Entrepreneurial Programs Rev Up a Local Economy

Through a comprehensive and mutually supporting suite of programs, Jabs College at Montana State works to fulfill its role as an entrepreneurial engine for its community.
Entrepreneurial Programs Rev Up a Local Economy - main

WITH A POPULATION DENSITY of only 6.5 people per square mile, Montana is not a place most people think of when they want to start businesses. But we have been working to change that at the Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship (JJCBE) at Montana State University (MSU) in Bozeman. We want to make our school an engine that creates such a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem that our students do not have to leave the state to find work once they graduate.

The JJCBE has been gradually increasing its focus on entrepreneurship since 2001, when we opened the Jabs Entrepreneurship Center. Soon after, we added a dedicated minor and certificate in entrepreneurship, and as student participation in these programs increased, we wanted to make an even larger commitment. In 2014, the college changed its mission statement to focus on inspiring creativity, innovation, and growth; and, in 2015, we officially added the word “entrepreneurship” to our college’s name. Most recently, as a way to consolidate our efforts and help more entrepreneurs, in 2017 the business school became home to Blackstone LaunchPad, the university’s business incubator; 406 Labs, its business accelerator; and a regional Small Business Development Center (SBDC) for the county.

As our students’ interest in entrepreneurship has grown, we’ve also adopted a new approach in our curriculum that has created more opportunities for students to collaborate with business leaders, build relationships with the community, and connect with local entrepreneurs. This model not only has accelerated the frequency of engagement among faculty, students, and local business leaders; it also has helped our community address one of its greatest economic challenges: its remote location.


To support Montana’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, we have integrated many opportunities for experiential learning, interdisciplinary interaction, and com-

munity involvement into our courses. Some courses have been designed in collaboration with the university’s Design Sandbox for Engaged Learning (DSEL), which has helped us incorporate several interdisciplinary courses and activities focused on small business development and new venture creation:

Introduction to Entrepreneurship Concepts. Our redesigned freshman seminar teaches students to think like entrepreneurs from the very start of their programs. In this semesterlong course, hundreds of JJCBE freshmen work in teams to design products, evaluate potential markets, and develop pitches. The semester culminates in a Venture Pitch competition judged by local business owners and entrepreneurs.

Students build on this initial experience as they progress through the curriculum. For example, in an upper-division entrepreneurship course, almost 100 students form teams to create business plans that they pitch in an actual elevator to simulate the timing and atmosphere of a real elevator pitch.

Innovative Ideation. Offered through the DSEL, this course brings together teams of students from different disciplines across campus to solve problems affecting people in the community. For example, it was in Innovative Ideation that graphic design student Shae Stein imagined a more stable, user-friendly shower chair that would make bathing safer and more pleasant for elderly patients and their caregivers. Stein worked with mechanical engineering student Seth Carlstrom to refine the design; after the class ended, Stein received help from the LaunchPad to obtain startup funding from competitions and local investors. He’s now building his first prototype and is on his way to starting a business.

Farm-to-Market. In Farm-to-Market, also offered through the DSEL, students from several disciplines design ways to add value to Montana’s specialty crops, which farmers typically sell as low-priced commodities. One early-stage business to come out of Farm-to-Market is Farmented, whose mission is to reduce food waste by turning excess produce from local organic farms into fermented foods such as sauerkraut and kimchi. By eliminating product waste, the Farmented team hopes to make small, local farms more sustainable and more competitive in the market while they generate profit all year. Before developing their company, Farmented’s founders were able to build their knowledge of business, graphic design, and sustainable food systems in this course, which won Core77’s national Design Education Initiative Award in 2017.

Entrepreneurial Experience. This course serves as a kind of entrepreneurial internship, where students work on real-world problems for local businesses; each week, faculty meet with students to ensure that their learning and their projects are on track. Since 2002, more than 1,400 MSU students have provided more than 25,000 hours of research, issue analysis, and operational advice to more than 300 clients.

Revving Up Business Students Pitch

A senior business student presents her team’s findings and
suggestions to their client in MSU’s Entrepreneurial Experience course.

Entreprentice Challenge.

For this event, student teams have three weeks to pursue an entrepreneurial endeavor that turns a profit. At the end, the students donate all proceeds to nonprofits or causes important to each class. The professor who designed the Entreprentice Challenge wanted students to experience “a quick, micro-scale approximation of the joys, challenges, and frustrations inherent in the entrepreneurial process.” The shortened timeline instills a sense of urgency, stimulates their creativity, and requires them to bootstrap their resources by pursuing low-risk opportunities.

Through Entrepreneurial Experience and the Entreprentice Challenge, especially, students have multiple opportunities to engage more fully with, and make a positive impact on, our community. For example, when the state was heavily affected by wildfires in 2017, students raised more than $7,000 as part of the Entreprentice Challenge and donated all of the funds to state wildfire relief efforts. In an early year of the challenge, a team asked a local grocery store near the football stadium if they could sell a limited number of the store’s parking spaces to football fans during games. In their first weekend selling spaces, they raised $500 in only three hours. The students’ idea was such a success that the grocery store, nearby office buildings, and a church all continue to partner with local nonprofits to sell a limited number of parking spots to football fans at every home game. Over the past seven years of this project, students have raised more than $30,000 for local organizations.


Our courses have become a great entrepreneurial training ground for business students. But we encourage any students with business ideas to come to our incubator and accelerator, even if they haven’t taken one of our entrepreneurship courses.

That was the case for Kathleen Rolin and her husband, James, both MSU students, who came to the LaunchPad with their idea to farm crickets as the basis for a line of specialty food products. They launched Cowboy Cricket Farms, which as far as we know is Montana’s first entomological farm. Today, Cowboy Cricket Farms’ high-protein “chocolate chirp cookies” are in high demand. And as an enterprise that requires very little water and space to operate, the company is helping to grow the local economy by creating a product that is both healthy and environmentally friendly. Even better, the Rolins now mentor other students, even as they continue to receive support from our campus resources.

When people come to MSU for help growing established businesses, we direct them to the campus SBDC. “Having a university host an SBDC regional office provides excellent opportunities for getting both students and faculty involved in helping small businesses,” says Kregg Aytes, former dean of JJCBE.

Farmented is a great example of how our campus resources work together. Farmented’s founders got their business idea started in Farm-to-Market, before turning to the LaunchPad for ongoing support. They went on to submit a project for a team of students in Entrepreneurial Experience to tackle. Eventually, they moved into the 406 Labs accelerator, where they secured two interns through our Student Entrepreneurs in Action (SEA) program. Both interns used Sysdea modeling software to analyze the company’s customer data, which indicated that its customers would respond well to a subscription service. Farmented subsequently launched a crowdfunding campaign to sell subscriptions to its products, ultimately doubling its funding goal.


We use the collaborative spaces in our new building, Jabs Hall, to facilitate regular interactions between students and business owners. Students who frequently meet with business owners have the opportunity to learn firsthand what it takes to become a successful entrepreneur. To make these interactions as frequent as possible, we regularly host recruiting fairs, specialty workshops, and networking events, as well as panel discussions with local employers and entrepreneurs. The more opportunities our students have to network, the more likely it is they will find jobs in Montana after they graduate. At the same time, business owners can meet our students and develop confidence in the pool of qualified employees available to them in our tiny college town.

Revving Up Kickstarter Workshop

Jon Leland, senior director of strategy and insights at
Kickstarter, presents at the student workshop “How to Successfully
Launch Your Kickstarter Project.

However, we intentionally house the other components of our entrepreneurial ecosystem—including the LaunchPad, 406 Labs, and SBDC— outside of Jabs Hall, as a way to attract the attention of students and faculty who may not visit Jabs Hall or take our interdisciplinary courses. We provide space and technological resources across campus to facilitate meetings of all sizes in multiple locations, where returning alumni and business leaders can give large, interactive presentations and conduct student interviews.

So far, several JJCBE graduates who have started local businesses have returned to network with students and scout future employees. One graduate, Michael Monaghan, started a local high-tech communication company, Beartooth. Monaghan’s first hire was JJCBE graduate Ellie Van Dyke, who had previously taken Entrepreneurial Experience and secured a SEA internship. We find that many students are like Van Dyke—they want to stay in Bozeman after graduation.

Another graduate, Daren Nordhagen, launched a grants management software company called Foundant Technologies; he now hires MSU graduates to work at his firm, one of the largest and fastest-growing companies in Bozeman. “It’s nice to have a couple of anchor folks in the community that can share their knowledge,” he explains in a June 17, 2015, article in The New York Times about Montana’s entrepreneurial scene. “We’re getting to that point now where we can hopefully play that role and help give some of that back.”


Competitions are a last piece of the puzzle when it comes to helping students find mentors, make community connections, and attract startup funding. That’s why the JJCBE participates in the John Ruffato Business Startup Challenge hosted by another institution in the Montana University system. In the past, entrepreneurs who have received support and coaching from MSU programs have won substantial prize money in this competition.

In addition, the JJCBE recently hosted one of three regional competitions with venture participation from current students, alumni, and community members. Winners from all three competitions met in Bozeman during the summer for an intensive accelerator program, where they were mentored by JJCBE faculty, LaunchPad coaches, and local business leaders. In September, these companies showcased their work at MSU’s Museum of the Rockies as part of a daylong conference on enhancing our local entrepreneurial ecosystem for early-stage technology companies.

Revving Up First Annual Seminar

Freshmen present their products to local business leaders
during the annual freshman seminar venture pitch competition on
the Montana State University campus.

The LaunchPad also co-sponsored an online business plan competition for local companies, which in turn funneled the winner to the semifinals of the U.S. Small Business Administration’s InnovateHER competition; our winner, MSU alum Jessica Dehn, placed second in the national competition. Dehn developed drop-in daycare centers that enable more parents to work without having to pay for full-time childcare. She now has five locations of her business in two states.

Not only do competitions boost the businesses of individual entrepreneurs, they also attract the attention of large national companies. For several years now, representatives from the interactive digital agency R/GA have come to campus to visit classes, critique students’ work, interview students for internships, and host workshops and public presentations for students and the local business community. Fostering these relationships with national companies has been a slow but worthwhile process: R/GA representatives recently began bringing representatives of other companies such as Google, Kickstarter, and Havas with them. These executives bring a fresh infusion of ideas, which bolsters regional innovation and exposes students to an intersection of technology, innovation, and ideation that is difficult to come by in the state.


Since 2012, Montana has been at the top of the Kauffman Index, indicating an abundance of startup activity in our area. Furthermore, we are beginning to see a wonderful cycle repeat itself on our campus. Inspired by the mentorship of local business leaders, more of our students are starting their own businesses or working for startups; after graduation, they return to campus to become mentors themselves. We take that as evidence that our approach is working, sparking a new enthusiasm for entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial thinking in our students, faculty, alumni, and the university as a whole.

It continues to be a challenge to keep our integrated entrepreneurial curriculum nimble enough to meet the community’s ongoing needs. For that reason, we know it is essential to allow faculty to be flexible in their teaching methods, so they can continually adopt innovations in the classroom and improve the learning experience for students. For example, one professor embedded entrepreneurship topics into her international management course, which did not originally include any entrepreneurship context. Our college encourages all faculty to insert entrepreneurship into their course pedagogy. We have found that this approach works for us, because it is far easier to make small changes to existing courses than it is to adopt larger changes in the overall curriculum, which is less easily revised.

When our students are asked why they pursue entrepreneurship, many of them answer that they want to find jobs they are passionate about and that allow them to make a positive difference in the world. We want to empower students to recognize their potential and to realize that they can move the idea of business ownership from dream to reality. In the JJCBE model, students of all disciplines become a part of Montana’s entrepreneurship network, where they work with new people and think in different ways; they are inspired to pursue amazing ideas that make positive economic and environmental impacts on the region. The more our students and faculty engage with the community, the more we encourage a thriving entrepreneurial environment in Bozeman and the state of Montana.

Audrey Capp is the director of communications and public relations for the Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship at Montana State University in Bozeman. Sarah Cairoli is the director of the Bracken Business Communications Clinic (BBCC). She also teaches the professional business communications course offered by JJCBE.

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