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Iowa college’s Startup Semester gets students “outside of the building”

Central College students present their business model canvas worksheets in the Startup Semester class.

With the help of a group of dedicated professional mentors and educators, 15 students will continue their entrepreneurship studies at Central College through a new “Startup Semester.”

The private college, located about an hour southeast of Des Moines, has offered courses in entrepreneurship for a few years now, but this semester the professors and students are stepping even further away from textbooks and toward a real world experience.

“The most important thing is that all of the answers are found outside of the building,” said Wade Steenhoek (right), director of Central College’s entrepreneurship program. “All of the research is happening outside of the classroom, and that’s the fundamental difference in exponentially increased success.”

Over the course of the 16-week semester, students will come up with an idea, research their target market, step outside the classroom and actually launch their own business.

Beginning last fall, Central College began offering an entrepreneurship minor along with courses in social entrepreneurship, which Steenhoek believes is a step in the right direction.

“The reality is that textbooks don’t do anything to advance your knowledge about entrepreneurship and what startups really look like in the real world,” Steenhoek said.

Instead Steenhoek, who based the course on the teachings of Steve Blank, challenged the students enrolled in the Startup Semester to brainstorm a solvable every day problem and tackle their business plan the same way the founder of a true startup would. Instead of purchasing texts for the class, each student invested $100 of their own money into his or her individual project.

“I think it would be a folly to look at entrepreneurship as a class,” said StartupCity Des Moines principal Tej Dhawan (right). “It’s not something you learn, it’s something that you do.”

Dhawan, one of the course’s professional mentors, is also a Central College alum and board member. He believes that entrepreneurial innovation is necessary at a college level to help foster good business practices.

“Textbooks can only tell you what others have done whereas experiencing things yourself can give you the steps necessary to create a business from scratch,” Dhawan said.

Along with Dhawan the program has five other professional mentors, including Rick Ryan of Apertus PharmaceuticalsMike Wagner of White Rabbit ConsultingScott Bailey of In The Black – Ink Consulting and Joel Bennett of Veel Hoeden workspace.

While only one of the student groups chose to focus on a tech startup, both Steenhoek and Dhawan believe that the course could mean big things for other private colleges in Iowa when it comes to entrepreneurial innovation.

“What I’ve been looking at under the StartupIowa umbrella is a way to connect with all the private universities and identify what other colleges have or are doing and work to help each other,” Dhawan said.

Dhawan notes that Iowa’s three state universities all have similar entrepreneurial programs and hopes that efforts like those of Central College will help the community of college-age innovators continue to grow.


Credits: Startup Semester and Wade Steenhoek photo courtesy of Steenhoek. Tej Dhawan photo courtesy of Dhawan. 

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