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WNC Business

Unique entrepreneurship program helps students graduate business-ready

Jul 22, 2023 12:40PM ● By Randee Brown

Since 2015, Western Carolina University’s Corporation for Entrepreneurship and Innovation has been partnering students, faculty, and local businesses for project work that is mutually beneficial to all parties involved.

Director of the CEI, Todd Creasy, said WCU has the only for-profit corporation of its kind which can directly benefit startups, small businesses, and inventors. Businesses can apply for consideration and share projects that they could use help with, then if a good fit is determined, Creasy creates the connection to a faculty member who will select an appropriate number of students to work with the business on those projects.

WCU is accredited through the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, and the University must have a level of engagement to receive that accreditation. “We use the CEI, which is housed under the College of Business, as part of that engagement,” he said. “We want to be a good community partner and help to get students business-ready.”

Types of businesses interacting with the CEI vary widely. Current partners include businesses such as a care center, moss grower, retreat center, magnet maker, a video arcade hangout for teens, and a wellness company. Their projects range from trademark application, tweaking software, performing SWOT analyses, and helping to determine things like price points, viability, and how to increase ratings.

“Businesses can benefit from students helping with these analyses,” Creasy said. “They can use the funding and students to turn their concept into a product because they get help with product development, patent investigation and filing, and getting ideas to potential angel investors.”

Creasy tries to go to a variety of business gatherings including conferences and Chamber of Commerce and Rotary events in order to bring awareness of the program to local businesses. He said the CEI also hosts its own biannual conferences — one focused on Jackson and Haywood Counties and the other focused on Buncombe and Henderson Counties — which feature business experts sharing advice with small businesses.

Students get great benefits too, according to Creasy. Not only are they gaining direct experience with real, local businesses, he said they also get paid for their efforts.

“We’ve had entire teams get hired by these employers, and students routinely get hired by these companies upon graduation,” he said. “It also looks great on a resume. There are indirect benefits for the students too as faculty bring this experience into the classroom; it’s all got ripples that are very interesting.

The success of the program is gauged by client surveys posing a variety of questions, according to Creasy. Their responses help tell the story of the program’s success, and the vast majority of clients are very satisfied.

Each project’s duration is over a semester, and participating students give a presentation reviewing these projects upon completion. “They are very professionally done,” Creasy said. “Students prepare a report and present their findings, and the clients have some say in the student’s grade. It’s another measure of the program’s success.”

The CEI is just one of the ways the University prepares students to become business-ready, according to Creasy. Students in the University’s College of Business are offered a variety of business degrees to choose from, including a bachelor’s and a master’s focused on Entrepreneurship. Creasy said classes are designed to teach students things like how to build a business plan, perform market analysis, build a lending plan, acquire venture capital, and more.

The “intrapreneur” aspect is another perspective taught in these programs. Creasy said even if a student decides to work for a large company, they can look for ways to do things differently. As an employee, they could look at developing a new product or service within the company. “It teaches you to think differently,” he said.