Schools bring business into the classroom: Students learn from CEOs, race-car drivers, others

When Marian College asked racecar driver Michael Crawford to help launch the school’s entrepreneur-in-residence program and mentor students about realworld business, he wasn’t sure if it was such a great idea.

“My hesitation was I didn’t want to pursue it right away,” Crawford said. “What happens if I go out of business? That would be embarrassing.”

But he decided to do it because he believes his experience as an entrepreneur is more realistic than anything the students will read about in a textbook.

“I lost an arm and a leg financially in 2005,” Crawford said of the year he launched Michael Crawford Motorsports. “We’ll be lucky if we break even this year. Students think, if they start a business, they’ll be the YouTube guys and never feel the reality of needing to make ends meet.”

So Crawford, as Marian’s first entrepreneur-in-residence, will donate up to 40 hours of his time each semester. He’ll make himself available to students who want advice. He’ll also attend luncheons and speak to students in the classroom.

Crawford, 40, raced for other teams for 13 years before forming his own team. Today, he has two cars racing in the Indy Pro Series, plus two he hopes to race in next year’s Indianapolis 500, if he lands financial backing and overcomes other obstacles. He has three full-time employees and hires another seven for race weekends.

Marian’s entrepreneur-in-residence program, which launched this fall, was four years in the making. It follows a trend among postsecondary schools to get students’ noses out of textbooks and in front of real-world business people and involved in the nuts and bolts of businesses.

“Students respond very well to realworld applications, especially in entrepreneurship,” said Robert Schuttler, director of the business creation and development program at Marian, who selected Crawford. “What fascinated me about Michael is he has experienced and is experiencing all of the trials and joys and emotions that are wrapped up in entrepreneurship. Unless you hear someone tell you what it’s like to wake up at 2 a.m. and wonder how you’re going to make payments that are due today, you don’t really get it.”

While the entrepreneur program is new for Marian-a private institution with fewer than 3,000 students-similar programs elsewhere are a bit more seasoned.

Butler University’s College of Business Administration recently hired Scot Harper, CEO of New Jersey-based Novartis Clinical Operations, and Carolyn Stanback, a consultant for telecom firm California-based TRG Inc., to be its newest executives in residence. Butler’s realworld business experience program began about six years ago. The school pays its executives varying amounts, based on who they are and the amount of time they commit.

“We’re trying to bring to life the business-education process we put our students through by having them experience business rather than just read about it,” said Russ Kershaw, dean of Butler’s College of Business Administration. The program, which runs throughout a student’s four years, includes creating a business plan, requesting funding and launching a real business.

“The reason we’re doing this is not to turn them into entrepreneurs,” Kershaw said. “It’s to have them understand the nature of business and to provide a context for what business is all about. It teaches accounting majors why marketing is important and vice versa.”

Students say they thrive in that environment.

“Being able to relate the material that we learn in class to an actual real life business strategy is very helpful,” said Nicole Latham, a 23-year-old student in the entrepreneur program at University of Indianapolis. “It helps with the importance of certain areas that we will need when we are starting our entrepreneurial ventures in the future.”

Latham and other students are participating in a real-world project to identify a possible business venture for a 40-acre parcel of land owned by a couple 30 miles west of Indianapolis.

“Having a hands-on project like this one lets us learn a lot more as we have to put our minds into something outside the classroom and in the real world,” said Skyler Mattox, another University of Indianapolis student in the program. “They help expand our minds. In these types of projects there are consequences for making mistakes, so this makes us make smart decisions and actions.”

Crawford’s advice to students? Don’t overlook the financial side of business.

“They’re often wonderfully passionate about their product but lack fundamental business skills,” he said. “It all seems like a really good idea until it fails.”

Behind the News will return next week.

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