May 6, 2021

Pulling Students Off the Conveyor Belt Ride Through Life

By: ELIstaff

Throughout the past eight years, Professor Lisa Banks has used the Ice House Entrepreneurship Program with more than 800 students at Mott Community College in Flint, Michigan. They always come away from her courses with information they will use in their lives. Even if they discover that they’re not a good fit for a career running their own business.

Banks herself has lived out the definition of entrepreneurship as the self-directed pursuit of opportunities to create value for others. This makes her the perfect person to steer Mott’s Entrepreneurship Program away from a traditional, textbook-based curriculum toward a hands-on approach to entrepreneurial thinking.

“It’s really about changing your habits to change your life,” said Banks, an accounting professor and coordinator of the Entrepreneurship Program. “People realize they don’t have to ride a conveyor belt through life. They can actually make some choices.”

Banks’ own life is rich with intentional choices. First, she started out on the financial staff at General Motors for 15 years. Then, transitioning to a CPA role at a small accounting firm where she helped many entrepreneurs get their start.

While her children were young, she found the flexibility of self-employment to be a good professional fit. She later accepted a full-time faculty position at Mott.

Establishing and Refining an Entrepreneurship Program

The chair of the business department realized that Banks’ personal experience with self-employment and small businesses made her the ideal choice to re-envision the college’s approach to entrepreneurship. Banks attended an Ice House training in Kansas. Next, she incorporated the model into the college’s Entrepreneurship Program as its introductory course.

While the Ice House content was a success, Banks soon discovered that because students who completed the Entrepreneurship Program received a certificate rather than a degree. So, there was little incentive for them to complete it in addition to their business courses.

Under her leadership, the nine-month certificate program became a real-world experience where students developed ideas for their own businesses. Two years ago, the college created an associate’s degree program in Entrepreneurship and Small Business Management. But still, with a very individualized approach.

“When students are taking a marketing or finance course, they’re working on their own plans,” Banks said. “By the end, they’re creating their business plans.” As the final step in the Entrepreneurship Program, students complete a co-op class during which they launch their businesses. They lay out their plans, Banks approves them, and they check in along the way for mentoring and guidance.

Life-Changing Experiences on Both Sides of the Desk

The Mott Community College campus has a workforce development site where Banks has been working for the past two years. There she interviews successful local entrepreneurs about real-world topics—for example, about adapting during the pandemic. Banks then shares both their challenges and their triumphs with her students so they have role models in their own hometown.

One boutique owner Banks interviewed recently said she had her best year of business ever in 2020 by pivoting to selling her clothing on Facebook. She had moved to a new shop just before the pandemic hit and needed to sell her inventory so she could free up funds to buy the next season’s line. The online sales proved to be so successful that the entrepreneur earned a six-figure income for the first time.

Banks also teaches the Ice House course via video at a local prison. It has its own set of challenges and rewards. “That is one of the best populations for this curriculum,” Banks said. “The reflections from that prison class would have you in tears. They call it life-changing.”

When Banks is out and about in the Flint community, she is always delighted when she runs into students who have implemented their ideas. “There’s nothing like seeing them launch their businesses,” she said. “The end result has been life-changing for me.”