Entrepreneurship course delivers students behind the scenes at startups

When Jay Markiewicz set out to teach Introduction to Entrepreneurship, his first class at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Business, he had only two things on his mind: creating a class project that would be the best one his students completed at VCU and making sure the course was designed to set them up for future success.

The project? A seven-week gig in which the students worked in teams as consultants for area entrepreneurs and their startup companies.

“I’m guessing everybody’s going to get an A because it’s going to be their No. 1 project,” Markiewicz said at the start of the semester. “And I’m going to find out that that’s not going to be the case, but until that’s not the case, I am holding that every student is going to get an A.”

One of Markiewicz’s beliefs is that to learn to be an entrepreneur, you have to be an entrepreneur. What better way, he thought, to have students experience life as an entrepreneur than by working closely with an actual entrepreneurial startup organization?

To find businesses to participate, Markiewicz didn't need to look far. An accomplished entrepreneur himself, Markiewicz partnered with Todd Nuckols of Lighthouse Labs, an incubator for local startups that were eager to participate. In his day class, six different student teams worked with one startup. In his evening class, two growth companies each worked with three different student teams.

The incentives for the local businesses to entrust their companies to students were manyfold. Each consulting team comprised six students. Even if the students worked a mere three hours per week — although Markiewicz estimates they worked much more — that adds up to more than 120 hours of free consulting for each business. Not only did students help the companies solve some kind of problem, they also gave the companies the opportunity to gain the competency in asking for what they need.

That’s one problem Markiewicz sees often. Companies will spend $10,000 to hire a consulting team to help with a problem, be it understanding their market segment, or a website that’s not returning the hits or revenue stream needed. In the end they get what they asked for but not what they actually needed.

“A lot of companies, especially startups, don’t know what they need,” Markiewicz said. “It’s hard to know what you want. It’s the old adage, ‘I don’t know what I don’t know.’ [The students] are going to go through the process of learning how to ask for something that they need. Then, in the future, if they ever hire consultants they can rest assured that the money that they’re investing has a higher possibility of returning what they need.”

Markiewicz asked the participating companies to come up with a very clear problem statement to engage the respective consulting teams and set them up for success, and a community businessperson with business or consulting experience mentored each team.

At the end of the project, the student teams presented their recommendations to their clients and peers.

Jonathan Hill wanted help with market research for his company, Hourwise. In addition to conducting research on the company’s customer market and competition, the students also helped design, produce and execute a few marketing strategies.  

“We put together a flier campaign that tested different ways to reach contractors and they also helped with our Facebook and Google Adwords campaigns,” Hill said. “In a short amount of time the students were able to execute on a variety of tasks. Some of the marketing results showed interesting signals about what our target market responds to and what they are looking for.

“We had a great experience, and the initiative forced us to rethink some of our strategies. It was great to have to work closely with a group that wasn't familiar with our company or industry and what it takes to get quality work and understanding out of that effort.”

As an observer at the presentations, Mark M. Gambill, chairman of Cary Street Partners, whose son is CEO of one of the clients, Nudge, was impressed with the students’ grasp of their respective companies, especially given the short period of time.

“I think entrepreneurship is very much spot on … and I think Richmond has become a real hotbed of it, which is even better,” Gambill said. “And the VCU School of Business is just a perfect place for that to be brought together.”

As for his two goals at the start of the semester, Markiewicz is happy with the outcome.

He asked the class if this was the best project they have ever done at VCU. At least 80 percent of the students agreed.

“Sweet! And they didn't raise their hands because it was an easy, lax, joyride of a project,” Markiewicz said. “This project was extremely complex, with high stakes — beyond the stakes of the grade — multifaceted and multi-relationship. I feel the students had an incredible amount of personal satisfaction and sense of accomplishment. This project created a sense of engagement and challenge that raised the bar on a student's approach to their academics. They rose to the challenge. And, in rising to that challenge, realized what they could accomplish, which was something beyond what they thought possible. Learning experiences like that are rewarding.”

As for whether the project set up the students for success going forward, again, the response was overwhelmingly positive. Students commented that they have already added the experience to their resumes, learned creative problem-solving, experienced what it’s like to be an entrepreneur or learned how to work through ambiguity.

While not every student will get an A — Markiewicz expects most of the projects will earn an A or B — the consulting project will continue, thanks to the overwhelmingly positive response from the students, mentors and client organizations.


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Jeremy Rogoff of Kickup, a startup that connects teachers with thought partners and mentors within their extended community, introduces the company to Jay Markiewicz's class on the first day of the consulting project.
Jeremy Rogoff of Kickup, a startup that connects teachers with thought partners and mentors within their extended community, introduces the company to Jay Markiewicz's class on the first day of the consulting project.
On the last day of the consulting project, Jay Markiewicz addresses the participants.
On the last day of the consulting project, Jay Markiewicz addresses the participants.