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Innovation and Entrepreneurship

From economics course to entrepreneurial experience

UNC-Chapel Hill course gives students a safe zone to learn, practice and experiment with entrepreneurial skills as they develop innovative ventures. Which team’s idea rose to the top this semester?

UNC students on zoom call

What does it take to be an entrepreneur? Do I have the right mindset? What tools will set me up for success? What if I fail? Where do I start?

Taking the plunge into entrepreneurship can be confounding – and a bit unnerving. But what if you had the chance to test your abilities and stretch your skills, all through an undergrad course where you could work with a team of peers to collaborate and build upon your skillsets in a safe environment?

Nearly 400 students at UNC-Chapel Hill just took this kind of ingenuity-inducing plunge into a semester-long journey through ECON 125 Introduction to Entrepreneurship. The course culminated last week with four top student teams making their final pitches of ventures that they conceived, tested and developed over the past three months.

This flagship course — offered through the Shuford Program in Entrepreneurship — introduces students to the principles and mindset of venture creation, while exposing them to startup and innovation resources on campus and beyond. What’s so different about this class? It aims to replicate real-world interactions that students may have in startup accelerators, incubators and other innovative work environments – all while allowing them to explore the potential of entrepreneurship in a student-first, safe environment.

The course is taught by Susie Greene, entrepreneur-in-residence and professor of the practice in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Shuford Program in Entrepreneurship, and Jiayi Bao, assistant professor of public policy and entrepreneurship.

“I love that ECON 125 offers an applied learning experience for students. It’s not just theoretical,” said Greene, who just wrapped up her third year teaching the course. “It provides an experience for students to learn and practice the discipline of innovation and entrepreneurship in a safe environment.”

Students explore the entrepreneurial life cycle and apply the knowledge they gain to a project or venture that they develop as part of a team throughout the semester. Students not only learn hard skills – including design thinking and financial modeling – but they also learn soft skills like critical thinking, problem-solving and team collaboration.

“Our goal with this class is for students to experience the entrepreneurial journey and get a sense for what it’s like. It’s not just about startups or being a founder. It’s about a mindset,” said Greene.

Offered each fall, this flagship course is so popular there is often a waiting list, with the class typically topping out at 400 students. Because it’s housed within the College of Arts & Sciences, the class draws students from across the entire University. Any undergrad, no matter their major, can enroll. In fact, the course is so unique that there is a disclaimer in the syllabus that lets students know that this learning environment will diverge from what they’ve experienced in the past.

“This class is very different from most classes students have experienced,” said Bao. “We employ experiential methods of teaching so students learn by doing as they develop the skills, tools and mindset that will help them on their entrepreneurial path – both in organizations they launch or join, as well as in their personal lives.”

At the beginning of the course, teams are formed with four-to-five students per group. Because Greene, Bao and leaders in the Shuford Program believe strongly in the power of diversity, teams are assembled with students from various backgrounds, ages and majors to facilitate maximum collaboration and learning.

Once formed, the student groups are challenged to move through early-stage empathy work to understand customer needs and then apply design thinking and ideation methods to come up with venture ideas or solutions to meet those customer needs. Students learn to embrace pivoting as they prototype and test their ideas multiple times over the course of the semester. They also apply tools such as the Lean Canvas and financial modeling to confirm feasibility and viability of their ideas. All of this work ultimately leads to a final pitch for their venture.

Throughout the semester, 75 teams worked through their startup venture ideas, with four teams rising to the top. Those final teams pitched their ideas to the class for ultimate bragging rights.

The final four teams included:

  • Ankle Saver, an innovative, dynamic ankle brace that gives the comfort of a sock while providing the support of a traditional ankle brace. Team members include Jackson Davis, economics and English major; Aditya Bhatt, physics and computer science major; Peter Deering, business administration major; Eli Stroup, business administration major; and Madi Marvin, psychology major.
  • FIT (Functional Individualized Training), an interactive, fitness resource catered toward individuals with mental disabilities including Down syndrome and autism. Users access personalized workout videos according to their specific needs, and the videos are made available via the FIT app. Team members include Emmeline Berridge, public policy and environmental studies major; Luis Castro, business administration and exercise and sport science major; Nicole Deblois, journalism and media (advertising and public relations) major; Kyndall Vaughan, journalism and media (advertising and public relations) major; and Calvin Ryan, computer science and economics major.
  • In the Bottle, a bottle that stores both pre- and post-workout powders to create protein shakes at the user’s convenience. In addition, the product idea includes offering pre-measured, biodegradable pods filled with supplements that can be stored easily and consumed in the uniquely designed blender bottle. Team members include Corin Holder, economics major; Garrett Salter, economics major; Aydin Guttridge, exercise and sport science major; and Tyler Sherrill, economics major.
  • The Sleep Shade, a revolutionary sleeping pad that incorporates different features to help individuals sleep better. Team members include Aditya Arun, Cole Giresi, Davis Swann, Elijah Green, Spencer Triplett.

Team FIT walked away with first place, boasting a team victory based on great collaboration and communication.

“Although the course had quick turnaround dates for product deliverables, we enjoyed the challenge this class posed for us as a team, and we felt that it gave us an accurate simulation of what entrepreneur’s experience when developing their products,” said Castro, of Team FIT “Our group was diverse (as we came from different countries and time zones). Yet instead of allowing this diversity to hinder our group’s performance, we were able to capitalize on our different perspectives and backgrounds to create a viable product with potential real-world implications. Together, we ideated and developed our product FIT to address the fitness and well-being problems that people with Down syndrome, autism, or other mental disabilities experience.”

Throughout the semester, students receive coaching from seasoned entrepreneurs and startup founders who provide guidance and mentorship as teams work through their ideas. This year, 30 coaches worked with the teams, guiding them through the different phases of the entrepreneurial journey. The coaches were just as diverse as the student teams, including individuals from small and mid-size startups to big corporations, as well from Carolina, Duke University and NC State University.

Even a pandemic couldn’t tamp down the spirit of the ECON 125 Teaching Team. Reworking logistics for 75 teams to brainstorm on Zoom vs. in person proved to be one of many challenges they had to overcome. But hosting the class virtually paid off in ways the course leadership team hadn’t imagined.

“I think students initially thought this course was not going to be good because how could you possibly do a team project virtually, and how are you going to get to know the other students?” added Bao. “What we found was that many students were craving social interaction and quickly developed relationships with their teammates, allowing them to build trust with each other. So, when hard challenges came up in their projects, they could have those tough conversations with each other. I’ve heard repeatedly from many teams that, ‘Wow, this is really cool because even though we were virtual, I got to know my team so well and make connections I wouldn’t have had.’”

Throughout the semester, students were also treated to guest speakers from across the U.S. and Canada, including innovation leaders from large progressive companies such as Patagonia, Peloton along with entrepreneurial founders such as Shibumi Shade and Zoezi Sport. As the class wraps up each fall with students drawing inspiration from these kinds of entrepreneurial stories, plus their hearing about their classmates’ ventures, the students are free to continue working on their products or ideas – or not. But ultimately, Greene and Bao know that students will take away more from the class than they originally anticipated.

“Our goal with this class is for students to experience the entrepreneurial journey and get a sense for what it’s like,” said Greene. “It’s not just about startups or being a founder. It’s about a mindset. Startups and big organizations alike are looking for people who have the skills to think critically, be innovative and use their skill set to solve problems for customers. These skillsets are critical to being successful in whatever path students choose.

Learn more about Innovate Carolina