's SIFE group owns and operates a snack bar, the Daily Drip, in the business college building and is negotiating to operate a second snack bar in a building across campus. SIFE also runs a business selling unwanted university equipment on eBay, with the departments receiving 70 percent of the return. Money earned from SIFE's snack bar and sales operations helps students pay expenses to travel to competitions and support their social entrepreneurship projects.
"Our SIFE group really is a national contender again," Thornton said. The students also have taken on long-term projects such as working with a community development group in Ogallala that is focusing on revitalizing tourism at Lake McConaughy. The SIFE students are currently working at the Pine Ridge Reservation teaching high school students how to write grants for community development projects. They also are working with resettlement refugees in Lincoln.
"Their projects are getting grander in scope, long-term and impactful," Thornton said. "They are engaging students in real-world opportunities and experiences. And they are getting good jobs because of this experience."
"The university really is a breeding ground for ideas, for young people with good ideas," she said. Thornton wants the university to be a leader in helping Nebraska and Lincoln become known as an entrepreneurial center that welcomes creative attitudes and adopts innovation as a lifestyle.
"We really need to build a supportive, creative atmosphere for businesses and entrepreneurs. The university needs to be involved in nurturing the businesses that start up in Lincoln," she said.
Thornton says there is room for collaboration among all the various entities at the university working to build entrepreneurship.
"I think there is more interest in entrepreneurism now than ever, mostly because of the economy," Thornton said. "Innovation is the buzzword and it gets students excited. Innovation that ends up in a drawer doesn't do anyone any good. The more opportunities that are undertaken the better."
The move to the Big Ten Conference allows UNL to join a group of highly successful centers, dean Plowman said.
"This collaboration will bring additional opportunities to an already successful program," she said.
Entrepreneurs view world as an opportunity
What characterizes an entrepreneur? Kathleen Thornton, acting director of the Nebraska Center for Entrepreneurship in the College of Business at UNL, said a key characteristic is the mindset of a problem-solver.
"Entrepreneurs tend to look at problems in a different way," she said.
Entrepreneurs recognize opportunities and take steps to exploit opportunities, she said.
- Entrepreneurs accept ambiguity; things are not the same every day and they thrive on change.
- Entrepreneurs are risk-tolerant. As opposed to being a risk-taker, a risk-tolerant person knows that information, control and decision-making can mitigate risks and promote success.
- Entrepreneurs do what they do for the emotional fulfillment – they love what they do. For some, the thrill is in securing the idea, starting the business and once it's thriving, they sell it to move on to the next deal. The idea of making money is not usually the prime motivator.
- Entrepreneurs are often impatient. They don't want to wait, she said. "Once they decide, then they are going 100 miles per hour."
It's the person or the people on the team that drive success, Thornton said, not so much the idea. She cites the Snuggie, "the blanket with sleeves," as a phenomenally successful product that's not a rocket-science idea. "But they were really creative and have extended that product," she said, by licensing it with sports teams and creating Snuggies for dogs.
"It's not the idea itself, it's the people behind it," she said.