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SUNY Cortland students will get down to business this fall when a new course devoted to entrepreneurship coaches them to think about innovative ways to stimulate the local economy.
Special Topics in Management: Entrepreneurship I, a three-credit course open to students from all majors, will be taught at Main Street SUNY Cortland, 9 Main St., beginning Aug. 30.
“It’s kind of a twofold thing,” said Kathleen Burke, an associate professor of economics who is helping coordinate and develop the elective. “On the academic side, we’ll have our students trying to develop their own business ideas using the know-how of successful local businesses and people in the community.
“Then, within the community, we’ll use the talents of our students to assist small, growing businesses.”
With help from the new Cortland Business Innovation Center slated to open in September, students in the fall course will research local establishments to determine their business needs and interests, Burke said. The long-term goal is for students to pitch their concepts — whether they’re products, services or businesses — to venture capitalists or angel investors after a second entrepreneurship course in the spring.
“The Local Business Idea Competition really shined light on some of the great ideas that our students have,” Burke said, referring to the annual spring competition that draws new business ideas from local high school and college students. “Now, with this course, we’re trying to pull out some more of those ideas.”
Matthew McNamee, a junior business economics major from Sandy, Utah, finished second in the business competition in May and signed up for the entrepreneurship course this fall. The course stood out to him because it provided the unique opportunity to “create something from scratch,” he said.
“I’ve always been interested in entrepreneurship and creating my own job and my own business,” said McNamee, who also will serve as the College’s Entrepreneurship Club president by helping local high school and college students execute their business ideas. “So when the course option came up, it was a no-brainer to pick it.”
Extracting creativity from sharp students like McNamee will involve bringing local business people into the classroom as mentors and guest speakers. The course will be taught by local businessman Brian Ward. He is president of Cortland Line Company, a leading manufacturer in fly-fishing equipment that traces its roots back to 1915.
“What I like to bring to the classroom is what I call the real world,” said Ward, a lecturer at the College for the past 10 years. “I live in it every day and sometimes it’s a little different than what you might read in a book.”
He defined entrepreneurship as the investment of a person’s ideas, time and money into a product, service or business with a viable economic upside. It’s also important for an enterprising business visionary to assume a certain amount of risk, he said.
“If you really want to be an entrepreneur, you’ve got to risk your time, you’ve got to risk your money and you’ve got to risk your ideas,” Ward said.
He plans to use three books for the course focused on the key concepts of entrepreneurship, including failure. It’s easy to focus on success stories but just as important to understand why seemingly good ideas break down, he said.
In his leadership post at Cortland Line Company, Ward sometimes receives product ideas from people looking to make it big in the fly-fishing market. Cortland Line Company, for instance, supplies products to Wal-Mart. Too often, he said, aspiring entrepreneurs submit research or ideas that are incomplete.
“People come to me with gizmos all of the time and each one is going to be the greatest,” Ward said. “Everyone has the math worked out, but there’s a fallacy of looking solely at numbers. People need to understand what their market is.”
Ward said he will teach his SUNY Cortland students the importance of research tools such as beta tests and the necessity of an effective “elevator pitch,” the ability to comfortably and clearly explain a concept in a short amount of time.
There’s some debate whether entrepreneurial skills can be taught or whether they’re innate, Ward said. He plans to teach the course with the expectation that every student can evolve into an entrepreneur.
“You can be an entrepreneur from scratch or you can bring an entrepreneurial spirit to a company,” he said. “Not everything has to be created from scratch.”
When McNamee won his second-place award in the Local Business Idea Competition, it was for an idea that improved safety through vehicle brake light brightness. Under his concept, the harder a driver stepped on a car’s brake, the brighter his or her rear lights shined, making it safer for approaching motorists.
McNamee doesn’t have an engineering background to execute the business competition idea, so he plans to come up with a new idea, he said. Whether it will take off remains to be seen. He’s confident, however, the process will provide some skills necessary in the financial sector — his dream field.
“Of all the classes I’m taking next semester, this seems like the most interesting one,” said McNamee, who pursued an internship this summer with Merrill Lynch in Garden City, N.Y. “I’m also taking calculus and physics, so this one should be the most fun.”