College of Business: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Back to School: Teaching Entrepreneurship to Local Non-profits


College of Business faculty are doling out some tough assignments this summer. Their students are pretty happy about that.

The Social Entrepreneurship Summer Institute (SESI) is a new summer program (June 8 - June 23) that provides local non-profit groups with an introduction to basic business principals taught by faculty from all three College departments, as well as outside consultants and faculty from other University colleges. Ten participating community organizations are getting exposure to the basics in accounting, finance, program planning, and management, along with other related business principles.

One goal is to help these organizations think creatively about how to fund their respective missions, said Collette Niland, an assistant dean in the College and founder of the program.

“The funding reality for community organizations is that funding sources are getting smaller and smaller and there is competition among groups for these sources,” she said. “‘No money, no mission’ is a common statement among non-profit groups.”

“Given this, one of the topics we ask the community organizations to consider is, “Can we create a for-profit venture for our non-profit organization”?  That is something typically out of their realm of thinking,” said Niland.

At a lecture on preparing a business plan for entrepreneurs, assistant professor of business administration Janet Bercovitz gave the classroom of executive director “students” a checklist for assessing their organizational readiness for thinking entrepreneurially, based on guidelines from the National Center for Entrepreneurship. She urged each participant to return to their organizations and initiate a discussion with their staff and board of directors, a critical step in tackling a business plan.  

“Before you start thinking about ideas, you need to know what tools you have in the shed,” she said. “This means looking at your culture, goals, and mission, and assessing whether you are comfortable with ambiguity, and are able to take action without yet knowing all the answers.”

In the ensuing class discussion, Bercovitz challenged the group to think hard about their own assets and core competencies. Habitat for Humanity of Champaign County executive director Eileen Gebbie shared what she believes is a core competency for her non-profit: partnerships.

“In opening our new retail store we knew it would require a steady supply of home improvement products,” Gebbie said. “We were able to draw on relationships we already have with stores and suppliers through the homebuilder side of our organization.”

Through a connected program, the Social Entrepreneur Fellows Internship program, community organizations get a boost of knowledgeable manpower from a team of summer interns. The 22 fellows participating this year have each committed an additional 60 hours of service to the organizations after the summer session is over.

Niland said one goal of the institute is simply to use intellectual capital of the University for the greater good of the surrounding community.

“We have so much to offer, but often there is not a bridge between the University and the community.  We want to take the talent we have at the University and help the local community groups put that talent into practice.  We’re hoping it will help them deal with social problems, ultimately making Champaign-Urbana a better place to live.”

Another goal is for students to walk away with a clear understanding of how vital it is to be engaged in their communities.

“We ultimately want a generation of business professionals who play a role in their community,” said Niland.  “We’re hoping this initial summer experience will help foster awareness of civic engagement and how they might be able to better serve the community they live in – now, while attending college, and later in life as well.”

Selecting community organizations for the 10 allotted slots was not easy an easy task.  “We are lucky to work with some fantastic community groups and there are so many vital social and civic causes we could have worked with,” Niland said. “One important partner for us is the United Way of Champaign County.  They helped us tweak our curriculum to help meet the community needs. We conducted research to find out what community organizations really need, rather than just what can we teach them.”

Looking forward, Niland would like to expand SESI to help organizations statewide, then ultimately reach out to other countries.  “But for now we’re focusing on our local community.  It’s a great place to start.”

UIUC College of Business