Salt Lake Community College’s Entrepreneurship Forum
Thursday, November 5, 2009
Posted by: Matthew Montoya
By Christopher Black
Department of Marketing Management
Salt Lake Community College, Salt Lake City, Utah
Each fall semester, the Salt Lake Community College School of Business hosts a weekly entrepreneurship forum. When I first became involved with the forum I was a little overwhelmed. Asking entrepreneurs to take so much time out of their day to come to the college to speak seemed like a big request. I could see the value of having entrepreneurs speak to students, but I was also concerned about how the forum topics would integrate with the class and how I would get all the needed speakers on board.
Fortunately, I found that entrepreneurs like to talk about what they have done and entrepreneurship students seem to want to hear from people who have successfully launched businesses and pick their brains for ideas. Further, I learned that I was not alone in this project. One teacher who had great skills with layout did the small flyers that we hung around the building announcing each speaker. Another instructor said that he was friends with Bill Child, who built up a retail furniture store that was later sold to Warren Buffet, and that he would arrange to have him come. Other instructors provided contacts to other dynamic speakers who now make up the nucleus of our speaker list. The instructional media department provided us with an enthusiastic camera and recording crew who record each speaker and provide CDs for student and instructor use.
The speaker format we now follow reflects the experiences I have had in organizing these forums and the insights my predecessor left with me. The first speaker of the term sets the tone for those who follow. For the last couple of years we have started the weekly forums with Samantha Simon. Samantha is an alumnus of the college so the students relate to her experiences. She started running a small convenience store and made award-winning jerky. She later sold that business and went into real estate work. She shared her “5 Tools of Success: Helping You Achieve More Money and More Joy in Owning Your Own Business” packet and put the students to work drafting their own plans of creating a future and becoming personally motivated to follow through.
Samantha also emphasizes the need to develop a relationship with mentors and offers help to those who e-mail her and ask specific questions. Because they have to write in answers as they discover them, even copying down the Web site addresses, they learn quickly that help is available but also that they have to ask and not expect her or other mentors to do their work for them.
The speakers present various topics of great interest to the students. We try to draw speakers from both large and small businesses. However, in discussing speaker preferences with the students, I found that they often could not relate or felt very intimidated by those whose companies had grown to be quite large so most of our speakers are drawn from the smaller companies. The topics discussed in the forum range from earning and building employee loyalty, creative financing options, business plan development, pitching ideas to prospective investors, ethical considerations, government relationships, stock manipulations and sustaining growth rates. We also include a panel of patent attorneys speaking on patents, copyrights and trademarks.
When one student suggested using a business tactic that previously had been identified as unethical, an attorney looked at him the way a tiger would view a wounded deer and reminded this now fully engaged student that they made their livings prosecuting people who did that. The resulting discussion was both enlightening and entertaining.
A major challenge of organizing the forum is lining up speakers. Not only do you have to find the entrepreneurs to speak but also you have to get them scheduled for each week. I start organizing my speakers for fall term in July. Each speaker is given a specific week and then asked for two or three alternate dates that they are available in case I need to make adjustments. It is not unusual to have a speaker call a week or two in advance of their assigned date and ask to reschedule. I have found that if I have to trade dates to accommodate someone, the speakers will often do it good-naturedly. It is important to keep the lines of contact open so the speakers don’t overlook your appointments when they are facing scheduling conflicts. One speaker dashed in to give his presentation on the way to the airport and then ran out to a waiting car so he would not miss his plane.
The benefits of the Entrepreneurship Forum are huge and varied. We have had speakers make sizable donations to the college of business or donations to the scholarship fund. Some of our presenters have also volunteered to serve as mentors and judges for our Delta Epsilon Chi competitions. Forum speakers have been quite willing to mentor students in business plan development and in preparing to meet with potential lenders or investors.
Someone asked me recently which of my classes is the most rewarding and fulfilling. Honestly, I can’t imagine trying to teach entrepreneurship without including the forum. The discussions the following week almost always include some questions or observations from what students heard the previous week. They feel they are hearing timely and beneficial information. The informal format has given them a chance to ask personal questions and get the answers that textbooks and even instructors may not be able to give with the credibility that the students feel they need.