Training the Next Generation of Entrepreneurs

Howe Professors Have High School Students Make Pitches to Venture Capitalists

7/30/2014

If you’re ever trapped in a fire, with smoke so thick you can’t see in front of you, you want Julie Mogab at your side. 

As part of a leadership exercise during Stevens’ first summer entrepreneurship camp, Mogab acted as one of two guides for a group of blindfolded students who she organized and led out of the Babbio Center and along the gatehouse to an area safe from the “burning building” the team had to exit.

Afterward, two observers and the students in the team gave their reaction as to how Mogab did, and students switched roles in playing the leader in other exercises.

“I liked it. I like doing stuff like that,” said Mogab, who is from California. “I’m fine being in front of people, talking, leading. I’m used to taking a leadership role in projects back in school.”

Developing that comfort level with leadership was an important component of the entrepreneurship camp, said Dr. Gary Lynn, who organized the activities for the high school students participating. It actually served as a second half of the summer business camp designed to allow younger students to sample business courses before deciding whether to study it full time.

“The idea is that we teach students how to come up with idea, develop that idea — create a low-fidelity prototype, bounce it off customers — and present that idea to real venture capitalists and serial entrepreneurs,” Lynn said. Referring to the entrepreneurial engineering course he teaches with Professor Peter Koen, he said the weeklong camp is “like Shark Tank, Stevens style.”

Those pitches took place at the end of the camp. Students refined their business ideas over the course of the week by doing competitive research, speaking to potential customers and learning the language of business, and polished their presentation skills before speaking to a panel of judges that represented angel investors.

Students pitched a variety of concepts — from jewelry made from Lego blocks, to an iPhone case with retractable earbuds, to a mobile app monitoring the freshness of food in a refrigerator. The panel of judges — all Stevens faculty, in addition to their experiences in private enterprise — was impressed by the ideas, but also the skill and comfort the students had in front of the room.

“My graduate students don’t present this well,” said George Abraham, the founder of a strategy advisory company, said after the Lego jewelry team presented.

Learning by doing

Part of establishing that comfort in the room comes from the development of communication, listening and leadership skills, all hallmarks of a Howe School of Technology Management education. That was the point of the obstacle course, which Lynn built based on a joint program he did with West Point to hone the teamwork and leadership skills of his master’s students. Leaders directed teams to use makeshift skis to rescue stranded “victims” on a mountain, and guided students to clear a bucket of “toxic waste” out of a populated area. Afterward, leaders got feedback from students and professors on their performance.

“It was a transformative experience” with master’s students, Lynn said. “And we plan to institute this in the 103 course in the fall.”

“I acquired some skills, such as how to do an effective presentation, that will help me now and in the future,” said Dimosthenis Ioannidis, of Greece, another student who attended the camp. “Also, I enjoyed a lot the whole process of creating a new product and finding ways to make it succeed.”

Part of that was the help of the faculty. Lynn, Ioannidis said, “helped us a lot on our final presentation. It was a very useful week, in terms of what I learned.”

Mogab, who was part of the team pitching the retractable headphone case, said she found the post-activity debrief a useful exercise. Her first instinct, upon learning what was expected of her, was to organize the participants in a line, have them place one hand on the shoulder in front of them, and guide them to safety by having them follow her voice. She called out various hazards such as turns, stairs and passers-by on the sidewalks.

“During the middle of the exercise, I started thinking, I could’ve done this, I could’ve done that, but in the moment, it seemed best to just work on getting them there,” Mogab said. “I didn’t want to add additional confusion.”

Howe School Professor Peter Dominick, who observed the proceedings, challenged Mogab to think about how she might have developed a plan to safely guide the students.

“You were great at improvising, which is important itself, but it helps if you have a plan to fall back on,” Dominick said. “When you’re in a situation where it’s treacherous, your teammates need to hear you more. They need more direction, not less direction.”

That’s the kind of training emphasized at the graduate level at the Howe School, especially in the MBA program, which considers solid leadership skills a strong component of a successful graduate.

Exposure to entrepreneurs

Entrepreneurial thinking is a large and growing concern at Stevens, going far beyond the Introduction to Entrepreneurship class, said Dr. Christos Christodoulatos, vice provost for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Stevens.

“If we don’t educate our students in this area of innovation and entrepreneurship, regardless of their disciplines, we really short-change them in the long run,” said Christodoulatos, also a judge on the panel. “We want them to be competitive, to be able to differentiate themselves from students that have not gone through these programs.”

In addition to pitching their ideas to potential investors and creating basic prototypes of their ideas, program participants met with the Stevens students behind Modularity LLC — the company created by students in the MGT 103 class, which is spending the summer in a university-backed incubator to flesh out their product. The company’s CEO, Greg McNeil, a rising sophomore at Stevens, was the only student on the judging panel, and asked questions about the viability of some of the business concepts he heard.

The entrepreneurship course, he said, “is all about getting out of your comfort zone” as an engineer. “If you want to be successful, you have to go out of you comfort zone. You have to talk constantly about your product, to all kinds of different people.”

Mogab said the experience of attending the camp and speaking to entrepreneurs was memorable as she considers whether to pursue a degree in management.

“At my age, you’re not really exposed much to business, but I’m interested in it, and this seemed like a good way to see if I would enjoy studying it,” she said.

She called the lessons in marketing particularly interesting, and said the ethics course from the general business camp gave her insight into how to approach the leadership exercise.

“One of the topics was leadership, and the professor talked with us about that — the importance of having a team be able to trust you, and how you need to be able to listen to lead our team members,” she said. “That was something I thought about when I was preparing to lead the team out of the building.”

If she were doing it over, she said she’d know what to do differently.

“I would’ve definitely paid more attention to the back of the line,” she said. “Or I might have split the line in two. (Other students) also raised the point that I could have asked the professor where we were headed.”

That’s the kind of insight for which Lynn is hoping.

“The goal is not to create 15 entrepreneurs,” he said. “We want to teach the basics about how an entrepreneur approaches problems and how that fits into a business education. If we do that, we’ve succeeded.”