Elena Cahill is Senior Lecturer, Entrepreneurship, at the Ernest C. Trefz School of Business at the University of Bridgeport. Innovation Destination Hartford spoke with Cahill about her role at the Student Entrepreneur Center and the ways in which entrepreneurship is supported throughout the school.
IDH: When did you become involved with the University of Bridgeport?
CAHILL: About 11 years ago I was asked to be an adjunct professor. I started in business law and then I expanded out to the entrepreneurship and the business planning courses.
IDH: How did the idea for the Student Entrepreneur Center come to fruition?
CAHILL: At one point I thought: Here we are educating students who have to develop a business plan at the end of the course. They were very excited and motivated and some were happy with their products, but they had nowhere to go for help if they really wanted to bring it to market. That was the evolution of my idea to create a Student Entrepreneur Center—to provide support for students who wanted to bring their business idea to market.
IDH: So how did you get the Student Entrepreneur Center up and running?
CAHILL: University of Bridgeport Dean Lloyd Gibson is awesome. I approached him and explained: We are educating students and we’re having them enter a business plan competition, but then when it’s over, it’s sort of over and we really need to continue to provide support. Dean Gibson let me create a business plan for the Student Entrepreneur Center. I got to bring the plan to University President Neil Albert Salonen, who then brought my business plan to trustee members to help with financing. They financed me to start the Student Entrepreneur Center on our campus.
IDH: What types of students benefit from the Student Entrepreneur Center?
CAHILL: Any matriculated student at the University can come to the Student Entrepreneur Center, they don’t have to be from the Business School. In fact, they are primarily not from there.
IDH: What type of resources does the Student Entrepreneur Center provide?
CAHILL: We start by helping students come up with properly formed ideation—the Student Entrepreneur Center provides a safe environment to work through the ideation. We call those “businesses in training,” where students enter with an idea but they’re not really ready to go to market. The students go through the ideation and business model canvas part, and then, when they’re ready to convert and they’re solid on their idea, we convert them into what we call a “business.” From there, we help them economically in terms of paying the legal entity startup fees or any Direct Registration System (DRS) fees so they become a properly formed entity and can go out for financing.
IDH: What types of businesses are the students developing?
CAHILL: We have a little of everything, I can’t categorize it into one specific sector. For example, we have a student who created a wind product that you put on top of your sunroof, we have a sustainable tourism business, and we have a Chinese student who created a website to help other Chinese students who want to get educated here in the states with applications for universities. We also have several naturopaths and chiropractors coming up with a few business ideas, some are physical products and a few are service-oriented.
IDH: In what other ways is the University of Bridgeport supporting aspiring student entrepreneurs?
CAHILL: Initially, the University of Bridgeport didn’t really have an entrepreneur department. Before we launched the Student Entrepreneur Center we started with two things: we created a minor in entrepreneurship and a concentration in entrepreneurship in the Master’s program.
The entrepreneurship minor is for non-business students, so it’s for students who don’t want to join the Student Entrepreneur Center but think they may be interested in entrepreneurship. The minor is predicated on the idea that there are usually a lot of prerequisites in the finance and math sector, because that would discourage students coming from some of the other schools. A lot of students don’t want to start with managerial accounting, so we created this entrepreneurship minor for non-business students to help the university community as a whole.
Creating a concentration in entrepreneurship in the Master’s program led to having to write a few courses, because as we went through what was available we realized there were some gaps that would fundamentally be needed in entrepreneurship. So we wrote a few courses and we pulled some courses in from other schools. It wasn’t a tremendous amount of work, but we needed to find and fill the holes and determine how to systematically help students get ready to go to market.
We really analyzed what the school had available and what the needs were—we’re still doing that. It’s not a finished process.
IDH: And when did the entrepreneurship minor and concentration all roll out?
CAHILL: We launched the Student Entrepreneur Center in August, so the fall semester of 2015. The entrepreneur as a minor was launched in January 2016, this semester. We will be launching the MBA concentration in entrepreneurship at the end of fall semester.
IDH: Have a lot of students enrolled in the programs?
CAHILL: Our first semester was sort of overwhelming at the Student Entrepreneur Center. In our business plan we thought maybe if we got 12 interested students by December that would be a good projection. We had 55 by November, which was a lot more than we expected.
We had to close enrollment for the Student Entrepreneur Center until the fall semester again because, out of the students who have submitted business plans, we probably have 23 viable, vetted entities going forward and we think that’s enough to carry us through May. We have a waiting list now for the fall.
IDH: That’s exciting.
CAHILL: It’s definitely very cool and, like I said, somewhat overwhelming. But we learned from it. We realized the students came from every school at the University of Bridgeport, so there’s definitely a demand regarding entrepreneurship education no matter what the major. And we haven’t even met the demand yet.
Everything requires a bit of tailoring depending on where the students are coming from, because we have to think about the prerequisites and the goals that we’re setting for success. We don’t want anyone coming in and getting frustrated—we don’t want them to think that they are failing at entrepreneurship.
The entrepreneurship as a minor has gotten a lot of attention. I’m amazed that we already have enrollment. I’m not sure about the MBA in entrepreneurship because we haven’t actually started it yet. My guess is that we will see a good launch on that.
One more thing we do that’s really of cool involves schools throughout the state of Connecticut. A year ago January, we collaborated to create a pilot entrepreneurship program, which is a three-credit business planning course.
At the time, there were seven universities involved. We just completed the second pilot entrepreneur course with 120 students from schools, including the University of Bridgeport, Central Connecticut State University, Quinnipiac University, Sacred Heart University, Gateway Community College, Western Connecticut State University, Albertus Magnus College, Southern Connecticut State University. We’re getting to know each other in terms of the entrepreneur educators’ realm.
The responses from the students has been that it was a great experience. So this tells us there is an interest in entrepreneurship in all of the institutions, not just the University of Bridgeport.
IDH: What do you enjoy most about working with entrepreneurial students?
CAHILL: I like when we’re past ideation and into the nuts and bolts. I hired five entrepreneurs-in-residence and outside business people to help students. One or two just love the ideation and working through the ideas. For me, it’s probably not what I love the most. I like seeing something materialize and the energy around the students to make that happen.