How WKU Students Tap Their Inner Entrepreneurs, In and Out of the Classroom

The United States is home to just over 30 million small businesses, which, according to data from the Small Business Administration, make up an incredible 99.9 percent of all U.S. businesses.

With numbers like that, it’s likely that Western Kentucky University students will, at some point, work for — or start — a small business. Thanks to the hands-on experience and resources available at WKU’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, they’ll be prepared.

“Our focus is to make sure that students get tangible experiences and develop skills and capabilities that are going to prepare them for the workforce, including challenges they might face,” said Whitney Peake, Ph.D., director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

Peake, who joined WKU in 2014, stepped into her new role as director last July. Her work with the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation is a natural extension of both her teaching and research, which center on small and family business. Peake’s research also includes a closer look at small business innovation levels, including how small business owners implement high performance practices and procedures to spark innovation.

Western Kentucky University entrepreneurial students after competing in the 2018 Topper Tank Elevator Pitch competition.

Dawn Bolton, Ph.D., an associate professor and transitional retiree, is also on staff at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Bolton studies individual entrepreneurial orientation and gender in entrepreneurship and leadership. Peake calls her the center’s marketing expert.

Part of WKU’s multi-faceted approach to entrepreneurship happens in the classroom. Students can opt to minor or major in entrepreneurship, or choose to take entrepreneurship courses that complement another field of study. One of the advantages of entrepreneurship is that it offers teachable moments for everyone.

“What makes our entrepreneurship program at WKU different is that our basic entrepreneurship course is also part of our general education curriculum,” Peake said. “That’s allowed students all over the university to dip their toes in and learn basic skills like creativity, strategic planning, and financial analysis. And if they decide not to pursue entrepreneurship, they still get a general education credit.

Peake often brings her research into the classroom, whether to discuss recent conclusions or to solve problems. While working on her family business social responsibility study and exploring why men and women in a family business are motivated to do good, Peake found that women consistently contribute regardless of education level, while men who have an undergraduate degree engage in a higher level of social responsibility than men without.

“I couldn’t figure out how to explain why this was occurring, so I took the problem to the classroom to discuss it with students and they had some really great insights,” Peake said.

WKU student Olivia Goff prepares to present her business plan for Olive & Honey in the annual WKU Business Plan competition.

She’s also found other behaviors — information-sharing, for example — that can set students up for professional success regardless of their business or industry, and she doesn’t hesitate to pass that information on to students.

“Transparency is the key to getting students motivated and showing how everything we do is related,” Peake said.

That interconnectedness doesn’t just apply to entrepreneurship and careers, but also to how the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation benefits other WKU departments. Last semester, for example, Peake collaborated with Stacy Wilson, Ph.D., director of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, to help engineering capstone students hone their pitching skills.

The Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation also offers a wealth of learning opportunities outside the classroom. A monthly speaker series enables students to learn valuable insight from successful local and national entrepreneurs. Students can also participate in business plan and elevator pitch competitions, or join The Network @ WKU, an entrepreneurial student organization.

Peake has also found that many WKU students put their entrepreneurial learning in practice as they cultivate their own businesses.

“One student opened a raw cookie dough shop and is now expanding it to three kiosks in Kentucky, and another student runs an after-market off-road parts business,” Peake said. “They’re doing phenomenal things. How they’re running a business and balancing classes is impressive. “

Of course, balance is one of the most valuable lessons an entrepreneur can learn, besides multi-tasking! And students in WKU’s entrepreneurship consulting capstone are well versed in both. During the course, students are paired with local small businesses and spend the semester as a consultant. The businesses are often facing some sort of challenge, which might include needing a new marketing plan or website. After taking time to understand the business’s objectives, students present value-added solutions and, with agreement from the business, help implement those solutions.

Two WKU students celebrate their first and third place wins during Idea State U 2017, an annual business plan competition overseen by the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development’s Office of Entrepreneurship.

Not only do students have a chance to work side-by-side with a business to apply what they’ve learned, but they also accumulate their own research experience.

“Throughout the capstone, students are doing research on the industry, the local market, the competition, and the business and its history,” Peake said.

Since the consulting capstone framework was introduced in spring 2015, Peake said WKU students have served 20 clients and generated almost 5,700 consulting hours.

“They’re making a real impact on small businesses that can’t afford expensive consulting,” Peake said. “These students are skilled — they have skills that people wouldn’t expect.”

For Peake, the true reward is seeing how students put their knowledge into practice. She recalled one WKU student who took several entrepreneurship courses and, after graduating, returned home to work at his family’s winery.

“He and his dad are running the business side-by-side and they keep winning awards,” she said. “To see how far our students have come and how well they’re doing — their success stories are wonderful for me to hear.”

WKU’s proactive approach to incorporating entrepreneurship into the curriculum, led by the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, demonstrates how entrepreneurship continues to flourish, whether as a career path itself or as a learning opportunity to support other post-college paths.

“The culture is so different now,” Peake said. “Research by Northeastern University shows that generation Z is the most entrepreneurial generation yet, which makes entrepreneurship interesting and valuable because these are skills you can use whether you start a business or manage a home. You’re pitching ideas and yourself your entire life. If students can learn how to do that, that’s a lifelong value.”

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