The Texas Economy (TE), a publication of the Texas Comptroller’s office, wanted to learn more about the E-Scholars Program offered at the Meadows Center for Entrepreneurial Studies located in the Bill Greehey School of Business at St. Mary’s University. Managing Editor of thetexaseconomy.org, David C. Bloom, visited with the program’s director, Brooke Envick, Ph.D.
TE: How long has St. Mary’s offered this opportunity for students to learn more about what it takes to start their own businesses?
Envick: We started the E-Scholars program in 2004 as a way to offer entrepreneurship education to nonbusiness majors. There are entrepreneurial ideas and activities going on across the campus, whether in the School of Humanities and Social Science or the School of Science, Engineering and Technology. In 2004, our cohort was pretty small, with only five students. But it’s grown since then. This year, 52 students applied to be E-Scholars, and we accepted 12. We keep it fairly small because we do many things outside of the classroom and in the community, such as networking events, workshops and a speaker series. We also take two domestic trips and one international trip each year. Over the past nine years, 16 different majors have been represented, from Psychology and Electrical Engineering to English and Accounting.
TE: How much interaction do the E-Scholars have with the San Antonio business community?
Envick: Our main connection there is through the Forum on Entrepreneurship Breakfast Series, which is a joint partnership between St. Mary’s University and the business community. We also have more than 35 sponsors, and most of them are local banks, law firms, accounting firms, marketing companies and entrepreneurial companies. We get four speakers per year to come in to share their insights with the students. We’ve heard from people such as Charlie Amato of SWBC, Bill Greehey of NuStar, and Colleen Barrett of Southwest Airlines, so we’ve hosted a number of business leaders from both inside and outside of San Antonio. The students help organize these meetings, which attract about 300 people per event. So there’s networking opportunities there. Last week, when we had our internal elevator pitch competition, we had people from the board and also our title sponsor, South Texas Money Management, come in and help judge. In addition to that, we get involved with the local chapter of The Entrepreneurs’ Organization. They do a workshop type event for us in the fall. We’ve also started a relationship with Geekdom, and that will grow in the years to come.
TE: It sounds like the E-Scholars Program really prepares students for the business world – whether they decide to start their own businesses or work for someone else.
Envick: I think the students who graduate with the E-Scholars program under their belt have a leg up in the job market. I’ve had students directly tell me, ‘During the interview, they kept asking me about the E-Scholars program. Tell me more about your international trip or tell me more about your business idea.’ Same thing with internships. Students say the E-Scholars program really helped them. I think employers are interested in them because they don’t just have the traditional college experience. One thing that we do on some of the trips is we make the students conduct business meetings, even on the international trip. They’ll go, ‘I don’t know anybody in Hong Kong. How can I set up a business meeting?’ But they’ll figure out how to do it. And they come back with a lot more confidence. That’s the one thing I’ve seen consistently in the students. When they start the program they’re a little bit unsure, and then they do their first competition or trip. You see a little bit of confidence build up. By the time they come back from their international trip, they’re the most confident students on campus. And that confidence carries over into interviews and the workplace.
TE: That confidence is something you can’t get out of a textbook or by simply listening to a lecture. I’m sure it can only come from getting out there and jumping into the deep end.
Envick: That is one thing we really tried to focus on with this program – we looked at how to eliminate some of the common barriers that we have in education. If they never get out of the four walls of the classroom, it’s very hard for them to learn. For example, if somebody wanted to learn how to start a restaurant, I can only teach them so much, because I’ve never run a restaurant. But if I get them connected with someone who owns a restaurant, then they can help take the student to the next level. So that eliminates two barriers to education: the isolation on a campus and the limited expertise. That may sound bad when I say that about myself, but I can only take them so far because I haven’t opened a business in every industry out there. So I need to be able to get them in touch with people from multiple industries that they can network with. There’s also a cost issue. Like I said, we do these domestic and international trips that cost money. Each student puts $2,500 into the program, because we want them to have some skin in the game. That gives them some investment, too. The proceeds from the Forum on Entrepreneurship Breakfast Series that I mentioned earlier go the E-Scholars program. This year they donated $25,000.
TE: Why do you encourage students to participate in the CEO Elevator Pitch competition?
Envick: Gaining elevator pitch skills also helps them pitch themselves. They are better equipped to talk about how they’re going to add value or help solve a problem for someone. Everything is changing so fast that investors just want the pitch. They don’t want the business plan, per se – especially initially. If they’re interested in the pitch, they’ll give you a card and then schedule a time for lunch or a meeting. They don’t have time to read through the business plans or hear twenty-minute presentations. Companies also are interested in entrepreneurial thinkers, so even if our E-Scholars graduate and they don’t start their own businesses right away, companies are interested in them to come in as an employee and think of new ideas and help solve problems. Years ago, entrepreneurship majors were seen as a threat in companies, but now they’re seen as a huge asset.
This has been the most rewarding for me as a professor, and I’ve been teaching college students for 20 years. This is my 17th year at St. Mary’s. We didn’t start going to the CEO Elevator Pitch competition until 2006, and then in 2007 I thought maybe we should participate in this whole elevator pitch thing. In 2008, we took both first place and second place. We are the only university that has ever done that. That was probably the big ‘Aha moment’ for me. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in our students or anything like that, because we have some amazing students doing some amazing things. But seeing that happen made me realize that we are capable of doing anything any large university is able to do or anything that any Ivy League university is able to do. We have that caliber of student here. And I get to work with them in the E-Scholars program!
This excerpt was adapted and reprinted with permission of The Texas Economy.