By Dr. Barry Sandrew

Exposing students to the world of business development makes them a stronger asset to any company.

As the world of business evolves at an increasingly alarming pace, the core tenants of entrepreneurship are as important today as they have ever been—and not just for startups. In fact, almost any business can benefit from an entrepreneurial approach.

The profound influence of the pandemic makes this reality more cogent because the many traditional rules of the business world seem to be constantly changing. This uncertainty has thrown just about every business owner into the entrepreneurial pool with two options: sink or swim. Many proprietors that took a pragmatic stance and pivoted to alternative supply chain, tech-enablement and monetization strategies were able to weather the storm. Those who waited for normalcy to reemerge and relied on the corporate ways of old, often had to close their doors.

In 2020, I began to question how universities could realistically rely solely on conventional business curricula to lay the groundwork for its students amid a world becoming profoundly shaped by the pandemic. It seems intuitive that preparing students to navigate this uncertain landscape requires them to expand their learning outside of the classroom and into real life experiences to observe how business owners are handling difficult challenges that haven’t been previously faced.

Once thought of as separate circles in a Venn diagram, I believe that entrepreneurship and formal education need to come together as an essential collection of skills and knowledge to define what the business world will look like tomorrow.

For 15 years, I have been heavily involved in startup incubators and the mentorship of dozens of entrepreneurs, some with a formal education and some without. Throughout my extensive career, I have noticed that entrepreneurs with business degrees and prior practical business experience are typically the most likely to succeed. Those with applied business experience are also exposed to success and failure, both of which are critical aspects of the learning process. The book “Fail Fast, Fail Often: How Losing Can Help You Win” by Babineaux and Krumboltz best expresses the concept of failing, which cannot be adequately understood in classrooms or textbooks alone. Knowing how to take measured risks allows the entrepreneur to fail and ultimately win by learning from that failure. As Thomas Edison once said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Becoming immersed within that process in real time is an invaluable learning exercise. I’m convinced that an education in business devoid of practical experience gets a graduate only part of the way. Students receive a more complete education when engaged with an entrepreneurial ecosystem that exposes them to all business outcomes, the good and the bad.

Westcliff University is deeply committed to setting students up for success in entrepreneurship and leadership —providing a wide range of unique resources and programs that enable real-world learning. As director of entrepreneurship, I saw an opportunity to provide students with an even more comprehensive toolset upon which they can launch successful careers. Exposing students to real entrepreneurship in today’s uniquely challenging business landscape starts by introducing them to self-starters in their area so that they can learn firsthand how businesses are functioning, particularly under the strain of the pandemic. Universities benefit from offering a curriculum that integrates this exposure, like Westcliff’s new class offering, Crisis Management in the Pandemic Era. In this course, students venture into the community to interview business owners and find out how they are coping with the organizational stressors of COVID-19. Additional initiatives, including partnerships with local small business development centers, and a leading angel investment group (Tech Coast Angels), and the establishment of the IGNITE incubator with four companies residing on campus introduced living case studies into the Westcliff curricula and offer immense value to our students.

Students get to examine the entire process of starting a company firsthand and bring more insightful fodder for discussion and analysis into the classroom. These encounters serve as reference points when applying textbook concepts in their coursework, and the networking opportunities open them up to new possibilities for internships, employment, or business collaborations in the future.

Exposing students to the real world of business development ultimately makes them a stronger asset to any company they may work for, lead, or build. The application of business theory and other textbook content to the practical challenges facing entrepreneurs provides a far more comprehensive learning experience than either would hold on their own. Universities who aim to educate aspiring leaders should consider the integration of direct exposure to entrepreneurial experience or risk selling students short of the necessary knowledge and skills needed for the workplace of tomorrow. In turn, students can share their academic insights with those looking to grow their business to create a mutually beneficial collaborative environment and a healthier entrepreneurial ecosystem.