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Energetic, focused, and wanting to start businesses


A group of busy college students, ranging from freshmen to graduate level, are living together and potentially starting a business – or 30 businesses – with the help of money allocated by the university’s president.

At Iowa State University, this scenario is called the new Entrepreneurship and Innovation Learning Community. It takes the university’s successful learning community concept, and puts a different spin on it for the purpose of bringing students closer to their goals of starting their own businesses.

“I had seen models of entrepreneurial learning environments at a few other places in the nation, and I thought this was something we could incorporate with our great learning communities at Iowa State,” said Gregory Geoffroy, the university’s president. “Iowa needs more entrepreneurs, and this is a great way to do it.”

Geoffroy’s office committed $60,000 in start-up money for the EILC – $35,000 in scholarship money for students wanting to enter the program and $25,000 in “seed money” to fund competitive grants. From there, he said to the staff, “Make it happen.”

Judi Eyles, the associate director of ISU’s Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship, has been involved with helping establish the new learning community since Geoffroy brought up the idea a little more than a year ago. She said they had a limited amount of time to market the program, but still ended up with about 30 students, which was their goal.

The students live together in suite-style quarters on the fifth floor of the newly renovated Buchanan Hall, and they combine to make a learning community unlike any of the more than 50 others on campus.

“These students range in age from about 18 to 28, and have majors such as performing arts, architecture and management information systems,” Eyles said. “Historically, learning communities have been for groups of freshmen as a way to acclimate them to campus and develop connections with people who are taking classes within the same field of study.

“Like the other learning communities, we’ve tried to create an environment that leads them to be more successful instead of just sticking out on their own. The real common interest is one in entrepreneurship, where experience, not age, carries more weight.”

Of the 30 students enrolled in the EILC, 15 are freshmen, five are sophomores, seven are juniors, three are seniors and two are graduate students. An overwhelming majority, 25, are males, but minorities and women together account for more than half of the learning community. The students’ backgrounds will become opportunities for the group, Eyles said.

“The common theme is that these students are either running their own business or they have an interest in doing so,” Eyles said. “I have a sophomore who has a video production business; a junior who has a non-profit business. These students are energetic and focused, and they have the skill sets to be helpful to each other.”

Something the students are expecting to benefit from is the networking opportunities with local business people. Already, the group had an event with about a dozen local business people in attendance, and Eyles said about 20 more business people have indicated they would also partner with the students as mentors.

“Connecting to a network of resources is a very valuable thing to an entrepreneur, and they are going to do that through this learning community,” Eyles said. “A student trying to start a business may be wondering how to set up the books, and there is probably someone in the network who can help them.”

Angela Groh, junior from Thornton, Iowa, majoring in marketing and political science, said she was drawn to join the EILC as a way to form relationships and get real-world examples that could help her right now and in the future. Groh already has a business of her own, which trains teenagers to teach computer skills to senior citizens and has expanded to 10 states. But, she said, there’s a lot she wants to learn before she takes the business to the next level.

“I think it was kind of a dual purpose in that I was really interested in learning some of the basics about running a small business, whether that be marketing, accounting or putting together a more organized business plan, and also meeting people with shared interests,” she said.

Groh has been involved with two other learning communities, neither of which was residential, and she has noticed benefits to one that functions around the clock. “There’s a lot of informal learning that goes on on our floor,” she said.

Dan Bratt, a senior business major originally from Idaho, says he plans to gain practical experience that he’ll use after college, possibly to start a new business in Ames. Bratt, who owns a couple of rental properties, said he looks forward to learning about business logistics one-on-one with local business people, and also making contacts that could lead to future sources of funding for his business.

“In Ames and Iowa, I see a lot of room for business growth,” he said. “I would like to be involved in developing a business around our Campus Town area, and it’s exciting to know that EILC’s seed money is available to allow me, or other people on our floor, to start a business.”

Not only is the learning community new, but so is the design of the program. In consideration of who would be involved in the EILC, the organizers decided to turn much of the planning of how the program should function over to the students. In a way, designing a “business plan” for how the EILC will work is the group’s first attempt at putting together a new venture, and will prepare them to later put together business plans and lay the groundwork for their own enterprises, Eyles said.

“Their challenge is that they are going to design the program for the future,” she said. Maybe they’ll set up an advisory board of students and community members to determine how the money is going to be used. But really, how they grow it, and when and why is yet to be determined. It may look very different a year from now.”

The university plans to help with fund-raising and getting alumni and friends of Iowa State aware of how they can help the program grow, Geoffroy said. Eyles is expecting the EILC to raise a buzz around campus and double in size next year, hopefully with more females among the new faces, to occupy an entire floor of Buchanan Hall. What happens between now and then is largely up to the students.

“This is something really unique that I feel honored to be a part of,” Groh said. “I think we are all committed to making this into a very beneficial thing for students at Iowa State now and into the future.”

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