Entrepreneurial Thinking, and its place alongside Art, Design, and Engineering (or, the UWM Student Startup Challenge)

There are a few different parts of my professional life that almost always get me a “Wow, that’s so cool!” – PhD in Engineering with a Studio Art Masters?! –  while others get me strange looks – wait, you are an activist/humanities scholar that teaches… entrepreneurship?

But while my initial engagements with entrepreneurial programming at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee were purely personal – one of my best friends, mechanical engineering professor Ilya Avdeev, asked me to work on it with him – I’ve come to understand that, as with coding, drawing, or writing, for example, the techniques and tools employed toward entrepreneurial efforts easily translate into other arenas. I already teach arts thinking (material-based and open-ended), design thinking (problem definition and empathy), engineering thinking (problem-solving and iteration), and where they coincide, interfere with, and amplify each other. Entrepreneurial thinking, too, has its place alongside any and all of these.

Probably the tools I use most from my entrepreneurial toolset are the business model canvas, and, as part of that, customer discovery. The former is a 9-part chart where you continuously map and remap the value you are proposing (and to whom), your relationships with those customers, the kinds of work and partnerships you need for your business, and cost and revenue streams. Yeh, yeh, my eyes glossed over the first time heard this, too… but the truth is, the kinds of thinking this requires, and the need to sketch and resketch in the different areas of the canvas toward “lean launch,” can and are applied to social innovation (sustainability for nonprofits, for example), mission models (why the military does what it does, and for whom), curriculum design, artistic interventions, and more.

And while the canvas is meant to be utilitarian in its application, filling out the canvas requires “getting out of the building” and speaking to real people about habits, routines, the things they do and why. The interview process, the “right” way to ask questions, is inspiring, is more about listening than anything else – a “no go” for your company is seen as a good thing, since you’ve learned before you’ve lost! – and can be applied to so many aspects of art, design, engineering, and life. The methodologies applied toward interviewing in The Mom Test, for example, have helped me across art, design, business, and engineering, teaching, collaboration, interdisciplinarity, and research more generally. And I bring and teach each of these toolsets to and at our ongoing workshops from the  Lubar Entrepreneurship Center (LEC) as well.

Which brings me to the UWM Student Startup Challenge. Now in its fifth year, here the Lubar Entrepreneurship Center works with up to 30 student teams per cohort / year, across Health Care, Social Innovation, Consumer Products, Apps, Services, Health, Food, and other fields; these have ranged from ice skate designs to booking companies, food services to nonprofit organizations working with seniors, and more, through one year of entrepreneurship boot camp. Participants learn the above canvasing and interviewing, problem definition and prototyping, marketing and fundraising, pitching and storytelling, and overall have a support team of mentors and peers working with them on their entrepreneurial education. It’s a merit system: the more you show up and work, the more you have access to resources from us, which include monetary support, teams of engineering or business students to work on prototypes and plans, travel budgets, supplies, and of course, our pop-ups, pop-ins, and workshops every week.

Three things are most important about what we do.

  1. This is not a business plan competition. We are looking for ideas, and more importantly for people who want to learn and engage with their (and other) ideas.
  2. This is not an incubator or accelerator. We could never match the kinds of funds that angels could give you. But we can give you something they can’t: a chance to fail, and thus a chance to learn. We are not investing in your products. We are investing in you, in your education. Neither we nor the university have any monetary stake in or ownership of what you do. We are your teachers and mentors.
  3. The student startup challenge was founded by makers. Ilya is an engineer, and I am an artist. We, the co-directors, learn by doing, and do things to learn. Our team is another engineer with an MBA (Brian Thompson, Director of the LEC), and a designer (BFA) with a Masters from the business school (Nicole Green, Program Manager). Our other ongoing contributors include a non-profit genius award winner (Anne Basting), the vice chancellor of university relations (Tom Luljak), and local entrepreneurs.

 

Please apply! The Startup Challenge is open to UWM students at all levels, as well as recent alumni. Teams may consist of those outside that community, so long as students or alum make up 50% of the team. Deadline is October 31.

The Student Startup Challenge is a unique co-curricular program at UWM that encourages students to develop their ideas, launch businesses, and gain skills that come from entrepreneurial experience. Students are given the opportunity to participate in hands-on workshops and develop ideas through one-on-one mentorship from UWM faculty and staff.
Questions? Email: ndgreen@uwmfdn.org

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