Beyond the classroom Featured

12:50pm EDT May 25, 2006
The people and businesses of Northeast Ohio recognize that the region is lagging behind on many economic indicators. But while civic leaders and government organizations seem like the obvious groups to seek resolution and implement change, another player has stepped up in recent years to lend a significant hand: the region’s colleges and universities.

In hopes of revitalizing the regional economy, higher education institutes in Northeast Ohio have made great strides by branching into areas that would once have been considered nontraditional. By educating both students and area businesses about entrepreneurship and innovation, they aspire to spur the flat economic and population growth facing the region.

“If we can leverage the resources that we have here — our faculty and our students — to help solve issues that have been on the table in the region, then we are not only giving [students] the experience internally, but we’re contributing to so many of those items on the community’s agenda,” says state Sen. Eric Fingerhut, who also serves as director of Economic Development Education and Entrepreneurship at Baldwin-Wallace College.

Baldwin-Wallace College
Many universities recognize the influence they could potentially exert on the region.

“We tend to have resources available to us that just don’t exist in either the private sector, the nonprofit sector or the government sector,” says Fingerhut. “We have the ability to marshal intellectual resources and people power in a way that really no other institution can match.”

Baldwin-Wallace has been marshalling those resources for the past three years, having founded the Business Clinic in 2003 to coach area small business owners and new business entrepreneurs through the development of their business plan.

“There are a lot of resources available in the community to help business owners, but nobody was providing sort of the one-on-one hand-holding and consultative support for entrepreneurs and small business owners to develop the detailed strategies that help improve success,” says Phil Bessler, Business Clinic director and associate professor.

The program has since evolved to also offer in-depth reviews of existing plans and feasibility studies for startup business ideas. The best part, says Bessler, is that the program involves the college’s undergraduate and graduate students as consultants. Selected students are paired with Executive Volunteers — prominent area business leaders with a passion for educating students and for regional economic development — to review some 100 business plans a year.

The Business Clinic is just one of several outreach and educational programs that are part of the newly instated Center for Innovation and Growth, which was founded in March and serves as an umbrella to link the related programs.

“The aim of the center is to be not only a common location for all of these programs but a common platform that allows us to move very quickly to respond to needs that are brought up to us,” says Bessler. “In order to meet the needs of the region, ... [we knew] we ought to bring together our existent programs under a single umbrella so that we could create better synergy and make them better known to the community so they would be utilized to a greater extent.”

B-W isn’t just trying to help area businesses and entrepreneurs; it wants to create more opportunities for its students as well.

“We’re very fortunate in that, while a majority of our students — as much as 80 percent of them — come from Northeast Ohio, an equal or higher amount actually stay here in Northeast Ohio,” says Bessler. “If we can get our students better trained, better prepared not just to take jobs in the community but think about economic development, to think about growing these businesses they go to work for ... then we think we’ll be a sustaining contributor [to the region].”

Part of that involves more experiential learning and a focus on science, math and technical knowledge.

“We are seeing when we talk to business leaders that the vast majority of innovation and business growth revolves around technology that is either science or math based,” says Fingerhut. “For students to have both a science or math background and a business background makes them uniquely able to see both sides of the equation and makes them very much in demand and very much a value to the region.

“To have talent that can swing both ways — understand the science and jump in and fix something if it’s not working but also work with the spreadsheets and the marketing department and the sales side of the shop — is critical. ... We see that as a huge opportunity for students, and we intend to be even more intentional in the future about integrating their education and encouraging them to cross-major in those disciplines.”

John Carroll University
Through the Entrepreneurs Association and the Muldoon Center for Entrepreneurship, John Carroll University also has a plan to contribute to the region’s needs. But the Entrepreneur’s Association takes a different approach than that of B-W. Instead of focusing on new business, the association seeks to strengthen already successful businesses throughout the community.

“We feel that growing businesses from a point at which they’re already successful is a much stronger strategy than trying to grow businesses from scratch,” says Mark Hauserman, director of the Entrepreneurs Association. “In other words, we’re taking the bushes that are already in the greenhouse and planting them in better soil rather than trying to grow seeds.”

Hauserman says this niche is underserved, as the region’s attention is often focused on high-tech startups and riding the next big wave.

“We’re not there,” he says. “We’re interested in companies that are good, solid, $10 [million], $15 [million], $20 [million], $50 million companies who have the management experience, the business model and the capability to go to the next level.”

The organization provides programs and education on issues that its members are facing.

“We are actually looking to the entrepreneur to define for us, what are your major problems?” says Hauserman.

The association also promotes creative problem solving among peers and taps into the knowledge of retired executives through its Master’s members. These community volunteers do hands-on mentoring with businesses and students. It allows the retirees to stay plugged-in while sharing the expertise they’ve cultivated over a lifetime of business experience.

Like B-W, the other part of John Carroll’s plan involves talent development within its student population. Like many business schools, John Carroll has worked to integrate real business situations and training into the classroom, even offering a course on innovation.

Hauserman gives an example of a class that spent part of the semester rebuilding the databases of two companies who are members of the Entrepreneurs Association.

“Something real happens instead of just it being an exercise,” he says. “And you can imagine the surprise and delight of an entrepreneur when he hires somebody out of John Carroll and he says to him or her, ‘Do you know anything about databases?’ They’ll say, ‘Yeah, I know how to build them, I know how to manage them and I know how to mine them.’ That’s how the academic meets the practical.”

Kent State University
Kent State University takes its role in the region very seriously. After all, says Patricia Book, vice president for regional development, the school was one of four founded in Ohio as a regional university, meaning its original vision and mission was to serve and develop access to higher education in a particular geographic region.

With its eight branch campuses, Kent State is uniquely positioned to affect change in Northeast Ohio, which is why the university created the Office of Regional Development in 2004 to play a bigger role in fostering area growth.

In the last two years, Book has worked to create partnerships and provide training and development programs for area businesses — everything from succession and strategic planning to executive coaching.

“I’m interested to hear personally from these companies about how they’re doing, what their challenges are,” says Book. “We’re interested in identifying what types of training needs people might have that we could serve. And what I’ve found is that, in some cases (people are) surprised because they didn’t really think about the breadth of resources that they have with their universities right here in Northeast Ohio.”

The university is also looking for relationships that could provide collaborative research opportunities for faculty and students, as well as listening to what companies have to say.

“It provides us with a needs assessment about what kinds of programs we should be building,” she says. “What are the jobs going to be, and what kind of programs should we be offering ... so that when we recruit people into programs we have more confidence that they’re going to have an opportunity to get employed.”

The university also received board of trustee approval in April for a new Center for Enrepreneurship and Business Innovation through the College of Business Administration.

Its dual mission will be to provide students with a focus on entrepreneurship through experiential learning and expanded curriculum, and provide new and existing businesses with consulting services and professional development programs and workshops.

No matter how different their approaches are, many of the universities in the region share the same optimism for the future. With a renewed focus on innovation and entrepreneurship and a mission to better prepare students, these leaders see a means to reverse the “brain drain” that has plagued the region.

“We’re inextricably linked with the future of the state and the region,” says Book. “As the region is healthy, higher education is healthy. As the region fails to thrive, we fail to thrive as an institution.

“We know that we have a significant challenge to shift to being competitive in what I call the information or innovation economy. Higher education is a key ingredient to [that] economic progress.”

HOW TO REACH: Baldwin-Wallace College, www.bw.edu; John Carroll University, www.jcu.edu; Kent State University, www.kent.edu