Passion Projects

Educators at the University of North Carolina, the University of Iowa, and Pan-Atlantic University follow their entrepreneurial instincts to inspire students and solve real-world problems.
Passion Projects

Sometimes innovation on campus can come from small realizations. One professor might notice that something’s missing from students’ experiences. Another might see an opportunity to share ideas with other faculty with the same goals. Still another might see a need in the community that a new course, project, or change in mindset could effectively address. The question is, will they simply make the observation and move on? Or will they take action to make something happen?

The stories below describe how three professors found projects they believed in, jumping into uncharted waters to create something that didn’t exist at their schools before. Becoming academic entrepreneurs presented big challenges, they say, but the payoffs—to their students, their schools, their communities, and themselves—were worth the effort. Some of the best educational innovations can happen when academics simply follow where their enthusiasm leads.

GRASSROOTS INNOVATION

X-Culture
Vasyl Taras, Bryan School of Business and Economics University of North Carolina at Greensboro

In early 2010, as Vasyl Taras searched for a new international business textbook for his course, he noticed that all 17 textbooks he evaluated covered the same concepts and followed the same chapter order. Only the exercises, examples, and statistics differed.

“That’s when it occurred to me,” says Taras, a professor of business administration. “If all faculty teaching international business use more or less the same textbook, maybe I could find professors in different countries who would team their students up with mine on a real-world virtual team consulting project.”

Taras posted a message on the listserv of the Academy of International Business (AIB) to ask if any other professors were interested in the idea. Within the hour, he says, he had received dozens of messages that said, “Yes, let’s do it.”

That was the origin of “X-Culture,” a ten-week project that teams students from universities worldwide to consult on international business projects for companies. In its first offering in 2010, X-Culture brought together 500 students from seven countries on team projects. Since then, X-Culture has grown to include nearly 100 professors at 90 institutions in 44 countries, and it enrolls nearly 3,000 students who represent 100 nationalities of origin.

Throughout its evolution, X-Culture has kept to its startup roots, supported by only a handful of small grants of a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. The money comes from UNCG, other participating schools, and educational nonprofits. Taras thinks a lack of funding actually might be a blessing in disguise, because it ensures that the people involved are truly committed to the project. “We believe in what we do, not because we have the cash to spend, but because we feel that it’s important,” says Taras. “If I had more money, it wouldn’t be the same. It would feel more like a job.”

REAL-WORLD CHALLENGES

For the first X-Culture projects, student teams wrote business plans for a hypothetical company. But word got out, and by 2012 Taras began getting calls from companies asking if students could analyze their own international business challenges. Today, student teams can choose to work on one of the 12 projects faculty have selected from those that companies submit. Or, they can select projects from different companies altogether, as long as at least one team member has a contact at the company and all team members agree to the choice. Of 500 student teams, about 100 choose their own projects.

Last spring, for example, X-Culture teams worked on projects from a video arcade game company in India that wanted to expand into Europe and North America, a children’s clothing company in Spain that was looking for franchising opportunities in other countries, and a consulting company and a peer-to-peer evaluation systems company in the United States that both aimed to expand beyond North America.

At the end of the ten weeks, faculty choose the most promising team projects based on criteria such as the novelty and economic feasibility of their ideas. About 100 students on the best teams are invited on a ten-day trip to an international city. While there, they visit a company whose project many have worked on and have face-to-face meetings with executives. Not all students who are invited can attend, either because they cannot obtain visas or they cannot afford the trip. The AIB provides stipends to help defray travel expenses.

One year, students traveled to Atlanta, Georgia, to visit Home Depot’s headquarters and present their ideas for improving the company’s website to the CEO and CFO of its online division. The executives chose a team that recommended improving the aesthetics of online user account pages and adding reminders to buy products like light bulbs and air filters. Another year, teams met executives at Daimler AG’s Mercedes- Benz bus and truck manufacturing plant in Istanbul, Turkey. The company had asked students to recommend ideas for designing a truck marketable in developing countries. Instead, the winning team recommended that the company create a social network to allow truck drivers to connect via onboard computers. That shows just how creative the students can be, says Taras. “This team’s solution wasn’t what the company asked for,” he says, “but executives still chose it as the winner.”

Although most X-Culture projects come from large companies, Taras recently included a project from a small bike shop in Greensboro that wanted to market its used bike recycling services beyond North America. Although he feared that no student teams would choose to work on a project from such a small operation, nearly 200 chose the bike shop.

“At first, it was a disaster!” says Taras. “The bike shop had students calling every five minutes, and we were getting calls from Mercedes-Benz and Home Depot asking why their projects weren’t more popular.” Now that Taras knows students are interested in small business projects, he plans to include more such dilemmas in the future, as well as those from nonprofits and the arts.

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

It’s a huge task to run X-Culture each semester, but Taras receives administrative support from the Bryan School, from the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, and from participating professors who volunteer to help as needed.

One of Taras’ biggest challenges is scheduling, because different schools follow different academic calendars. Students at schools whose semesters start latest—such as those in Europe and Australia—begin working on their projects on their first day of class. Students at schools whose semesters end earliest—such as those in the U.S.—end their projects on their last day of class. That means that American students spend the first few weeks preparing for the project, but their semester ends before they have time to give final presentations; German students jump into the project immediately, but have time for final presentations in their last weeks.

Throughout the semester, Taras monitors the performance of the teams and collects the data they submit. He sends all professors weekly records of their students’ performance and peer evaluations.

Whenever possible, X-Culture faculty meet in person at AIB conferences to coordinate their efforts and discuss grading rubrics. Taras sets only one grading requirement that all participating faculty must follow—team projects and peer evaluations each must count for at least 20 percent of students’ final grades. “Other than that, we leave grading up to the professors,” says Taras. In this way, X-Culture creates an environment much like a real-world globally distributed workplace, says Taras, where people can come from different subsidiaries and companies, and so, are evaluated and compensated differently.

MASSIVE OPEN ONLINE TEAMS

Taras had initially designed the project for undergraduate international business courses, but the project now attracts undergraduates and MBA students in equal numbers, as well as students in other disciplines such as psychology and engineering. The fastestgrowing segment in X-Culture now comprises EMBA students and full-time employees seeking international experience.

Before the semester begins, Taras receives enrollments from participating faculty and creates teams of five to seven students each. As much as possible, he tries to ensure that each student on a team comes from a different school and country. However, while the diversity of each team is a priority, he has found that the project works best when undergraduates are teamed with undergraduates, MBAs with MBAs, and executives with executives. The reason? Differences in attitude can magnify problems that naturally arise on virtual teams, overwhelming the project’s learning goals.

“It’s not that undergraduates aren’t as skilled as MBAs,” emphasizes Taras. “It’s that, when we’ve tried mixing teams by experience level, the MBAs blame problems on the undergraduates because they think the undergrads are irresponsible or unskilled, and the undergraduates blame the MBAs for being too bossy. By keeping them separate, we don’t have that extra level of diversity but the quality of the experience is still the same. Everybody is happier.”

TECHNICAL DIFFERENCES

Taras uses free online tools for X-Culture to ensure that all students can access the platforms even after they finish their projects. However, at the same time students are grappling with different time zones and cultural barriers, they also must overcome any differences in technological capabilities among their team members. Students in Ghana, for example, may not own a computer or tablet, so they must schedule time to use computers at a local library. Students in China or Iran may not have access to Facebook because of government censorship.

Before the project begins, each student receives a 100-page PDF that discusses these issues and includes instructions for using tools such as Google Translate, Google Docs, Dropbox, Skype, and Face- Time. Students can opt to use as many or as few collaboration tools as they wish. Some teams might purchase access to a conferencing tool such as GoToMeeting; others might rely only on email.

Before students can participate in the project, they must pass a one-hour online readiness test that measures factors such as English skills and technological literacy. Each year, about 300 students either fail the test or do not take it. In these cases, individual faculty members must provide an optout alternative, such as a research paper or local project.

MORE THAN LEARNING

X-Culture also has become a vibrant platform for research. Using data they’ve collected in the course, faculty have published several papers, with nearly a dozen more under review, that explore the roles of factors such as cultural intelligence and interpersonal interactions in improving virtual team performance. Several now are writing a textbook on how to use experiential learning in international business education. (See the results of one study in “Getting from Shirk to Work” on page 58.) In September, Taras won a US$75,000 grant from the Society of Human Resource Management to support the X-Culture team’s research for the next two years.

With X-Culture now entering its ninth semester, Taras plans to expand the project in several ways. He wants to create Frenchand Spanish-language tracks for the course—currently X-Culture is delivered only in English. He also would like to invite more student teams to meet with companies face-to-face, possibly by soliciting more stipends from AIB and sponsoring companies.

student teams vie for actual contracts. “If a team writes a winning marketing strategy for a game station company, we’d like that team to have the opportunity to find clients, sell that machine in the chosen market, and earn a commission,” says Taras. “Real clients, real problems, real contracts—that’s our ultimate goal.”

To learn more about X-Culture, X-Culture faculty research, or ways to participate, visit www.x-culture.org.

INSPIRING SOCIAL SOLUTIONS

Impact Investing
Henrietta Onwuegbuzie Lagos Business School Pan-Atlantic University in Nigeria

The proliferation of profitable social enterprises is of utmost importance the world over, but perhaps nowhere is it as crucial as in Sub-Saharan African countries. That’s the push behind Impact Investing, part of the entrepreneurship program at Lagos Business School. Taught for the last two years by Henrietta Onwuegbuzie, lead faculty of entrepreneurship, Impact Investing sessions teach MBA students to create profitable businesses with a sustainable social and environmental impact.

Her goal is to do more than teach students about social enterprise. “I want my students to understand that doing good is compatible with doing well financially,” says Onwuegbuzie. “I also want them to realize that they can start a business with little or no capital and work gradually toward their vision.”

At the start of the semester, Onwuegbuzie provides each student with seed capital of N5,000, the equivalent of US$30, to build businesses that create value, make a sustainable social impact, and earn a profit. In the course’s first run, the students created 12 businesses, including a fashion swap, a tutoring service for high school students, and a company that recycled and refurbished computers, five of which were donated to schools or awarded to deserving students. All made a profit—some did so without even using their seed capital.

Student Oluwagbemileke Otun created “10 for 10 Accessories,” an enterprise that aimed to address childhood malnourishment by feeding ten poor children for every N10,000 customers spent on pieces of costume jewelry. She sourced jewelry from a friend and sold it on a website she built herself. The market response was overwhelming, says Onwuegbuzie. Once Otun communicated the goal of her business, customers not only purchased items, but some also donated money and offered to invest in the business. In 11 weeks, Otun’s revenues reached more than $10,000; her company made a profit, even after feeding 1,500 children and providing them with books to “feed their minds,” as Otun put it.

Another student, Uka Osaigbovo, created an online platform selling furniture made by roadside furniture makers. Osaigbovo wanted to provide these artisans with access to larger markets, so they could increase their sales and pull themselves out of poverty. The furniture has been so popular that Osaigbovo was able to obtain a franchise agreement from Alibert, an Italian-based furniture company. His website at www.domestico.com.ng now features furniture from roadside artisans and other sources.

Onwuegbuzie believes that programs such as Impact Investing not only can develop responsible leaders, but also can help eradicate one of the world’s largest social ills: terrorism. As the divide between rich and poor grows larger, the poorest often resort to terrorist activity to empower themselves. By showing students that they can build profitable social enterprises, “we can begin to bridge this gap and build a safer society,” says Onwuegbuzie.

As Osaigbovo and Otun note, businesses must realize that their stakeholders aren’t just investors and customers, but also society and the environment. “It’s very important for all entrepreneurs to know that your business cannot live in isolation from the society that you’re in,” says Otun. “If the society is not at peace, your business cannot be at peace.”

To see a video about students’ Impact Investing projects, visit tinyurl.com/ovbosnn.

ENGAGED WITH THE WORLD

Life Design Class
David Gould, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences University of Iowa in Iowa City

David Gould’s academic career path took a different turn when, in 2009, an associate dean asked him what could be done about the school’s dipping undergraduate retention rates. Gould, then the college’s associate director, thought he knew what might be a contributing factor. He had seen too many students choose “sensible” majors that supposedly would lead to jobs with lucrative salaries, rather than follow their hearts into disciplines that society deemed too impractical to sustain lifelong careers.

“If I asked students what they were really passionate about, they didn’t have an answer,” says Gould. “If students want to study art, literature, anthropology, or psychology, but they’re majoring in computer science or pre-med, that’s not a happy place.” That unhappiness led many students to feel bored, disillusioned, or lost— some simply dropped out of school altogether.

In 2010, Gould created his Life Design Class to help students make better choices for their futures. A kind of introspective laboratory where students identify their passions and discover paths to life-sustaining careers, Life Design meets twice a week and includes inspirational readings and reflective writing assignments on students’ core aspirations. While the onecredit course counts toward graduation, it does not count toward any major.

“My colleagues very caringly told me that ‘learning for learning’s sake’ was low on students’ priority lists,” says Gould. “They thought the course was destined for failure.” Instead, Gould had 150 students register for the course’s first offering. That number quickly doubled, and Gould had to create a long waiting list. Students signed up, he says, “because they saw intrinsic value in it.”

UNEXPECTED PARTNERSHIP

As he prepared to offer the Life Design Class in the summer of 2010, Gould also was conducting an online book club for past students, in which they read and discussed books by authors such as Daniel Pink, Seth Godin, and Malcolm Gladwell. Among the titles Gould included was the justreleased Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose by Tony Hsieh, CEO of online retailer Zappos.com. On a whim, Gould wrote Hsieh to ask for a phone interview.

Hsieh didn’t just agree to a phone interview—he agreed to be interviewed in front of Gould’s class. After that visit, Gould began inviting everyone from McArthur Genius Grant recipients to actor Ashton Kutcher to give motivational talks to the class. Soon, students were coming to Gould’s office to let him know they’d chosen majors they loved and found mentors. “But there would be a pause, and then they’d say, ‘I’m graduating in a few weeks, and I don’t know what’s next in the playbook,’” says Gould. With the country just emerging from the recession, these students were carrying heavy loads of student loan debt and had few job prospects.

“The scariest part was that they actually thought I had a playbook,” says Gould. He realized that it wasn’t enough for students to simply find their passions. If they didn’t know how to turn those passions into fulfilling careers, then he hadn’t solved the problem.

In 2012, Gould proposed another experiential—and experimental— class to his dean. He wanted to create an interdisciplinary team of students, from finance majors to dance majors, to work on social problems—and he immediately wondered if Hsieh might have a project for his students. Since his visit to Gould’s class, Hsieh had invested US$350 million to purchase 19 blocks of Las Vegas’ struggling and forgotten downtown district, located miles away from the famed Las Vegas Strip. In what he called the “Downtown Project,” Hsieh had moved the company’s headquarters from Henderson, Nevada, to the old city hall building in the heart of downtown, in spite of the neighborhood’s high crime rates. He also had hired individuals to support the project and granted small business loans to entrepreneurs who opened new businesses in the area. Believing that college students could bring new perspectives to the project, Hsieh gave Gould $50,000 to create “Reimagining Downtown,” a course offered in the spring of 2013.

The 14 students who enrolled in Gould’s “Reimagining” class spent the first eight weeks of the semester studying the challenges facing downtown Las Vegas; then they collectively chose to launch Sugarcoat, a venture that makes healthy desserts from organic ingredients such as kale, honey, and carrots. The students continued to work on the business model for the second half of the semester and through the summer. Two students, Chelsea Gaylord and Kelsey Hastings, relocated to Las Vegas after graduation and continue to manage Sugarcoat’s operations today.

Hsieh then offered Gould a salary and living accommodations, so that Gould could temporarily relocate to Las Vegas to meet with business owners and residents. At the same time, Gould transitioned from his role as associate director of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences to become the Obermann Public Scholar for the University of Iowa. In this position, he says, he has “one foot in academia and one foot in social entrepreneurship.”

SUDDEN TURN OF EVENTS

Gould spent more than a year in Las Vegas, discovering both how a city can collectively learn and evolve, as well as how higher education can be improved. Soon, he extended his “Reimagining Downtown” project to other schools. For instance, this year a group of Harvard MBAs came to Las Vegas and met 40 community leaders; they then created a pilot program that mentors small business owners and provides them with a studentdesigned business curriculum, delivered via Skype and social media. Gould also worked with a student team from Babson College and the nonprofit MBAs Across America. The team studied The Window, a community center that opened in spring 2014 that provides free co-working office space to the public by day and acts as a venue for nonprofits to hold classes and workshops at night. As part of their analysis, the Babson students suggested ways to ensure The Window generates enough revenue to support its cost and continues to meet the needs of downtown residents and businesses.

Eventually, more than 400 people were coming to downtown Las Vegas each month just to study the progression of its revitalization and contribute where they could. “Our students want to get their hands dirty. They want to take what they’re learning and make something happen in the real world,” says Gould. “Cities need students’ work and idealism to move forward, and they can be a playground where students can exert their energy.”

In the last two years, the Downtown Project grew to include 300 entrepreneurs, but as Gould explains, even the idealism of Hsieh’s vision could not overcome deficits in the project’s planning. The trajectory of the Downtown Project took an unexpected turn in late September, when it was announced that Hsieh was leaving the initiative and that the project—and many of the startups it had supported—had become financially unsustainable. New leadership now oversees its operations, and the future of the new businesses that remain is in question.

Gould resigned his position soon after, and in an open letter to Hsieh published in the Las Vegas Weekly, he expresses his sympathy to those who lost their jobs. But he also shares his conviction that the project’s objective is still as vital as ever. “Though I have come to understand the formidable challenges inherent in transforming a city, the story crafted was not only visionary, but attainable.”

NEW ASPIRATIONS

Although Gould’s work with the Downtown Project has ended, he plans to encourage more professors to create real-life city-based projects for their students. In June, for example, he invited 20 primarily tenured professors from the University of Nevada Las Vegas and the University of Iowa to a Faculty Institute in Las Vegas. There, they met with Eli Kaufman from A Hundred Years, a design studio and consulting firm in Los Angeles that helps firms think in more innovative ways.

The goal was to emphasize the importance of educational entrepreneurship, which Gould believes is vital in today’s rapidly changing higher education environment. “We talked about breaking out of traditional academic molds and teaching classes in new ways, whether that means co-teaching a class or sending students to ‘winterims’ in Las Vegas, using the city as our classroom. We want to be as creative we can.”

Gould will move back to Iowa City, where he’ll continue to teach his Life Design class. While he is disappointed by the outcome of Hsieh’s initiative, he appreciates what he has learned and is no less enthusiastic about what his students accomplished in Las Vegas. Gould hopes professors in all disciplines will make it their biggest priority to galvanize their students’ talent to inspire real social change.

He admits that academic entrepreneurship comes with risk and the possibility for failure. But even when projects don’t turn out as planned, academics will have gained new knowledge and experiences that they can apply to their next projects. “I still believe that as academics, we must stay plugged into the world in real ways,” says Gould. “Our cities need our knowledge and our students’ energy and idealism. That’s exactly the direction we should go. The only other choice is to say that we can’t change the world, that we can’t make a difference.”

The latter choice, says Gould, is not an option at all. “Too much of a professor’s academic success is based on building up a vita by publishing in the right journals and attending the right conferences. When this is our focus, we often don’t have conversations with those on the ground dealing with problems,” he says. “What’s the use of publishing a paper that six people read before it sits on a shelf in a university library like an object in Raiders of the Lost Ark? If we could apply our teaching and research in meaningful ways and see the real results of our work, I believe nothing would be more fulfilling. Our dissertations and research studies should be measured by the impact they have on social and environmental problems.”

To learn more about the Life Design Class visit www.uiowa.edu/~lifeclas.