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What College Students Can Teach Entrepreneurs

Five ways I was recently amazed by undergrads competing in a business plan competition at Texas Christian University.
Students on the lawn of Texas Christian University.
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As I get older, I love to talk about how times have changed.  It seems like my kids are in 17 different after-school activities and when I was a kid, I just walked to my friend's house every day to shoot hoops. 

When I was in college in the early 80s, schools didn't have any undergraduate business programs, let alone an entrepreneurial program.  And an entrepreneurial program focused on values-based leadership?  No chance.

Times have changed.  I'm now 27 years into a bootstrapped business and never took a class about business or how to run one.  Today's college students are getting a much better education.  Not just about business—but the importance of having a business with social and societal impact.  And the good news is that the youth of today get the fact that a successful business means more than just making money.  They want the feelings that come with helping others, making a difference, and changing the world for the better.  They want to connect their personal values to their business values.   I just hope they stick with their convictions, and don't get caught up in a bigger-is-better mantra.

I was fortunate to be asked to judge the 2nd annual Values and Ventures business plan competition at Texas Christian University.  Teams from 30 universities around the world competed to win money to support business ventures.  I listened to presentations from five finalists.  They were:

  • An Oklahoma team developed a sanitation system for the millions of people in India who don't have access to toilets, which causes 80% of the country's disease. 
  • A group from Monterrey, Mexico harvested organic nopal cactus as a way to engage and employ the poor, rural communities in Mexico.
  • An Arizona crew made a student backpack, proceeds of which will go to fund under-financed public schools.
  •  A team from Canada created a website that will allow consumers to pick the ads they want to see, get 50% of their purchase price refunded, and sent to charity.
  • Students from Houston are looking to find a method to source products for the more than 43 million disabled Americans.

Here's what amazed me:

  • These kids, ages 18 to 21, developed business plans that were extremely well thought out and expressive.
  •  Their PowerPoint and oral presentations were better than some of the best I've seen in my own company.
  •  They had genuine passion for their ideas and executions of the concepts.
  • They were poised and confident when they got feedback.

If we can see this type of talent and potential at such a young age, I think there is hope for the world of business.  I get frustrated every day watching businesses focus on finance before customers, growth before people.   I stand on my soapbox telling them that culture creates profits.  I try to convince them there is a better way, and while some listen, I'm not always sure they hear me. 

But if these students are wired this way naturally, then at least we have hope for the next generation, in which all stakeholders will be created equally, and culture will be the driving force behind commerce.

Though they may be pursuing their education, let's not be so arrogant to think that we can't learn from them.  When it comes to what is important in business and life, there's a lot these business undergrads could teach us. 

IMAGE: Aringo/Flickr
Last updated: Apr 24, 2012

PAUL SPIEGELMAN | Columnist | CEO of BerylHealth

Paul Spiegelman is the chief culture officer at Stericycle and founder and former CEO of BerylHealth. He also co-founded the Small Giants Community with Inc. editor-at-large Bo Burlingham. You can read more at PaulSpiegelman.com.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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