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Entrepreneurs thrive at UNC Kenan-Flagler

Standing around table six students animatedly discuss Makeathon project

Innovation is the DNA of entrepreneurship at UNC Kenan-Flagler, where you’ll find the next generation of entrepreneurial leaders who are preparing to solve complex global challenges and have a positive impact on society.

To deliver a recipe for students’ entrepreneurial success, UNC Kenan-Flagler combines three ingredients: curriculum, hands-on programming and research.

At the heart of it all is the Entrepreneurship Center (Eship Center), established with a $1 million gift from the Kenan Family Trust in 1994. It develops students’ skills and connects them with resources that accelerate their career journeys as founders, funders, early joiners of startups and growth executives.

In launch co-working space student sits in orange chair typing on computer

Launch co-working space captured by Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill

The entrepreneurship curriculum is a big draw for students to the MBA and Undergraduate Business Programs at UNC Kenan-Flagler. The wide range of course offerings include a concentration in entrepreneurship for full-time MBA and Undergraduate Business students, the Global Entrepreneurship Lab for Evening MBA and Weekend Executive MBA students, and a variety of electives for all MBA students.

Underpinning UNC’s academic rigor is its location in the Triangle, America’s biggest research park that houses hundreds of startups, leading schools and government agencies.

“It’s a leading tech ecosystem in the U.S.,” says Ted Zoller, T.W. Lewis Clinical Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship. “And it has been on a huge upward trajectory in the past decade. We have strength in life sciences, biotech and artificial intelligence. The whole region is a test lab for entrepreneurship.”

UNC Kenan-Flagler plugs into this dynamic and interdisciplinary network, inviting top founders and innovators into classrooms for teaching and networking that lead to mentors, internships and full-time jobs.

Often, this occurs through the Startup Consulting Program or the Innovation Internships program, where MBA students gain hands-on experience working with startups that are scaling and growing.

Zoller is convinced that entrepreneurship can be taught through a mixture of experiential learning and theory, and classes reflect this along different career pathways.

Learning by doing

Students in boardroom sit around table listening to a man speak with NYC skyline views in the background

Adams Apprentices in New York City

Students benefit from a myriad of programs that meld academic rigor with hands-on learning, industry expertise and cross-disciplinary collaboration. A flagship example is the Adams Apprenticeship, an exclusive program that accelerates the most promising entrepreneurs at UNC through curricula and extracurricular leadership training. Each student builds a personal board of advisors – a lifelong network.

Student accepts check at Carolina pitch PartyAnother key program is the Carolina Challenge Pitch Party. Dozens of students from different majors compete for thousands of dollars in prizes. They pitch bold business and non-profit ideas to seasoned investors and founders. Past entries include mushroom-made leather and songs written by AI.

The event underscores the School’s approach to action learning.

“It’s learning by doing that sets us apart,” says Vickie Gibbs (MBA ’98), executive director of the Eship Center. “Instead of having their heads in books, students work with a new team, build a prototype and an elevator pitch, and learn about customer discovery and ideation.”

Makeathon Student Team

Makeathon Student Team

The Carolina Challenge Makeathon is a striking example of how the Eship Center helps them develop soft skills that are paramount to the future of work: critical thinking, emotional intelligence and problem-solving.

Students also need to be adaptable and resilient to cope with fast, frequent changes and ambiguity, as experienced during the coronavirus crisis – abilities honed through entrepreneurship. Case in point: Alex Rich (PhD ’20), an Adams Apprentice, created a data visualization tool for mapping coronavirus cases.

Every path is different

But because each entrepreneurial journey is different, the Eship Center caters to a wide variety of students, even those who don’t plan to become the next Gates or Zuckerberg. An entrepreneurial education at UNC Kenan-Flagler exposes students to new ways of thinking and paves the way for them to explore their interests and passions while picking up new skills and knowledge.

This open approach reflects the Eship Center’s commitment to diversity, which is highlighted by the addition of a staff member and intern specializing in diversity, equity and inclusion and a program for underrepresented students interested in entrepreneurship. The Eship Scholars Program provides mentorship, connections and the means needed to launch successful careers and ventures rooted in creative problem-solving and innovation.

Every budding businessperson, no matter their career path, can benefit from an “entrepreneurial mindset,” says Gibbs. It’s a pragmatic way of thinking about how to find and overcome challenges, be decisive and own outcomes.

“Every successful venture is a product of its team,” she says. “Not everyone is an idea person. We are preparing not just the founder but also the funder, the early joiner and the growth executive.”

Whitnie Low Narcisse (MBA ’16) was part of the first cohort of Adams Apprentices and took part in the Venture Capital Investment Competition. Now she’s a rising star in Silicon Valley’s venture capital scene: She leads First Round’s post-investment team.

Mining the best research

Research informs and strengthens programs and curriculum by translating world-class research by UNC Kenan-Flagler faculty into frameworks for entrepreneurship that are taught to our students, and insights that can easily be consumed by practitioners, ecosystem builders and policy makers. This includes Zoller’s “Six M Framework” or six steps to startup success: meaning (the value proposition), market (research), model (business plan), milestones (key phases), management (of people and strategy) and money (fundraising).

“The framework teaches students to see a business from every dimension, and iterate and solve problems,” says Zoller.

Groundbreaking research keeps the curriculum current. In 2019, the Eship Center launched the “Trends in Entrepreneurship Report,” which summarizes entrepreneurial trends and expert insights that expose students to key industry developments. For instance, it provides clarity over the differences between and benefits of co-working spaces, incubators and accelerators.

MBA students conduct research projects through the Kenan Scholars program – giving them skills for life in a startup, where market research and competitor analysis are crucial.

“Entrepreneurship is research intensive,” says Gibbs. “You need to find a problem, find out who is addressing it and know how to differentiate your solution.

A lifelong journey

The support does not stop at graduation. Alumni can access short courses, webinars and accelerators throughout their entrepreneurial journey. The Eship Center is launching a virtual community that connects students and alumni with experts and mentors, resources and each other for support.

Assisting students who want to start ventures is just part of the center’s work. Its commitment to helping them scale, too, is a differentiator.

“We see entrepreneurship as a lifelong journey,” says Gibbs. Many students prefer to work for a few years after graduation to pay off debt and gain experience, and then found businesses farther down the line, she says.

Alex Brandwein holding a bagel

Alex with a Brandwein’s bagel

Graduates have notched up plenty of successes. Alex Brandwein (MBA ’20), who used to work in finance, started his business while a student and going through the Adams Apprenticeship program and Launch Chapel Hill Accelerator, and will open his New York-style bagel shop in Chapel Hill in fall 2020. Doug Speight (MBA ’06), who went through the SoftLaunch Curriculum, launched a company after graduation, and then served as executive director of the American Underground co-working space development in Durham.

But don’t measure the value of an entrepreneurship program by the quantity of ventures alone, says Zoller. The benchmark for success is the impact companies have on the world.

“We are building marathon runners, not sprinters,” says Zoller. “We want people to have a lasting impact throughout their entire careers.”

6.25.2020