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Pursuing the Entrepreneurial Mindset

By Meredith Stoops with contributions from Mary Grace Raciti

Last August, Dr. David Bryant, Assistant Professor of Business and Director of the Cray Center for Entrepreneurial Services at Benedictine College, began teaching a course called Cray Entrepreneurship Lab (Cray Labs). The class, formerly known as Enactus, was redesigned as part of the renewal of the Cray Center. Convinced that experiential education is “the only way to learn,” Bryant wanted to refocus the class on real projects based in the Atchison area. The plan was for students to work individually or in teams to support the mission and goals of a local non-profit or small business, and to learn from their expertise. Projects could differ greatly, based on the nature and needs of each partner, but the unifying goal for students was to engage the community and further develop the skills and dispositions of an entrepreneur. In particular, Bryant used the framework put forth by the Leadership Development Institute at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, to help his students grow in what is called the “entrepreneurial mindset.”

The first iteration of the course this past Fall ran into a number of challenges, largely due to miscommunications about expectations for the projects and related assignments. After working out some of the problem areas, Bryant was hopeful that the second installation of the course, which began in January 2020, would run much more smoothly. And, for a few months, it did: students began meeting with representatives from local entities such as Fox Theatre, Project Atchison, and the Northeast Kansas Enterprise Facilitation (NEKEF) to learn how they could help.

Sierra Kenney, a junior at Benedictine College, decided to take the class after Bryant told her about its structure and benefits. Kenney, who wants to open her own business one day, was paired with Ms. Katie Wagner of the local coffee shop, The Sunflower. Kenney said that at their meetings, she and Wagner would typically sit, drink coffee, and “make lists of what needs to be done in the next week,” which helped her understand the processes that go into making a business tick.  It is these kinds of lived experiences and community connections that make service-learning beneficial not only to the local partner, but also to the students. “She’s taught me so much about opening a business,” Kenney shared.

That partnership, of course, changed dramatically as the circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic began to unfold. Kenney, along with her fellow Ravens, returned to her home for the rest of the semester to complete Cray Labs and all her other classes online.  For a number of reasons related to this transition, Kenney was been unable to continue her partnership with The Sunflower. Bryant is keenly aware that his students now face unexpected obstacles to their formal education, and he has adapted accordingly. “My learning goals have changed,” said the Business professor. “My concern has moved from entrepreneurial mindset to mental mindset. At this point in the semester, I have cut projects and extended timetables to accommodate my students.” That being said, some projects have been able to move forward, despite the restrictions and limitations.

Benedictine freshman, Lia Reckmeyer, is working on a team for the First Judicial District CASA Association. Her experience with the non-profit during the first weeks of the semester helped her learn about a “different side to life” and, relatedly, showed her how important organizations like CASA are. This provided enthusiasm for the team’s project: to increase local awareness of the non-profit, which recently opened an office in Atchison. The students’ plans included promotional campaigns in local restaurants, a jeans day fundraiser, and an insert in local church bulletins. This was set to begin in April, which is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, but the stay-in-place order sent Reckmeyer and her classmates back to the drawing board. This seems to be a recurring pattern in her life since the onset of the pandemic and, consequently, the new Raven has begun taking more initiative in developing contingency plans:  “I feel like I’ve been trying to think through things a little bit more,” she shared. “’If this way doesn’t work, what’s another possible way… to have this go through?’ Because it’s important.” In the case of Cray Labs, Reckmeyer’s team plans to design a pamphlet to send to churches for virtual distribution. She knows that this will likely be less effective than the other methods they originally considered, but she is hopeful that it will be a step in the right direction. Bryant recognized the perseverance of his students: “In this pandemic, several teams have continued their projects,” he commented. “I admire those students who are developing the entrepreneurial mindset of persistence in this challenging environment. There is no doubt that this experience will serve them well in the future.”

Though this was certainly not what anyone expected for this semester, this turn of events has taken students a step deeper into the entrepreneurial mindset. “My biggest takeaway,” Kenney shared as she reflected upon the pandemic, “is there will be hard times and you won’t see it coming sometimes. All you can do is make a game plan on how you will survive this.” Bryant echoed this sentiment, applauding “the creative ways” that business owners have adapted to continue their services while complying with social distancing requirements. “It’s like a sporting event,” added Kenney. “You might get blind sided by a ball but your next play better be to get back up.”

The Benedictine College Center for Service-Learning is grateful to all the small business owners, non-profit staff, teachers, healthcare professionals, first responders, grocery store employees, postal and package delivery workers, government leaders, parents, neighbors, kids, students, volunteers, and residents of our community – thank you for your perseverance – thank you for, as Sierra put it, getting back up!