Pursuing Passion Projects
September 01, 2020
If you work as a writer in the marketing office at almost any college or university, you’ll often find yourself peppering the copy in viewbooks and brochures with phrases such as innovation and problem-solving and creative thinking. That’s not to say that those terms are inaccurate; at Southwestern, undergraduates are truly conducting original research and designing new tools and processes. Through initiatives such as King Creativity, for example, SU Pirates have proposed and implemented improvements to everything from electric wheelchairs and local bus stops to water quality and recycling programs.
However, when much-loved business professors Andy Ross and Debika Sihi assessed the curricular landscape at SU a few years ago, they observed a gap in offerings for undergraduates who wanted to turn new business ideas into realities. “We didn’t have a good place for students with passion projects,” recalls Ross. “We might work with them individually, but unless it was an independent study, there wasn’t a way to build on that idea. We thought what we needed was a structure and an environment where we could coach and support students and keep them accountable—but also connect them to the entrepreneurial environment of Austin.”
Thus was born Southwestern’s Lab for Innovative Ventures and Entrepreneurship, or LIVE. The once-a-week, yearlong class invites students to indulge their curiosity, imagination, and penchant for combining different subject areas, such as health and business or art and technology, by developing their ideas for new ventures into full-fledged business plans that can be pitched to investors. Students must apply and be accepted to enroll. In 2019–2020, LIVE welcomed its first cohort of entrepreneurs: Madison Delmer ’21 and Mercedes Gonzalez ’21, who collaborated on a single project; Courtney King ’20; and Mike May ’20.
By developing the idea for the new class, researching similar offerings at other schools, proposing the addition to current course offerings, and successfully implementing the course, Ross and Sihi are ideal models for the very work LIVE students are doing each year. But both professors are quick to emphasize that their roles are to simply support and guide their students, providing feedback and asking questions. The inspiration and evolution of each business plan and its myriad details, from teasing out concepts to connecting with professional mentors in their fields, are to be credited to the students.
“It’s been so impressive to us to watch the development of our inaugural cohort and see how creative they’ve been,” Sihi says proudly.
Failure plays a role in innovation
As in the real world of business, LIVE allows students to grow through the learning process of productive failure. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, since the 1990s, approximately 20% of new businesses founder during their first two years, 45% during the first five years, and 65% during the first 10 years; a mere quarter of new businesses survive past 15 years or more. But as sole proprietors and corporate CEOs alike would tell you, the collapse of any enterprise often lays the groundwork for future—and more sustainable—success. The same can be said of businesses that are still in the conceptual stage, including those being developed in SU’s LIVE. “The process is just as valuable as the outcome. In fact, the business plan you end up with, even if you don’t do it, is probably more valuable,” Ross explains. “Our measure of success is not that you launch something but that you learn and get experience.”
“Our measure of success is not that you launch something but that you learn and get experience.”
King, a business major and religion minor, experienced the roller coaster of elation and disappointment when conceiving her entrepreneurial venture almost as soon as the class began meeting last fall. “I interned with a wedding planner last summer, so I came in wanting to learn about the wedding industry and to bring all these different aspects of an event together.” Her goal was to make the planning process much more efficient, finding a middle ground between websites that aggregate affordable but depersonalized services and professional wedding planners who offer expertise but at a steep cost. She originally imagined something like a skyscraper filled with various vendors, from florists and photographers to caterers and dressmakers.
“But on the first day of class, I realized that wouldn’t work,” King recalls. “I thought, I’m going to have to drop LIVE! I was devastated.”
The fatal flaw, the recent grad explains, was that she had “wanted a hierarchy: these businesses would lose their names and go under the name of Courtney King” (think Rose Apothecary from the Canadian television series Schitt’s Creek, but for weddings). However, while consulting with Sihi about that approach, King recognized that vendors would not necessarily want to give up their distinct brands. So after further discussion and thought, the business major realized that her project was more about supporting fellow business owners. “I love helping other people fulfill their dreams. What I love about commercial real estate is helping entrepreneurs find the best space to grow their businesses,” she says. Her new vision was still a one-stop shop to make it easier for couples to find and hire a full slate of wedding services, but instead of the vendors taking her name and surrendering their creative control, King would simply provide the retail space, complete with wedding-related events and activities to draw in customers.
Of course, it wasn’t all smooth sailing from there. Throughout the rest of the course, King would have days when it felt like no one understood her vision. She would wake up feeling confident about the business, only to start doubting a single element or even the entire project when family members, peers, or mentors—Southwestern alumni or other professionals whom Sihi and Ross would connect with the LIVE students—offered criticism. However, King acknowledges the tremendous value of such feedback, she says, because “even if their feedback was constructive, it was instrumental in the direction of the project and oftentimes made [us] realize the need to expand and connect with people in a completely different industry.” Those meaningful connections with mentors she describes as “outstanding” and “amazing” ultimately helped her locate potential properties, learn how to write a profit-and-loss statement, and even navigate the postgraduate job market.
“This class has definitely changed my life. It’s been a ride!”
“This class has definitely changed my life. It’s been a ride!” King reflects. She believes that one aspect of LIVE’s success stems from building students’ confidence. “Professor Ross and Dr. Sihi are very honest, and I trust them, so they would tell me if this business wasn’t a possibility. Talking to them, I knew I could do this. [They] see that vision and believe in that vision as much as I do,” she remarks. The challenges may have been significant, King admits, and she even remembers shedding tears whenever her ideas did not initially work out as planned, especially for someone as focused on outcomes as King. But the experience has been more than worthwhile. “This has been the hardest course I’ve taken at the university mentally,” she shares. “But the product is learning all these things. I don’t know how entrepreneurs do this without [a class like] this. I feel so lucky having all this guidance.”
The nontraditional entrepreneur
As a physics major, May initially doubted whether LIVE was an experience he should take on. He contemplated the possibility with Sihi and was persuaded by her invitations to attend an information session about the new entrepreneurship course, and he remembers realizing that it was something he’d really enjoy. But he wasn’t yet convinced that he had a new business idea in mind.
Ross confirms that many students have already begun hatching their ideas even before learning about LIVE because it’s something they’re already excited about. “It doesn’t have to be completely tied down, and you don’t need to know exactly how it’s going to work. And your idea is going to change so much. But it has to be something you’re intellectually curious about—something that will sustain your interest for a year,” he says. “And it should be a well-articulated problem. Starting with this shouldn’t be this way is a good way of thinking.”
Sihi agrees. “It could be an issue, a gap in the industry, or a process or policy that didn’t work that you’ve seen. Maybe you want to build a community theater, or it could be a book you want to publish,” she remarks. “We’re not picky. But having a passion about the issue has to be clear.”
Having heard their advice at the information session in spring 2019, May mulled over potential problems he wanted to solve. On the bus ride to a basketball game, it came to him: S2S, or Science to Students. “I started from the realization that physics in high school can be pretty boring and not a lot of people get invested in it. Students don’t get to take control of their own learning because it’s a lot of lecture,” he remembers. “So I thought, How can we integrate university-level experimentation with a high-school curriculum that’s bound to standardized exams?” Given the relatively little funding provided to U.S. high schools to purchase lab equipment that would enable STEM students to conduct experiments, engage in research, and apply textbook learning to hands-on experience, May proposed a business plan in which he would partner with schools or school districts and bring in equipment for one-week lab projects, such as telescopes. The high-school science students would get to immerse themselves in the applied laboratory experience, practice their analytical skills, and make links to other subject areas, such as history, math, or economics. At the end of the week, the students would present their findings to the rest of the class and receive feedback. “That way, students are very invested, teachers can implement new teaching styles, it’s an economical model for the district, and it’s profitable for us,” May explains.
During the first semester of LIVE, May, like his classmates, completed extensive market research to determine how viable and competitive his idea would be. Second semester was devoted to building the business plan itself, including recruiting employees, marketing the venture to investors and clients, and strategizing how to scale the business. “You really learn how to integrate all the things that are needed to start a business,” he reflects. “It’s amazing how far you go in just seven months. Last year, when I applied, I just had a problem and a desire to find a solution, and it’s gone from idea to actual legitimate business proposal. It’s a really cool, very beneficial experience.”
“It’s amazing how far you go in just seven months. Last year, when I applied, I just had a problem and a desire to find a solution, and it’s gone from idea to actual legitimate business proposal. It’s a really cool, very beneficial experience.”
During an information session this past March to recruit the 2020–2021 LIVE cohort, Sihi asked May whether participating in the course helped the senior stand out while interviewing for doctoral programs in engineering. May replied with an enormous grin and without hesitation, “Absofreakinglutely! When applying to internships, grad schools, and jobs, it makes you an attractive candidate outside of academics. It’s a differentiator. It shows that you’re self-motivated and you can think critically in different disciplines. It’s always come up in my interviews, and [the interviewers] would always say, ‘We haven’t had many applications like this.’”
May believes that LIVE benefited him not just by honing his analytical skills but also by developing his business acumen. “I really think that after I graduate with a Ph.D., this [business] is something I could pursue,” he shares. “And maybe it won’t be this specific idea, but I have the tools and skills and connections I made to see a solution to a problem in the world. I can now take my classes at Dartmouth and think like an entrepreneur. I’m able to see the world in a completely new way. Southwestern does a wonderful job of giving you different lenses through which you can see the world, and LIVE gave me one of those lenses.”
The alchemy of positive and negative feedback
This year’s LIVE students will tell you that their business ideas were incubated with the helpful insights of their professors and their classmates. For instance, as King was revising her business plan, she decided to add an element to improve communication among vendors for each couple’s special event: a day-of coordinator. It was an idea she had floated during discussion with Delmer, Gonzalez, and May. But she also appreciates that her cohortmates were there to provide thoughtful responses to the criticisms she received. “It’s very lonely sometimes, especially when you get that negative feedback,” she remarks. “But then I’d go to class and they’d be like, ‘It’s not really that bad.’” For King, having that perspective provided a crucial balance that helped her better discern how to make the most of the critiques she was receiving—and to maintain that sense of tenacity and resilience that are crucial in any risk-taking enterprise.
May agrees, adding that the course taught him how to humbly receive and implement constructive feedback from his professors and peers. He believes that separating yourself from your work is an important mindset whether you’re enrolled in a college course, building a business, or receiving constructive criticism on the job. “You immediately think, They must not like me because I put a lot of myself into that,” he says. “But it’s really important to not have your identity fully rooted in your project or idea. It’s not them coming at you; it’s them thinking about what leads to a better project.”
In addition to learning how to graciously accept criticism, May values having input from students representing different majors with different business ideas, which was a boon to all three projects. As an event planner, for example, King could help him better understand the logistics of setting up lab equipment in different schools. “Each idea [generates] specific feedback that supplements the others,” he notes. “It’s pretty cool to see.” King seconds May’s observation. “The only reason it’s been as beneficial as it has been is Mike gives me advice, and I give feedback to Mercedes and Madison, and they give us theirs. I’m a very competitive person, but you have to be kind and empathetic. You become so close with your cohort.”
Sihi, too, loves those moments of collaborative thinking and mutual encouragement. “It’s one of my favorite parts of my week!” she says excitedly. “My heart explodes because they’re all so smart and thoughtful and good and supportive.”
During the March information session for the second LIVE cohort, Ross confirmed that the course is as exciting for the professors as it is for the students. “It’s fun for us, too. The ideation part is super fun, and it’s fun to be partners,” he remarked. He paused and added quickly, “But we don’t take any equity in your idea!” Then, he looked at the inaugural LIVE cohort and the prospective students with an impish grin. “But once you’re rich and successful,” he laughed, “you’ll be invited to lots of university events where we’ll ask for your money!”