This Oklahoma Program Equips Students with the Confidence and Skills to Pursue Opportunities and Win Awards
Location: Ada, Oklahoma
Number of students: 3,600
Number of full-time employees: 440
Countries represented on campus: 30
Students who’ve completed Introduction to Entrepreneurship: 600
With 17,000 people, the city of Ada is a big destination for students from small towns and rural areas in south-central Oklahoma. For many, the 3,500-member student body is larger than their hometowns. But East Central University punches above its weight regarding entrepreneurial ideas and opportunities thanks to its robust Entrepreneurship Program and the Wilburn L. Smith Center for Entrepreneurship. Associate Professor and Center Director Stacey Bolin started shaping the program nearly a decade ago. She has guided scores of students to award-winning pitches, commercially viable businesses, and—most importantly—a strong sense of self-efficacy.
ECU initially hired Bolin to teach computer science courses. But when the Center’s director left during her second year as an adjunct professor, the Harland C. Stonecipher School of Business tapped her as the new director thanks to her background in IT and her track record of starting small businesses. She wasn’t a fan of the textbooks available for college-level entrepreneurship courses, which she described as “watered-down management.” So she started an online search that led to the Ewing Marion Kaufman Foundation, a private Kansas City-based organization focused on entrepreneurship. It spoke highly of the Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative and the Ice House model. The more she learned, the more convinced she became that it was the right starting point for ECU’s students, from developing an idea through proof of concept.
The university now offers a business administration major with an entrepreneurship concentration. It also offers a minor and certificate in entrepreneurship—and “the entrepreneurial mindset is the basis for everything,” Bolin said. She tells incoming students in the first course, Introduction to Entrepreneurship, that the first question on their final will ask them to explain the entrepreneurial mindset. By the time they get to the final—after reading “Who Owns the Ice House? Eight Life Lessons from an Unlikely Entrepreneur,” watching videos, brainstorming problems and solutions, doing interviews and presentations, completing projects, and taking quizzes—everyone is intimately familiar with the concept. “It’s fun to see their perspectives,” she added. “I have students tell me all the time they wish they had taken this course earlier because they would have approached school differently.”
Bolin supplements the Ice House materials with content from Kaufman’s FastTrac program. She also adds information about how to deliver a good pitch and how to understand entrepreneurial finance. “Bootstrapping is great, and most of our students will do that at the start, but they also need to know about investors and lines of credit and things like that,” she explained.
The introduction sets them up nicely for the second course in the sequence, Business Planning and Strategy for Entrepreneurs, and the third course, Venture Creation. By the time they reach this capstone course, students have embraced the entrepreneurial mindset and are ready to showcase their ideas, often on a state and national stage.
One very public measure of the Center for Entrepreneurship’s success is the annual Love’s Entrepreneur Cup. This event is a collegiate business plan competition for students across Oklahoma. It simulates the real-world process of researching a market, writing a business plan, and making a presentation to potential investors. Competitors can earn cash prizes sponsored by the founder of Love’s Travel Stops.
In 2022, for example, four of ECU’s five teams reached the finals:
- Faith Andrews won the Small Business Division (and a $10,000 prize) plus the 90-second pitch award (and an additional $2,000). Her Central Paw Dog Resort provides customizable daycare and boarding services. It includes mentally stimulating activities for pets with options for basic training commands, interactive dinner puzzles, basic grooming, and even a “tuck in” service. Bolin said Andrews had done extensive research on pets’ cognitive development. She also timed the market right: “pet humanization is out-of-this-world crazy, especially for the millennial generation.”
- Nathan Fountain’s innovative fundraising company Soap N’ Stuff took second place in the Small Business Division (and an $8,000 prize). Fountain also won an award in the Product Category Interview (an additional $2,000). He talked about his customizable soap products for clients such as schools and other nonprofits. Soap N’ Stuff manufactures soap products and distributes them to clients according to their specifications. For example, a football team might order bars shaped like its mascot and scented like leather to sell instead of more traditional candy bars or other generic items.
- Madalyn Hess was the OBR Paulsen Award Scholarship recipient ($6,000 award) for her innovative toothpaste dispenser. The No-Waste Paste is similar to a caulk gun. Users pull a trigger to dispense flavored toothpaste from a recyclable cardboard tube. Bolin appreciates the multifaceted benefits of Hess’ design. “It’s helpful for the environment because there’s no waste, for young children because there’s no mess, and for those whose fine motor skills are impaired because it’s simple to operate,” Bolin said. Hess has already filed a provisional patent and works with toothpaste makers to package the product.
- Soul Soupsters is a two-person team of non-traditional students. Unlike the other entrants, Jill Ballard and Linda Woodward are not business majors. They’re food science majors, talented cooks, and busy parents who had an idea for producing high-quality, convenient, healthy take-out food for families. However, they ran into a snag securing commercial kitchen space near their home base in Ada. There, they developed a secondary idea: The Revolving Door. They’ve already established the commercial kitchen—co-locating in a coffee shop—and are raising cash through Soul Soupsters to renovate a building. They’re already attracting customers for the kitchen as well as meal prep sessions and cooking classes.
- Logan Cosby, East Central’s fifth semifinalist, was a Retail Category Interview winner ($1,000) for his business, Salvation Lumber. The 2022 graduate is a woodworker who couldn’t find hardwood supplies that met his specifications, so he started milling his own. He sources it from reclaimed trees, for example, from power companies, and turns them into beautiful hardwood. “He has a fabulous plan and is going to do great things,” Bolin said. “He just got nervous during the competition.”
WHAT THEY LEARN:
These Love’s Cup participants join a long list of past ECU award winners. In 2015, Miles Mitchell won first place in the Small Business Division. He placed with his Suite Seat mobile app for food delivery to stadium seats. He didn’t pursue the app because after graduating, the up-and-coming GrubHub recruited him. They wanted to set up its restaurant partnerships in the central United States.
Other past projects are still going strong. The Pampered Paw, a pet resort & spa, is building a new facility in Ada after it outgrew the space it rented as a startup. And Eco-Snap Tiles, a project of ECU’s Enactus team, recently placed second in the U.S.—and in the top 44 globally—in the 1 Race 4 Oceans competition, where it also earned a nomination for an Excellence Award for an ongoing project in Uganda. Among its other 2022 awards are the Enactus National Exposition in New York. It placed third overall in the Early-Stage Competition Final Four and Race to Feed the Planet placed in the top 48 globally.
Eco-Snap Tiles started as an idea for manufacturing floor tiles from plastic bottles that solved two problems: helping eliminate plastic waste and providing low-cost flooring options for places like dorm rooms. In 2019, Bolin took a group of students to Uganda, where they taught entrepreneurship. She realized that it would be possible to make the injection-molded floor tiles there as well.
The student who originated the project could no longer continue it due to his job after graduation. So, he turned it over to ECU. The new lead is a student from a small town who hadn’t traveled much outside Oklahoma and had never been on an airplane. He flew for the first time to New York City to attend a training for Enactus. He plans to travel with the Enactus team to Uganda in August. “It’s really cool to take a kid who has no perspective of the world and who’s only ever been in rural Oklahoma and help them see that they can make a difference. Now he’s working on a project and benefitting people in Uganda.”
Moreover, Bolin emphasizes to students that they don’t need to get outstanding grades to achieve success with an entrepreneurial mindset. “Not very many of the students who win statewide awards are 4.0 students,” she said. “It shows the students who may not be at the top academically that you don’t have to be extra special to do something special. You can take your resources and make something with them. I don’t think they get that message anywhere else.”