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At UMSL Accelerate, the entrepreneurship platform at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, a culture of service is central to its mission. One of its key components is promoting innovation through relevant co-curricular and interdisciplinary opportunities, with the belief that it is important for students to have both in-class and out-of-class educational opportunities. The program’s Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) program is responding to just that.
The EIR program is a non-credit, non-curricular opportunity for all students, regardless of major or class schedule, to interact with entrepreneurship. “At its core, the EIR program is for the student who has a dream, but does not know the processes to use to take the dream from mind to market,” says UMSL Accelerate’s Founding Executive Director Dan Lauer, who also serves as one of the mentors for the EIR program.
Breaking down the wall to entrepreneurship
While the EIR program is voluntary and welcoming to all students, it has a defined structure. One of the main principles of the program is to debunk what it means to be an entrepreneur. Yes, it is hard, and it does take a lot of time and money, but the EIR program works with students to help them see that these tasks aren’t as daunting as they seem. Students and mentors meet every 30 days to check in on the students’ progress and guide them along in their process.
“We want to catch [students] where they are–to make their dreams real to them and let them know that they can do it,” says Lauer. The most important question asked in that first session is, “What can you do in the next 30 days to move your idea further, farther and faster?” Students leave that session with three actionable goals based on where they are in processing their idea. The goals can be anywhere from buying business cards to writing an executive summary–it’s all individualized.
Accountability is Key
Kevin Banks, a second-year MBA student at UMSL, has been working with the EIR program since January. Banks had been in the process of developing ScholarHubs, a crowdsourced think-tank platform where anyone can post research articles and collaborate with other researchers across the world, when he received an email about the EIR program.
“I knew I had this idea, but I didn’t know what to do once I had the site,” says Banks. Now, Banks is ready to have his fourth visit with his mentor, Dan Lauer. “Dan is phenomenal at helping me clarify my thinking and provides accountability and encouragement,” says Banks.
These 30-day check-ins provide students a way to celebrate both successes and failures. Each time students come into a meeting, they work with their mentor to fill out a status sheet outlining two areas of progress and two roadblocks. Lauer says, “We’re meant to inspire, not require,” meaning that if a 30-day task isn’t met, they will discuss ways to work with that area of struggle.
Having a mentor in the EIR program means that students aren’t building businesses alone. Banks mentions that it’s easy to feel lonely when you’re building a product or creating a business that is all your idea, but the EIR program is designed to make sure you’re not.
Time and Money
Beyond the monthly check-ins is a six-month reality check to take an objective hard look and decide to continue, pivot or stop altogether. If a plan isn’t coming together, Lauer wants to make sure that students “fail fast, fail cheap,” knowing that creating a business takes a lot of time and a lot of money, which most students don’t have.
A key part of the EIR’s role is to get students to really think about their idea in terms of business. Participants in EIR are highly encouraged to set realistic work times per week that they will adhere to, clocking in and out just like it is a job separate from any other time commitments they have.
In much the same way, students in EIR are also asked to dedicate a certain amount of money to their business each week. Lauer mentions opening a checking account and investing in the company, but understands that account could literally be a shoebox.
The main idea is to be there for students to support their ideas and help them see it grow or fail, and the end result is for students to feel comfortable in coming back from failure and trying again.
Lauer continues to ask himself and others, “How can UMSL accelerate success?” and the ideas keep coming. With around 36 students coming through the EIR program since November 2016, two are about to reach that reality-check time, and they are looking good. The program is growing and they have added a second entrepreneurial mentor, Dan Fogarty from LaunchCode, to the fold. The program is housed on UMSL’s campus with the idea to grow into a startup within the university and create its own collaboration space within the parameters of UMSL. And while EIR is a student-facing program, Lauer says, “We’re in the business of making friends, and while we will serve students first, we want to accelerate success across the St. Louis region.”
Read more about UMSL Accelerate here on EQ.