Nebraska Center for Entrepreneurship: "Innovation is the quickest way out of a recession"

In the midst of a down economic time, "it's hard to see what's going to change or what's going to lead us out of it, but in five years, I think we'll look back and be surprised at what led us out of the recession-out of necessity," according to Kathleen Thornton, Acting Director of the Nebraska Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Innovation is the quickest way out of a recession; as businesses fall by the wayside, people will step in and do it better and faster, she said. Even though it's difficult to think of innovations when you don't have the resources, she said she hasn't seen a great idea yet that couldn't find funding.

The Nebraska Center for Entrepreneurship focuses on teaching students how to start and operate businesses through education and experience. Many students are from other countries, she said, so the education in entrepreneurship goes global quickly.

But most of the students in Thornton's entrepreneurship classes are from Nebraska. The majority plan to stay in the state, though most plan to work for someone else before they start businesses. "That's actually okay," she said; "they can learn the process, work for somebody for five years, have the contacts and the expertise so they're ready when they want to do this on their own."

Nebraska has potential for people who want to start businesses, she said. Web-based businesses can locate anywhere the broadband capacity is available and adequate. "People may want to raise their kids somewhere other than where they currently are," she said, and communities are doing innovative things to get people back to Nebraska. That lifestyle is appealing to a lot of people, she said.

Education, Organizations, Outreach
The Nebraska Center for Entrepreneurship is like a three-legged stool, Thornton said; one leg is education; another is student organizations; the third is outreach with the community. The Center offers coursework in entrepreneurship on both the undergraduate and graduate levels; holds a business plan competition; sponsors the student organization - Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE); and holds events - such as, a fundraiser for the YWCA job outfitters program and the Heartland Conference for Free Enterprise.

The SIFE organization traveled to Ogallala in January to do an asset-mapping project, Thornton said. "This is the first of what we hope will be multiple projects - to help (towns) identify the resources they have." Like many small, somewhat rural communities, the young people leave to go to school and don't come back, she said. "And that's it - they lose them." The project in Ogallala looked at every asset of the town in Keith County; anything from infrastructure, the people, the social aspects, the culture, historic buildings...anything that could be called an asset, Thornton said. The first step of the project was to identify the assets; the second step determined how to use those assets to build the economy of the community and the county.

"They have jobs there; they don't have people to fill the jobs," Thornton said. The asset-mapping project may lead to creation of a lifestyle that entices people to come back to their community, she added. The team provides the town with a report and a multimedia presentation at the end of the study.

The SIFE organization, which is on 1,500 campuses in 140 countries, is also trying to raise money to go to Africa, she said. They're working on a project to get water into a rural community where all the women do, all day long, is take water from the source to the family. They don't have time to farm, have cottage industries or anything else, she said. The SIFE organization is working with a company that manufactures a rolling water drum which would allow an African woman to make only one trip for water per day, freeing up their time for entrepreneurial activities.

Thornton and Dr. Terry Sebora, director of graduate education in entrepreneurship and a former Center director, both teach classes in New Venture Creation, which is a business plan writing course. The course encourages students to participate in the Center's business plan competition, which has local, national and international levels of competition.

Thornton cited a 2006 study by Eric Thompson, Director of the Bureau of Business Research, which indicated that Omaha had the greatest capital growth in Nebraska, followed by Lincoln. The rest of the state lagged behind, she said. "I think that's interesting, especially when we talk about value-added products, wineries, all the things that are going on west of Lincoln," she said. Although the majority of people surveyed say that Nebraska has an entrepreneurial climate, when you ask individuals what their specific communities are doing to promote new business, there isn't quite as much support for what they're doing to encourage entrepreneurship or bring people back, she said.

Gender Differences
National data indicate that more women are starting businesses than men, but the opposite is true in Nebraska, she said. "I have more males than females in my classes - sometimes 25 to 4 - that big a disparity," she said. "More males see it as a career choice than do women." But Thornton said the national data does not take into account that women are starting businesses because they have to; they've hit the glass ceiling and want to start out on their own. They may start a business to supplement their primary income, Thornton said, and they end up doing very well.

Thornton said the Nebraska Center for Entrepreneurship interfaces statewide with community colleges; they offer the same entrepreneurship courses and credits can be transferred between colleges. She hopes to expand not only course offerings, but also certification in entrepreneurship both at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and at the community college level. Students in community college majors such as auto body and culinary could earn a certificate in entrepreneurship, as these sorts of majors often lead to business creation. "They will have the skill sets when they go out and open their own businesses," she said, and they'll also be able to draw on resources to help them run their businesses.

In the future, Thornton hopes Nebraska can be more supportive of innovation on every level, starting with grade school. Regardless of the field people go into, they would have had training in entrepreneurship from an early age, she said.

"I believe in an entrepreneurial attitude, lifestyle and in creative ways of solving problems. That could be in your life, in your job, in what you create. How about saying 'there's a better way of doing it'?" she said.