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Entrepreneur class shakes up lecture format

By Yardain Amron, For the Daily
Published September 15, 2013

As students shuffled into Stamps Auditorium for their “Entrepreneurship Hour” seminar, the stage was set with a rug, coffee table covered in colorful books, and two homey armchairs. The set up was quite different from most lectures, as was the class that followed.

Engineering prof. David Thompson introduced this week’s guest entrepreneur, Josephine Polich, founder and CEO of Cearna, a homeopathic medicine company developing surgery and trauma recovery products.

Thompson played interviewer, asking Polich questions about her personal story and company’s founding. The hour ended with questions from the student audience.

The class wasn’t a lecture, but it wasn’t always that way.

“Entrepreneurship Hour” began in 2008 as a one-credit pass/fail seminar required for a Program in Entrepreneurship certificate — a nine-credit “mini-minor” offered through the Center for Entrepreneurship within the College of Engineering, though the program is open to students across the University. Thompson said a significant percentage of the 440 students in the course are from LSA and other schools.

Each week, the course provides a forum for entrepreneurs to come and share their stories with the students. Thompson said he hopes the class allows his students to interact meaningfully with entrepreneurs, who may be able to offer guidance on how students can shape their careers.

Besides listening, students are also required to pitch their own idea in front of a camera and submit it to 1,000 Pitches, n competition between the University and Pennsylvania State University that’s hosted by entrepreneurship group MPowered. The goal of 1,000 Pitches is to encourage students to turn their ideas into actual business plans. The winner of any of the nine pitch categories is evaluated by a panel and is eligible to receive a $1,000 prize.

While this is only his first year teaching the seminar, Thompson has played a prominent role in the course’s evolution. Historically, the format of the class was a traditional lecture, with speakers standing behind a lectern and clicking through a PowerPoint presentation. However, Thompson felt that speakers were limited by the formal setting of the course.

“In other words, some entrepreneurs are really good at communicating in a lecture format, and some are ... OK at it,” Thompson said.

The class “pivoted” toward a more TEDx style, ditching the lectern for a more intimate environment. Thompson said he began to notice some recurrring themes from multiple speakers last year.

“You would start to hear things like ... ‘fail fast, fail early’, over and over again,” Thompson said.

Drawing inspiration from “The Charlie Rose Show,” Thompson proposed another “pivot” — making himself a journalistic-style interviewer to better engage with the course’s guests. With a more intimate format, Thompson said there is “a little bit more facility to draw out who this person really is ... and you get some fun stories.”

For instance, in response to a question about how an engineer became a doctor and entrepreneur of homeopathic medicine, Polich delved into a personal anecdote about discovering a homeopathic cure for her sick daughter while at Whole Foods.

After class, Polich also offered praise for the new interview format.

“The problem is that if I just try to make something up myself," Polich said, “it might be the same thing somebody else lectured on last week, but I’m not going to know that — where he can direct me into specific areas, which really was helpful."

LSA senior Conrad Brown said the talk-show format was more engaging than a traditional lecture and a good way to expose students to new business disciplines.

“The talk-show setting is key to it not being boring, that you're not being lectured with a PowerPoint, like we are in 90 percent of our other classes,” Brown said. “I'd recommend it to anyone, no matter what major, what year. If you're not busy 2 to 3 on Fridays, there's no reason you shouldn't be here.”