Students navigate the reality of startups: Through Career Paths in Entrepreneurship course
An interview with Darcy Wilborn, Client Engagement Director, i2E
University of Oklahoma Price College of Business
In fall 2014, Price College expanded the Career Paths in Entrepreneurship honors course, taught by Dean Daniel Pullin to facilitate a collaboration with Innovation to Enterprise (i2E), a private nonprofit corporation that invests in entrepreneurs to build successful high-growth companies in Oklahoma. Through the course, students are paired with local ventures to serve as interns, which creates opportunities for the students and ventures alike. Price Magazine interviewed Darcy Wilborn for her insight on this innovative program.
What is your role at i2E?
I am the client engagement director at i2E. My most important responsibility is meeting with entrepreneurs who are interested in advisory services and funding for their startup companies. I learn about their business and refer them to resources, both internal and external to i2E. My other functions at i2E include coordinating the i2E Venture Assessment Program and managing the i2E Summer Fellows program, in addition to the OU Career Paths internship we are discussing today.
How did i2E become involved in the Career Paths in Entrepreneurship course?
Dean Pullin and Scott Meacham, president and CEO of i2E, brainstormed the concept of an internship collaboration between the OU Price College of Business and i2E in spring 2014. When I came on board that summer, we put a plan together and started matching students with startup companies for the first internships to begin in September of 2014.
How many companies are involved in the program each semester?
We had eight companies participate in fall 2014 and seven companies participate in fall 2015. Some of those companies participated both semesters, so we have had a total of 12 companies participate in the program to date. The companies are all high-tech focused, ranging from sophisticated software solutions to biotech companies delivering treatment to patients in new ways.
How many students are usually paired up with each company?
We found that two-student teams are ideal for pairing with each company. Teams of two students are easier to manage, as students can collaborate and ask questions of each other before presenting their work to the company. While one student working by his or herself can be isolating, three or more students can be overwhelming to the startup company due to the scope of the project required to keep them busy.
What is the feedback you receive from participating companies?
The vast majority of the feedback we’ve received is positive. I was delighted when so many of the companies from fall 2014 wanted to participate again in fall 2015. Of course, as with any new program, we are constantly making adjustments and improving based on feedback. I have learned a lot about running a startup along the way and that has helped me make adjustments. The company founders/entrepreneurs are highly involved in each aspect of running the business, as they prepare the students to wear multiple hats on the road to success.
Is there a particular instance you can recall that exemplifies the win-win aspect of the program?
Yes, I have received feedback from both the companies and students that demonstrates how beneficial the program has been. One example is WeGoLook, a startup in Oklahoma City that does asset verification by employing an international team of “lookers.” WeGoLook utilized the students’ knowledge and enthusiasm for marketing to quickly implement a strategy that would otherwise have taken WeGoLook extra time and resources to roll out. The implementation was a success for WeGoLook. Haley Ennis, an OU entrepreneurship and marketing student who interned at WeGoLook, said “interning at WeGoLook was one of the best experiences I’ve had as an OU student.” I value the fact that the program is beneficial for both parties, with the companies receiving meaningful work from the students and the students receiving pay and valuable experience for their efforts.
Have any students continued working with a company after the course is over?
There have been three students working for two different companies who have continued the internship past the end of the Career Paths in Entrepreneurship course. I consider this a sign that the program is accomplishing what we set out to accomplish: the companies and students are both receiving benefit from the program. The continuation of the internships indicates that the companies invite the students to continue working (and pay them) after the semester ends and the students are learning and contributing enough to accept the additional work and responsibility. I’m excited to learn how these continued internships might progress into more substantial positions in the future.
Does i2E do anything similar with other colleges/universities?
At this time, this program is unique to OU. The logistics of coordinating the program are similar to the i2E Summer Fellows program, a full-time summer internship open to students across the state to work at an i2E client startup for 10 weeks over the summer. That application process is competitive with rounds of interviews and only a few students selected each summer. The part that makes the Career Paths in ENT internship experience so special is everyone in the class participates, and each team has a very different experience that they share with the rest of the class.
What is your favorite aspect of the Career Paths in Entrepreneurship collaboration?
My favorite part is the hands-on learning that the students experience during the internship. Learning in the classroom is excellent, because it provides an overview of how to solve problems and move from point A to point B, which prepare students for the internship. But learning in an internship is completely different. It’s about how to build business relationships with coworkers, bosses and stakeholders in the company to achieve a goal that may make a difference tomorrow, or next year or not at all. Students learn the most when they fail, and pairing honors students with startup companies gives them the chance to see how often startup companies will try something new and fail before they find success. I hope it empowers the students to take risks and fail when they start their own businesses.
Read the story in Price Magazine, beginning on page 12.