Steering Founders Through Crisis

Our biggest lesson: don't do something just because it is the way it has always been done.
Steering Founders Through a Crisis

AS THE CORONAVIRUS pandemic swept the world, schools everywhere suddenly moved online and businesses fought to stay profitable. Each of these challenges is big enough on its own, but entrepreneurs enrolled in a new graduate program at the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business in Salt Lake City faced both at the same time.

The Master of Business Creation (MBC) program is designed to help serious entrepreneurs scale new and existing startups. As they pursue their degrees, our MBC students have access to scholarships, funding, mentorship, and other support. During the nine-month program, offered in partnership with the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute, students participate in courses, workshops, and labs tailored to their needs while working full-time growing their new businesses. In fall 2019, 26 founders and 20 startups enrolled in the first MBC class.

As the university made the transition to online education and remote work in March, our faculty not only had to move MBC courses online—they simultaneously had to help MBC founders keep their startups alive and livelihoods intact. In many cases, this meant helping students rewrite their business plans or, in some cases, completely re-imagine them. While these founders expected to pursue their degrees while growing their businesses, they hadn’t expected to be learning comprehensive crisis management in real time.

Faculty quickly arranged large-scale, virtual brainstorming sessions on Zoom—and these sessions became one of the most valuable new tools for founders during the crisis, says Jack Brittain, a lead faculty member for the MBC. Each founder took turns presenting urgent issues to a panel of faculty and professionals, who helped find solutions. This format was better not only for the founders, Brittain says, but also for faculty who enjoyed the opportunity to hear each other’s feedback.

The pandemic presented a range of unique challenges to the MBC startups. For example, due to lockdowns across the country, telehealth services provider experienced a 1,000-fold increase in demand. It served approximately 273,000 providers and 6 million patients in March alone. “Telemedicine has been slow to take hold in the United States,” says Dylan Turner,’s COO. “But this outbreak might be the tipping point that pushes it into people’s lives and makes it part of routine medical care going forward.”

Another MBC startup, True North Behavioral Health, provides mental-health counseling for first responders. Once stay-at-home orders limited opportunities for counselors to meet clients face-to-face, True North’s founder and licensed clinical social worker Andrew Sidoli developed an app to reach people wherever they are. “What we’re facing is a pandemic stress response for everyone on the front lines as we wake up to the reality that our world is completely changed,” Sidoli says.

MBC participant Taylor Buckley had a particularly difficult challenge. She is founder and CEO of the app My School Dance, which helps people organize high school proms and other events. But when dances were canceled across the country, she quickly lost all of her customers. Instead of quitting, Buckley launched a new initiative, Virtual Prom Live, to provide an online alternative that comes complete with kings and queens. “We want young people to feel at least some semblance of normalcy. I feel like that’s really important for teens who will be locked in their houses for weeks,” says Buckley.

In many ways, the transition to online learning has allowed the MBC program to become even nimbler than it was before. Faculty now can more easily feature guest speakers from across the country or schedule private consultations with students within minutes without the need to factor in travel time.

Our faculty already are thinking about how to use the lessons learned during the crisis to make the MBC program better next year. “We are discovering some things that we did just because we always did them that way,” says Brittain. For instance, meetings, guest lectures, and group brainstorming all will remain online once campus reopens. Only through the crisis, he adds, did faculty discover the true advantages that online interactions provided to entrepreneurs.

Thad Kelling is director of public relations and marketing at the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute, an interdisciplinary division of the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

The Master of Business Creation was recognized as one of AACSB International’s 2020 Innovations That Inspire. Learn more about the MBC program.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's July/August 2020 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to [email protected].

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