Editor’s note: The following letter was submitted to Startland News by Ben Williams, assistant director of the Regnier Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. The letter is in response to Startland Community Builder Adam Arredondo’s open letter to area universities on their engagement with the entrepreneurial community.
I’ve spent a lot of time working with many people all over Kansas City in the last few years.
I moved to Kansas City in 2013 and immediately got involved with the entrepreneurial community and UMKC.
It’s been an eye-opening, roller coaster of a learning experience which has driven me to think extensively about education and entrepreneurship in Kansas City, and, ultimately, has led me to write this response to you. My passion is working with students, and any criticisms I may have are because I want the best for my adopted home.
There is a wild misunderstanding of what universities do. Even the idea that “universities” do one thing is mistaken. Universities and colleges are as diverse as “businesses.” They each have their own mission. I work at UMKC, where the mission statement reads: “UMKC’s mission is to lead in life and health sciences; to deepen and expand strength in the visual and performing arts; to develop a professional workforce and collaborate in urban issues and education; and to create a vibrant learning and campus life experience.”
The Rockhurst mission statement reads: “Rockhurst University exists to transform lives by creating a learning community centered on excellence in undergraduate liberal education and graduate education. Rockhurst is Catholic and Jesuit, involved in the life and growth of the city and the region, and committed to the service of the contemporary world.”
William Jewell College’s mission: “William Jewell College promises students an outstanding liberal arts education that cultivates leadership, service, and spiritual growth within a community inspired by Christian ideals and committed to open, rigorous intellectual pursuits.”
Universities have varied missions, but they are generally focused on the growth of their students. We’re not performing miracles and we don’t claim to create the finished product. We just hope to make each student a better, more productive member of society. Each student picks a major and determines a level of commitment. We certainly try to teach each student how to fish, but we aren’t forcing them to go fishing right away or expecting them to all become fishing moguls.
You’ll notice that none of these mission statements include things like “entrepreneurship,” “business creation,” or “market disruption.” But I think our local universities are doing a tremendous job to promote entrepreneurship, produce innovative graduates, and, what is often forgotten, add to the knowledge base surrounding entrepreneurship.
While UMKC’s mission statement doesn’t mention entrepreneurship, the vision of the university is to “become a model urban research university characterized by signature graduate and professional programs, a dynamic undergraduate population, a highly diverse faculty, staff and student body, and active engagement with its city and region.”
Research is an often forgotten component of universities, but this is one of the greatest benefits a university offers. Our faculty not only passes on knowledge to our students, it is actively exploring, examining and discovering new knowledge that is helping to shape our understanding of disciplined entrepreneurship. This work isn’t sexy and it doesn’t make for great presentations over coffee or beer. It is the dirty work that allows us to create knowledge that spurs the successful programs and enlightens the students on our campuses.
This research requires investigation, analysis and peer review. It requires math that is beyond my understanding but, luckily, I am not a researcher. UMKC has a Department of Global Entrepreneurship and the Regnier Institute of Entrepreneurship and Innovation that work so closely together it is impossible to separate one from the other. Combined, we have 10 full-time faculty members right now and all but four are focused on research.
This means that three other people and I must deliver the majority of the programs we offer outside of the classroom (which I think we are most concerned with here). We offer a monthly speaker series that features the top Kansas City entrepreneurs and brings in around 200 students and community members. We host an annual Career Accelerator that allows KC startups and entrepreneurial companies to meet the amazing students we have all over the UMKC campus. We facilitate student groups like our Collegiate Entrepreneurs Organization that worked with Rockhurst and William Jewell students to create One Day KC. Our UMKC Enactus team is comprised of 80 students from pharmacy majors to engineers to entrepreneurship students that create entrepreneurial solutions to community needs. This group has done everything from flying to China to promote KC business and support a trade agreement to teaching almost 400 Kansas City high school students all of the personal finance skills the rest of us wish we had had at that age.
Additionally, we offer excellent programs to directly support entrepreneurs. We have recently started a Hatchery to incubate UMKC student ventures, which we hope will become a flagship program. Over its first five years, the E-Scholars program has helped form dozens of new companies, including Blumoo, Integrated Roadways, The Soccer Lot, Royal Loyal, Mobility Designed, EB Systems, RFP365, Patients Voices, Informed Health Solutions and many others. We even have an incubation program that provides office space and support to young businesses
We also have competitions like our Roo Idea Jump and the Venture Creation Challenge that provide financing and other prizes to business ideas at various stages. This is all before we even begin to talk about UMKC’s Innovation Center that houses KCSourceLink, Whiteboard to Boardroom, Digital Sandbox, and many other programs. What Maria Meyers, Jeff Shackelford, Jim Baxendale, and everyone else at UMKC’s Innovation Center are doing for entrepreneurship in our region is unparalleled.
My classes, like all the rest, evolve as our understanding of our discipline evolves. We all teach iterative processes, design thinking and customer development. We use things like “Lean Methodologies” and the “Business Model Canvas.”
We encourage our students to go to 1 Million Cups and we take them on field trips to Sprint Accelerator, Think Big Partners and the Kansas City Startup Village. We even invite local guest speakers like Chris Costello from Blooom, Chris Parrot at Neighbor.ly, Bek Abdoulayev at My Super Dispatch, and Christian Fisher at Modern Coalition. Even you, Adam, have spoken in my class many times.
In fact, we have had interns placed at Neighbor.ly and My Super Dispatch. Blooom and Modern Coalition have each hired multiple UMKC grads and current students. Even the 1 Million Cups organizer ranks boast recent UMKC entrepreneurship grad, Zach Pettet, and E-Scholar alum Brittain Kovac.
I could go on and on, and not just about UMKC. If you don’t know what Landon Young is doing up at William Jewel, you’re missing out. They have some fantastic entrepreneurial students (shout out to Bradley Dice, who is surely going to change the world). Rockhurst has been churning out great students for years and is taking on entrepreneurship in their own ways. Recent Rockhurst grad, Sarah Jones, helped create One Day KC and is now making an impact in local politics.
Does this mean things can’t be better? No, but take it from me, trying to promote entrepreneurship within any university is like banging your head against a wall held up by layers of bureaucracy backed by tax payer dollars. It’s tough. We’re tired, but we’re still creating tremendous opportunities and I’m proud of what we are accomplishing, even if you don’t hear about all of it or get to meet each of our graduates.
The real question is: how do you support it?
Will you be at our Career Accelerator on the 26th to help steer our students to great local startups? Will you encourage others to be there? Will you become one of the more than 100 mentors that support the E-Scholars program and UMKC students? Will you help encourage the next generation of high school grads to stick around and join one of the local universities creating great entrepreneurial students? Will you support One Day KC, an event organized by local college students and supported by Rockhurst, William Jewell, and UMKC?
We, as educators, are limited in our time and our resources. We need community support and we need community members to reach out to us. Kansas City should be proud of the level of entrepreneurship education available in our region.
It is genuinely one of the top ecosystems in the world for young entrepreneurs.
Ben Williams is the assistant director of the Regnier Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Follow him on Twitter at @.